No fly zone: Challenge denied to Silverton Mountain’s 16,250 acre heli-ski expansion
July 2, 2018
DURANGO — An Interior Department appeals board has denied San Juan Citizens Alliance's challenge of Silverton Mountain's helicopter skiing expansion, arguing the alliance has no legal standing to file such a claim.
"If we don't have standing, who does?" said San Juan Citizens Alliance's Jimbo Buickerood. The alliance, which formed in 1986, represents thousands of supporters throughout the Four Corners, he said.
In May 2017, the Bureau of Land Management's Gunnison Office approved a new five-year permit for Silverton Guides – an arm of Silverton Mountain – to swap 5,556 acres for an additional 16,250 acres for its heli-ski operation.
Critics said expanding heli-skiing would compromise prime backcountry ski areas. Others feared helicopters would increase avalanche danger in the mountains.
More than 85 percent of about 370 people who submitted public comments about the expansion opposed it. The comments were made public in April 2017 after the alliance filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
Silverton Mountain owners Aaron and Jenn Brill said the deal would help boost Silverton's winter economy and would actually provide safer terrain for both heli-skiers and backcountry users.
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Brill did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
San Juan Citizens Alliance, with other environmental groups, filed a challenge of the swap. The challenge was dismissed in March by the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which said the groups "did not demonstrate it had standing to challenge the decision."
On June 22, the Interior Board of Land Appeals upheld this decision.
"We determined that the alliance's description of the organizations' missions and long-standing interest in BLM's management of the public lands did not show that the alliance is substantially likely to be injured by BLM's decision to grant the modified special recreation permit," the board wrote.
"We also determined that the alliance did not identify an individual member of any of the organizations who has visited the area that will be subject to Silverton Guides' modified special recreation permit."
San Juan Citizens Alliance, in a prepared statement, said its member are falling victim to the Trump administration's "attack on the public's ability to challenge agency decisions" as evidenced by this recent denial by the IBLA.
"Frankly, if our members do not have standing to weigh in on public land management decisions in their own backyard, then no one does," the alliance said.
Buickerood said the only course of action left would be to file litigation.
"And that is exactly the point. The Department of the Interior continues to pursue an undemocratic policy of denying citizens the ability to challenge agency decisions unless armed with a high-priced legal team," the alliance said.
Because Brill did not return calls seeking comment, it's unclear if Silverton Guides operated on the expanded terrain this year. BLM Gunnison Field Manager Elijah Waters was out of the office Friday.
The BLM's five-year permit allows Silverton Mountain to drop heli-skiers into Illinois/Hancock, Southeast, Round and Minnie/Maggie gulches. Silverton Mountain now has a total of more than 25,000 acres for heli-skiing around Silverton.
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