A struggling mountain town looks for a lift

Silverton, Colo., hopes a backcountry chairlift will boost its fortunes

  • Silverton businessowners are counting on the ski area toend a decade-long economic drought and to give them a reason tostay open year-round

    Lou Swenson
  • Locator map of Silverton, Colorado

    Diane Sylvain
 

SILVERTON, Colo. - There will be something new in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado this winter and it will not just be snow. Colorado's first new ski area in over 15 years is slated to open on steep slopes north of Silverton this season.

Last spring, Silverton Mountain Ski Area founder and president Aaron Brill obtained a land-use permit from San Juan County for 340 acres of private land. Now, Brill wants a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to operate what he calls "a lift-accessed, backcountry ski area" on 1,300 acres of adjacent federal land. Although the BLM says it may not issue a permit before April or May of 2002, Brill plans to start operations on the private land this year.

His concept is more like an extreme version of the family-owned ski hills of the 1960s than what he calls "the big corporate businesses like Vail" that now dominate the state. Just one chairlift will lead from a spartan base area to an airy, 12,200-foot ridge from which skiers and snowboarders can access steep, ungroomed and undeveloped slopes. There won't be snowmaking or real estate development, according to Brill, and lift tickets will cost $25. He expects the Silverton Mountain Ski Area will employ up to 30 people and draw no more than 200 skiers a day.

In most communities, the economic impact of such small numbers would be insignificant. But in Silverton, this modest ski-area proposal has been embraced as a key to ending a decade-long economic drought.

A struggling economy

When Silverton's last mine shut down in 1991, this small town, which had called itself a mining town for over a century, suddenly found its economy almost totally dependent on tourists, most of whom arrive via a narrow-gauge tourist railroad that chugs up the Animas River canyon from Durango during the summer.

In the decade since, Silverton has become an increasingly seasonal community. When the train's season ends in October, the population decreases by 20 percent or more. Businesses close, their windows boarded up with plywood. Town sales-tax revenues during the winter months drop to 10 percent of those collected in the summer. School enrollment is in steady decline and unemployment is four times the state average. Exacerbating the situation is a flourishing market for second homes, which substantially increases the median home price.

"This project is viewed by the community as not only desirable, but necessary to the future well-being of the community," reads a letter to the Bureau of Land Management from the Silverton Town Board. "On behalf of the community, the Town Board unanimously supports the project and encourages its review and approval in as short a time frame as practicable. To do less is to impose unwarranted harm and injury on a people that are struggling to survive current winter living conditions."

Even environmental groups are passively supportive. Colorado Wild, well known for impeding expansions at Vail and elsewhere, takes an official position of "non-opposition." And Dolores LaChapelle, a Silverton resident and one of the original promoters of Deep Ecology, a radical environmental philosophy, says Brill's proposal "can make Silverton a real mountain community again."

Although no additional shops or restaurants are slated to open this year, townspeople hope that in the future the new ski hill will give business owners a reason to stay open year-round.

Notorious snowpack

But not everyone is cheering for the new ski area. Avalanche experts note that Silverton's surrounding mountains are the most slide-prone in the country. The town is often shut off from the world - usually for a few hours, occasionally for days - by snowslides on Highway 550. The idea of a chairlift scattering possibly hundreds of skiers into these conditions has avalanche professionals worried.

"I don't think they fully recognize the problems they've got on their hands," says Jerry Roberts, one of two avalanche forecasters who patrol the highway into Silverton for the state highway department. "They are combining steep terrain with a notorious, weak, mid-continental snowpack. It will take a lot of work to make it safe."

And a lot of money. The explosives used in avalanche control and the professionals skilled in their use do not come cheap, and people like Roberts worry that the financial burden could be too heavy for a small ski area such as Brill plans.

The BLM could be held liable for a death at the ski area, and Roberts fears that a lawsuit by an injured skier or the expense of avalanche mitigation in a heavy winter could force the area to shut down, "leaving an ugly monument to bad planning."

Richard Speegle, the BLM's project manager for the environmental assessment, says that safety issues are unlikely to stop the project altogether, but that a "specific, highly coordinated plan" for avalanche mitigation will be required as a condition of any permit.

Brill says 80 percent of his employees will be devoted to snow safety and avalanche mitigation work. He also promises to completely shut down the ski area when avalanche hazard is high, and says he will require skiers to pass an avalanche and backcountry I.Q. test before boarding the lift.

"While at most areas snow safety is the last concern, it is the opposite here," says Brill.

Instead, safety matters are key, says Brill, because if the ski area flops, so do rising hopes for Silverton's economy.

The author writes from Silverton, Colo., where he publishes the Silverton Mountain Journal.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Richard Speegle at Columbine District Public Lands Office, 970/385-1368.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jonathan Thompson

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