Aspen man embroiled in Silverton strife
Silverton Mountain Ski Area, located deep in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, has broken the mold of what American ski destinations can offer their guests.Up to 80 guided skiers and snowboarders per day are permitted to devour the area’s powder-choked chutes and bowls nestled above the former mining town of Silverton.But it has also broken the rights of an Aspen landowner, as most of these guests trespass on private property. Aspen resident Jim Jackson owns several mining claims totaling close to 155 acres within the ski area’s boundaries. The backcountry-centric resort, also known as the Silverton Outdoor Learning and Recreation Center, was opened by Aaron Brill of Core Mountain Enterprises in 2002.Some of Jackson’s property lies no more than a few ski lengths from the top of the area’s only lift. Other claims stretch across pristine bowls, while other holdings comprise most of the drainage at the base of the mountain.The Bureau of Land Management and San Juan County were made aware of the large amount of land owned by Jackson within the proposal area, but for whatever reason they did not take it into account. According to a February 2004 letter from Jackson’s attorney, Charles B. White, to the county commissioners, several instances of trespass on Jackson’s land by the ski area and its clients have been documented over the years. Images can even be found on the area’s Web site that show guides and customers trespassing on Jackson’s land.Avalanche control work, which is conducted by Silverton guides by necessity, also frequently occurs on Jackson’s property. “The long and short of it is, it appears that Brill is trespassing onto his property and using his property – if not to ski – to do avalanche control work,” said Larry Heywood, a snow and ski safety consultant who has seen surveyed map work of the area. “He’s throwing bombs on somebody else’s property – that doesn’t seem right.” Heywood added that the issue is even bigger than trespassing.”What I’d be most concerned of if I were Jim is that at some point in the future, if there’s an avalanche accident on Jim’s property … and it kills or injures someone, there’s a huge issue of liability there,” he said. “Potentially [Jackson] will be liable.” And the Skier Safety Act, Heywood added, would probably not protect Jackson in such a case. “It doesn’t specifically mention avalanches,” he said. “In any event, Jackson will have to [pay] a lawyer.” Meanwhile, the area continues to operate, and it has become so popular that Brill has repeatedly been forced to turn guests away.
So how did this all happen?”I don’t know how to respond to that,” said Bob Larson, a surveyor and mining consultant with close to 40 years of experience. He has surveyed key properties belonging to Jackson. “A person’s private property rights have been set aside or ignored … it’s very unfortunate.”Heywood was equally perplexed. “It seems so simple. It’s a mind blower that it’s gone this far,” he said. The remaining land within the area’s boundaries is owned by either Brill, the Bureau of Land Management or other private parties, of which Jackson is the largest. Officials from the BLM office in Durango, which granted Brill a temporary permit to use its land, do not deny that he is trespassing on private property.According to Mark Stiles, the San Juan forest supervisor and BLM manager of the San Juan Public Lands Center in Durango, private property disputes are not the responsibility of the BLM, since the agency manages only public lands.”The trespass issue itself is more of a civil matter between Jim Jackson and Aaron Brill,” Stiles said. “It becomes kind of complicated, but we tried to make it very clear that we are not authorizing [the ski area] to make use of private lands. They can access public lands without crossing onto private property.”However, ski tracks and triggered avalanches are crossing onto private property. Brill could not be reached for comment. Since the BLM denied responsibility, Jackson turned to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office for help. But until last winter, it was largely unresponsive. On Feb. 17, the sheriff’s office received a letter from White, Jackson’s attorney, complaining about the trespass. That complaint was forwarded to the local district attorney, who, six days later, declined to prosecute. District Attorney Sarah Law said there was simply nobody to prosecute. “There was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt for anything,” she said. “[The sheriff’s office] has received a lot of complaints from Jim Jackson about people skiing on his property, but they’ve never caught anybody.” Without a suspect, Law added, nothing could be done. “[Jackson’s] asking us to assume that just the ski area is responsible, and we can’t just prosecute a corporation,” she said. “When you have a criminal offense you have to have someone who committed the criminal offense.
“As far as I know, it’s been a popular place for backcountry skiers to ski forever.” In other words, Law’s contention is that anyone can be making those tracks, not just Silverton Mountain guides and clients. She apparently was not taking into account the photos on Silverton Mountain’s Web site, and the fact the Brill has closed off access to County Road 52, which travels into the resort’s basin and would be a good staging area to document the trespassing. If the district attorney’s office won’t prosecute and the sheriff’s office won’t investigate to find valid evidence, who does Jackson turn to? Roger Gardner, a lift and ski area consultant, said the BLM, while not directly responsible for the trespass, is responsible for granting Brill a permit to operate. “By permitting Brill the use of public lands, the BLM made it possible for skiers to get into a position where trespass could take place,” said Gardner. “Look at the mapping – it’s nearly impossible not to go on private holdings. And it’s definitely not possible to avoid private holdings if you’re going to do a proper job of avalanche control, which they have to do up there.”Jackson started purchasing mining claims around Silverton in the mid-1980s. But his connection to the area dates to the late ’70s, when he was searching for a venue to hold the World Speed Skiing Championships, of which he was the founder and co-producer.In 1980, the first event was held near Storm Peak, adjacent to what is now Silverton Mountain Ski Area. In 1991, Jackson’s company, Velocity Peak Inc., produced the last such event in the area, which acted as a qualifier for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France.”He’s a pioneer in the ski business, and that shouldn’t be discounted,” Heywood said. “He was doing this when Brill was in elementary school.” But Jackson had further plans for the area.In 1992, shortly after Silverton’s Sunnyside Mine shut down, Jackson proposed the Silverton Aerial Tramway, which he claims was embraced by the San Juan County commissioners, the BLM and residents. Jackson spent the next several years meeting with planners and various ski area developers, and working to generate the necessary funding.In 1999, Brill sent a letter to Jackson indicating he was interested in purchasing his mining claims for the development of an extreme skiing area.Tom Kennedy, Jackson’s attorney at the time, suggested in a letter of response that Brill’s Core Mountain Enterprises further identify its objectives and investors, and tender a real offer and contract. Both letters were sent to the BLM and San Juan County by registered mail.Nonetheless, Brill moved forward, purchasing mining claims and cutting down trees on his property to erect a lift. With his newly purchased mining claims in hand, Brill proposed his idea to the county. Later, he met with the BLM, apparently using somewhat of a questionable map to support his promise that adjacent private properties would not be affected. The map that was used was very general in nature, according to Gardner.”It was basically just a hiking map, a USGS [topographical] hiking map with very generalized boundary information on it,” said Gardner, who was involved with the planning of Jackson’s tramway project. “There were private land holdings on it but they were depicted as insignificant, and that really wasn’t the case.”
Jackson, on the other hand, has spent more than $25,000 funding map work conducted by professional land surveyors. But despite the effort’s accuracy, it was apparently ignored.”It was quite extensive mapping that really nailed down the old mining claims. It was a serious professional effort,” Gardner said. “I’m sure Jim made that mapping available to the county and BLM, and it really appears that the mapping wasn’t used.”Which makes Jackson wonder, “Would Pitkin County approve a [planned unit development] based upon an interpretative sketch? Nothing less than survey-based mapping would be accepted from any developer, no matter the remoteness of the intended location.”Ernie Kuhlman, who’s been a San Juan County commissioner for 18 years, said the review process of Silverton Mountain Ski Area was extensive and Brill wasn’t awarded any favors. But he did admit that Silverton’s economy was struggling since the mine had closed, and the community was very supportive of the project. “We were suffering, we had lost our major employer, but there wasn’t any pressure, necessarily,” Kuhlman said. Furthermore, like Stiles and the BLM maintain, Kuhlman said the issue of trespass is a legal matter that Brill and Jackson need to solve and is not the responsibility of the county. “This thing has to be resolved,” Kuhlman said. “I hope we didn’t create a problem up there.” But there is a problem up there, and with nobody willing to assume responsibility, Jackson has exhausted his efforts trying to find a solution.So what’s going on in San Juan County? Have the commissioners, the BLM, the sheriff’s department and the district attorney all intentionally ignored the trespass issues to keep Silverton Mountain Ski Area afloat?”It seems like the whole process was rushed in a direction – it was a rather curious process up there,” said Gardner, the ski area consultant. “It was pretty much [Jackson’s] contention that the BLM and the county seemed to have their minds made up with what they were going to do with [Silverton Mountain] – they seemed to go in that direction.”I’m sure there were local political and economic issues [involved].” BLM officials are currently reviewing whether they will grant Silverton Mountain a long-term permit for the area, which could allow up to 400 unguided skiers per day. They will also be reviewing a letter of protest from Jackson in the coming months.The area’s temporary permit is good through at least this season.To date Jackson and his family have spent more than $100,000 in legal and surveying expenses to defend their land.Jackson and Brill are currently in negotiations.Steve Benson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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