EDITORIAL: Yet Another Forest Service Approval for ‘Village at Wolf Creek’

By: Bill Hudson, Pagosa Daily Post
February 28, 2019

I carefully considered these environmental effects and the public comment (both pro and con) when making my decision. I carefully weighed all environmental effects with the Forest Service’s legal obligations under ANILCA…

— from the February 27, 2019 ‘Final Record of Decision’ concerning the proposed Village at Wolf Creek

The US Forest Service sent out a press release yesterday, February 27, announcing yet another decision to permit the construction of an access road across National Forest land to service the proposed tourist development known — all these many years — as the Village at Wolf Creek. The decision is signed by Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas, and would grant ‘right-of-way’ access to the Village from Highway 160, based on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, commonly referred to as ANILCA.

The proposed development has varied in its estimated size over the past 30 years. I believe the most recent estimate suggested 8,000 residents at full build-out… living at about 10,000 feet elevation. We might presume that the future residents would be tourists? Visiting for a weekend, or maybe for a week or two?

If so, this development might have an impact on the economy of Pagosa Springs, depending as we do on Wolf Creek skiers and snowboarders to support or hospitality industry during the winter months.

A previous decision by Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas would have traded 205 federal acres for 177 acres of private land within the boundaries of the Rio Grande National Forest to provide highway access to the private land. But conservation organizations and local communities have cited the environmental and economic ramifications for downstream communities, and direct impacts to wildlife in the area. The opposition to the development has grown over the past 33 years, attracting local businesses, skiers, ranchers, local landowners, downstream water users, hunters, anglers, and conservationists.

Now we have yet another decision. You can download the full 26-page report here.

Here’s a bit of information from Supervisor Dallas’ report — which will no doubt prove as controversial as his previous reports have been:

This final Record of Decision (ROD) documents my second decision and rationale for the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project. My first ROD, issued May 21, 2015, approved a land exchange to provide Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture (LMJV) access to its privately held land adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area and within the Rio Grande National Forest. A lawsuit challenged my first ROD and the US District Court for the District of Colorado set the land exchange decision aside on May 19, 2017.

Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit… On December 11, 2018, the Tenth Circuit dismissed LMJV’s appeal. The Tenth Circuit noted that the Forest Service “must take some action to provide LMJV with access” and noted that I had issued a draft ROD on July 19, 2018 that would grant LMJV access by allowing construction of a new road across Forest Service land.

During the appeal, LMJV sent me a letter (dated January 12, 2018) seeking immediate year-round access to its private property… I determined that attempting to grant access conditioned on the litigation outcome was impracticable. However, faced with the obligation to provide LMJV with access to its lands, and constrained by the Court’s decision, I decided to consider granting LMJV access through a right-of-way across Forest Service land instead of through a land exchange.

As we can see from this brief excerpt, the federal courts have been involved in this controversy, which has pitted the lawyers for conservation groups like the Friends of Wolf Creek — a coalition of conservation organizations that has included Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council — against the lawyers representing LMJV, the owners of a 420-acre National Forest inholding with no current road access.

One key partner in the tourism venture is Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, the founder of the Red McCombs Automotive Group in San Antonio, Texas, a co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, a former owner of the San Antonio Spurs, San Antonio Force, Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota Vikings, and the namesake of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, with wealth estimated at about $1.5 billion. According to Wikipedia, “He is also known for his philanthropy.”

From yesterday’s Durango Herald:

In 1986, McCombs and LMJV first sought to trade 1,631 acres of degraded land for 420 acres of Forest Service land near the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area for a proposed ski village.

Maribeth Gustafson, a deputy forester for the Forest Service, wrote to a colleague in 2014 that, “The Forest Service initially turned down the proposal but reversed course several weeks later, without any explanation, and approved the land exchange.

“It is commonly understood that Mr. McCombs brought political pressure to bear to realize his dream to develop the ski area,” Gustafson wrote in the email, which was obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request.

The ski area in question is the family-friendly Wolf Creek Ski Area, located adjacent to the proposed Village. The ski area operates on Forest Service land under a special use permit. It would appear that the Pitcher family — who operates the ski area — was initially in favor of seeing the Village development move forward, but in recent years disagreements had arisen between LMJV and Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Meanwhile, the Rio Grande National Forest has been chided by the federal courts for failing to disclose the information behind their decisions.

In a 2015 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit associated with document disclosures, US District Court Judge Wiley Daniel found the Forest Service violated the FOIA in its handling of a February 2014 request seeking communications involving the Wolf Creek Access Decision. In that ruling, Judge Daniel found “the Forest Service has violated FOIA by failing to conduct a reasonable search for responsive documents for this FOIA request, and by withholding information without showing that this information was exempt from disclosure…”

In response to that ruling, Matt Sandler, attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild, noted: “It’s a shame it takes Court Orders to get the Forest Service to follow the law and act in the public interest.”

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