May 22, 2015

Forest Service Acquires Backcountry Parcels

WOLF CREEK, CO – The Forest Service has approved a controversial land swap atop Wolf Creek Pass that paves the way for development of a mountain village near the Continental Divide.

Rio Grande National Forest supervisor Dan Dallas on Thursday announced his final decision to OK a land exchange with Texas businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs, who has labored for nearly 30 years to carve a 1,711-unit, 10,000-person resort village on about 300 acres on Wolf Creek Pass that he acquired in a land swap with the Forest Service in 1986.  In 2010, he proposed the most recent land exchange as a way to connect his land with a highway.

The decision gives the  Forest Service 177.6 acres of wetlands, fens, springs and streams and McCombs gets 204.4 acres of federal land for a road that would connect his island of private land with U.S. 160.

The Forest Service studied the swap for five years. In November, it issued a 572-page  Final Environmental Impact Statement and preliminary approval of the exchange.

While he cited many regulations supporting his decision, Dallas said “the main reason” he approved the exchange was his duty to follow federal law, specifically the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act of 1980. The act requires the federal government to provide access to landowners with private property surrounded by Forest Service land.

Dallas also studied the “intent of the inholding” when the Forest Service approved the 1986 exchange that gave McCombs the roughly 300 acres of mountain top land, he said.

“I researched the history of that extensively and even though some people don’t agree, it was clear that that inholding was created to create some sort of development and even back then they called it a village,” Dallas said.

In addition to the Forest Service getting critical riparian habitat, Dallas said the proposed resort village would grow tourism, create jobs and grow income for both residents and school districts in Saguache, Mineral and Rio Grande counties.

“The land exchange presents the Forest Service with the opportunity to convey lands that would contribute to community growth, development and economic prosperity,” Dallas wrote in his decision.

The Village at Wolf Creek project leader Clint Jones said McCombs appreciated “the thorough process.”

“He has been very patient, yet very determined,” said Jones, who has headed the project for almost eight years. “Our steps from here on out are to proceed full-speed ahead and work with the local communities and keep the local people apprised of what we are doing.”

After the swap is finalized, the village team plans to meet with the Colorado Department of Transportation and Mineral County to being construction plans. Nothing has been formally proposed yet because “up until today, we didn’t know what land we would be building on,” Jones said.

While the initial phase of the project analyzed by the Forest Service in its environmental review called for 500 units, Jones said his team “is looking at the prospect of starting a little bit smaller for that initial phase.”

“We want to have the ability to gradually move into the phasing of this project and try to find what the right niche is as we build units,” he said. “We expect the market to embrace this project, but it might take a little bit of time and we don’t want to get out ahead of ourselves.”

The Village at Wolf Creek plan — which is not part of the Wolf Creek ski area — has for decades galvanized Colorado’s environmental communities in vehement opposition. For many, fighting the McCombs village remains a top priority. They point to impacts on endangered lynx and other wildlife as well as the loss of natural lands in the fragile alpine environment. They also have accused the Forest Service of ignoring its own rules for protecting the endangered lynx when the agency announced its support for the land exchange in November last year.

Dallas said McCombs will fund measures designed to minimize impacts to lynx — including analysis of lynx movement, a conservation fund and traffic-reduction programs for guests and employees of the resort village.

“We don’t think that is adequate protection for the lynx in this important area,” said attorney Matt Sandler, the staff attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild, one of several environmental and wildlife protection groups collectively fighting the Village at Wolf Creek.

Sandler in November began pushing — through  a pair of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits — the Forest Service to release more than 13,000 pages of documents it used to support its decision approving the land swap.

Sandler still is waiting for those documents.

“It definitely causes us to wonder what transpired in this process and what they are trying to hide,” Sandler said.

Most of the opposition, Dallas noted, has centered on the proposed village. While he analyzed cumulative impacts of the land exchange, his job was to review the proposed land swap, not the proposed resort village. Mineral County — not the federal government — is in charge of regulating development of the private land, Dallas said in his Record of Decision.

The decision wraps a tumultuous ride for 87-year-old McCombs and his dream of a multi-billion-dollar, Aspen-sized resort city at 10,000 feet. In addition to environmental opposition, the project has endured lawsuits, counter-lawsuits and  local municipal approval that a state judge  overturned in 2005.

“There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the proposed development of the Village at Wolf Creek. There is no doubt that a development sitting next to Wolf Creek ski area and U.S. Highway 160 will impact the surrounding natural and human environment. These impacts are well analyzed and described in the final environmental impact statement,” Dallas said in a statement. “Ultimately, though, as I have already stated, I am legally bound to provide (McCombs) a right-of-way access commensurate with the reasonable use and enjoyment of their property. I believe my decision accomplishes this with the least impact within my legal discretion to approve.”

Environmentalists urged Dallas to choose an alternative that denied the exchange. Dallas said he weighed that alternative “but in the end it was pretty clear that in order to comply with all the laws we have to follow here, one of the action alternatives was necessary.”

They promised more lawsuits aimed at stopping McCombs.

Beyond the lynx issue, Christine Canaly, with the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, said the proposed village would disrupt one of the largest areas of concentrated snowpack in the southern Rockies, hurting not just water quality but supply.

“It’s such an important area for water supply and I don’t know why that isn’t being taken more seriously,” she said. “This development will fragment and forever change the Rio Grande basin.”

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasonblevins

Flat Top Mountain, CO