Forest Service paves the way for Pillage at Wolf Creek

Posted: November 21, 2014 by earthfirstdurango in development, endangered & threatened species
Tags: , , , ,

 • Draft Record of Decision Village at Wolf Creek Access Project Final Environmental Impact Statement (Forest Service)

The San Juan Citizens Alliance released a statement:

Today’s decision by Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas to approve a land exchange on top of Wolf Creek Pass requested by billionaire Red McCombs is both a disappointing and absurd decision to “green light” a development that would deface the inherent wild beauty of the area and ignore the widespread public opposition to the huge development.

McComb’s snowy dream he envisioned almost 30 years ago, that has morphed to become his hoped-for Village at Wolf Creek, would constitute a city with thousands of residential units, parking for more than 4,000 vehicles, a dozen restaurants, more than 200,000 square feet of commercial space and storage for 25-30 million gallons of water. Oh, just how quaint a village that would be…..

Let’s be straight about the absurdity of Dallas’s Record of Decision (ROD) on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The ROD encapsulates the environmental and social impacts of the mega-development with this statement, “…negative effects appear to be minimal, limited in scope, and can be mitigated.” “(ROD, page 25, #4) And this is a statement meant to justify the “public interest” as reason to approve the land exchange which would facilitate highway access that the development must have to begin construction. One has to wonder how a professional natural resource specialist like Dallas can come to the conclusion that a city built for thousands of residents in critical wildlife habitat above 10,000 feet on the Continental Divide situated many miles from basic services can be described as “minimal” in its effects. We know that the resident Canada lynx are scratching their ears over that piece of logic.

Within the ROD the Forest Service has confirmed “the intent of the Forest Service in creating the private inholding adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area was to create a village.” (ROD, page 11). Which of course leads to the question as to whether the Forest Service really served its role as a neutral decision maker on the relative merits of the land exchange. From our viewpoint, and the many thousands of locals on either side of the Pass that have written comments in opposition to the project, the agency did not prove to be a neutral and well-reasoned decision maker. This leads us to the obvious question, “Are politics and backroom deal-making a part of the decision making?”

It’s a reasonable question to ask given the history that there was collusion between the agency and McComb’s outfit during the last attempt at a viable EIS in the mid-2000’s. At that moment in the timeline of the controversy, the Forest Service displayed a pattern of withholding sensitive information and it was necessary for the conservation forces to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to bring forth details of collusion in the creation of the EIS.

With that as the backdrop, the Alliance and its partners filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in February 2014 requesting that the public record regarding the creation of the EIS, including related communications, be brought forward. The agency provided some of the documents, however, there were redactions (omissions) of significance and later the Forest Service admitted to violating deadlines that necessitated the need for them to explain the withholding of requested documents. The agency then ignored our administrative appeal related to the FOIA, which necessitated our lawsuit of September 9, 2014 to force the agency to be forthcoming to the citizenry with the full story.

The Forest Service could aid the effort towards complete transparency by simply providing all the public records related to the EIS development. Without such transparency, and in light of the absurdity of the decision that the project would have only “minimal” negative effects on the Wolf Creek Pass area, the question hangs like a cornice on the pass, “was there collusion again?”

The Alliance will continue to adamantly oppose McComb’s proposed development, just as we have for more than 15 years. The hundreds of bumper stickers still seen throughout the territory proclaim the true story of McComb’s perverse vision for the forests and meadows on the east side of the Pass – their greed would result in the Pillage at Wolf Creek. If we continue to stand together we will indeed succeed in guaranteeing that there will never be a Pillage on our beloved Wolf Creek Pass landscape. Amen. Alynx.

Rocky Mountain Wild also issued a statement:

For Immediate Release:
November 20, 2014

Matt Sandler, Attorney, Rocky Mountain Wild, matt@rockymountainwild.org, 303-579-5162
Christine Canaly. Director SLVEC slvwater@fairpoint.net, 719-589-1518
Jimbo Buickerood, San Juan Citizens Alliance jimbo@sanjuancitizens.org, 970-560-1111

Monte Vista, CO – Today the U. S. Forest Service, in spite of widespread opposition, announced its intention to approve a land exchange that would allow construction of a city of 10,000 people near the top of Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado.

‘The effects of this approval could be devastating”, stated Christine Canaly, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “An important migration route for the threatened Canada lynx could be destroyed. There would be strong negative impacts to habitat for other wildlife, and to wetlands, scenery, and winter traffic safety as well”.

The proposal would trade approximately 205 federal acres for 177 acres of private land within the boundaries of the Rio Grande National Forest. Part of the federal land exchange proposal would connect the private land to U.S. Highway 160, thus securing more convenient access to the developer’s private inholding.

“With snow covering this area above 10,000 feet for up to eight months of the year, this is certainly not an appropriate locale to build a city of any size”, noted Jimbo Buickerood, Public Land Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.  “For this locale near the top of Wolf Creek Pass, the public has expressed a strong interest in allowing the area to remain a refuge to wildlife with some recreational visitation,” Buickerood noted, “rather than a trophy-style development accessed through a major new highway interchange that would be wildly out of character with the surrounding landscape.”

“The City at Wolf Creek is not a good idea.  It’s the wrong kind of use for Wolf Creek Pass which is perched atop the Continental Divide and is surrounded by wilderness, unroaded areas, wetlands, and irreplaceable wildlife habitat.” says Matt Sandler, Attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild.

Forest Service approval of the proposal is especially inappropriate given its history.  The Rio Grande National Forest determined that a land exchange was not in the public interest next to the Wolf Creek Ski Area back in 1986. However, due to political interference, the local Forest Service office was forced to reverse this decision and approve the creation of a private inholding desired by the developer. The same political pressure is now pushing the Forest Service to approve another land exchange, one that would connect the developer’s property created via the earlier exchange with Highway 160.

“The exchange is still not in the public interest.” says Christine Canaly, Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.  “Political pressure is what made this happen back then, and is what keeps pushing it forward.”

The Forest Service continues to thwart the full disclosure of information concerning the project. The Forest Service has again withheld the public record of interaction between themselves and the project proponents. In response to a lawsuit filed September 9, 2014, the Forest Service has admitted that it violated deadlines that required further explanation of the withholding of documents requested on February 27, 2014 under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The Forest Service continues to withhold requested records, which it also did in conjunction with the previous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), where agency documents revealed political influence, including offers of Washington Redskins’ tickets for EIS preparers.  The Forest Service’s refusal to comply with FOIA in 2014 suggests the pattern of improper dealings between the Forest Service and Texas billionaire Red McCombs’ team may plague the new decision.

This project is a net loss for the people who know and love this region.” says Canaly. “Not only is the proposed ‘Village at Wolf Creek’ not likely to substantially help local businesses, but it also has the potential to be economically harmful to local business by drawing away from existing businesses in South Fork and Pagosa Springs.  It is a political land exchange that further damages the public interests.”

Unfortunately, the Forest Service has so far dismissed many other possible alternatives suggested by local citizens and organizations such as the federal government buying the private land parcel and placing it back into public lands.

“We will continue to challenge the proposed approval of the land exchange”, stated Sandler.

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