Posts Tagged ‘Wolf Creek Pass’

Wolf_Creek_Pass_and_Ski_Area

By , San Juan Citizen’s Alliance

By law Environmental Impact Statements are intended to be robust and transparent.  Very little in the nearly 30-year saga of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek Pass has met those expectations. Sadly, 2015 has been no different.  Today the Forest Service amended and finalized it’s Record of Decision granting the Wold Creek Land Exchange.  They did so without independent review and continue to conceal 13,000 pages related to the undue influence and manipulation of the analysis in violation of a Federal Court Order.  The exchange violates the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment and the Forest Service admits to ‘appreciable’ impacts to Rocky Mountain Elk. This decision was based on a flawed analysis and the public deserves full transparency to understand why this decision was not made in the public interest. See our full joint press release below.

For Immediate Release:

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; Monique DiGiorgio, Executive Director, Chama Peak Land Alliance, chamapeak@gmail.com, 970-335-8174

Forest Service Issues Final Decision Granting Wolf Creek Land Exchange: Agency ignores court orders and continues to illegally conceal 13,000 pages of emails related to undue influence and manipulation of the analysis

GOLDEN, CO — The Forest Service, amending and finalizing its Record of Decision, is paving the way to provide Texas billionaire Red McCombs with public land to develop the private inholding known as the “Village at Wolf Creek.” The Forest Service has largely ignored concerns raised by numerous organizations and individuals that continue to plague this decision. A large part of this controversy centers around how the Forest Service has illegally limited its National Environmental Policy Act decision making process by narrowing the scope of impacts and options it analyzed and disclosed to the public and decision makers.

In order to understand how the Forest Service made this decision, Rocky Mountain Wild (RMW) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on two separate occasions (February and November, 2014), requesting correspondence between the Forest Service, other agencies, the project proponent, and the consultants hired by the developers. The Forest Service has gone to great lengths to conceal the communications that altered the structure and narrowed the scope of the environmental review. The Forest Service is in open violation and defiance of a Federal Court Order requiring weekly releases of these documents during May.

The Record of Decision (ROD) released today, is also wrought with internal conflict since the reviewing officer for the Objections, Maribeth Gustafson, Deputy Regional Forester, was also heavily involved in developing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) content, the draft decision, the objection response, and most likely, the Final Decision itself. The Forest Service has not subjected these decisions to independent review within the agency. Documents obtained in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation confirm that Ms. Gustafson served as reviewing officer of her own decision.

“Without federal judges enforcing our FOIA rights, nobody would know that the Forest Service selected Ms. Gustafson to conduct a superficial review of objections. The obvious conflict of having Deputy Forester Gustafson resolve the objections on a process she oversaw confirms that the Forest Service has not provided an independent review,” states Matt Sandler, Attorney representing Rocky Mountain Wild. “Many of the same problems involving undue influence and bias that resulted in an Injunction last time have still not been addressed. It seems Federal Court is the only place our comments and objections will get a fair and independent review. These documents, and discussions with agency personnel, provide evidence that the developers continue to exert undue influence over this project, particularly through the Forest Service’s Denver office.”

Portions of the National Forest are being provided to a development group led by Red McCombs that plans to construct a city the size of Aspen, housing 6,000-10,000 people, rotating through 1,700 units. This high-altitude location receives an average of 428 inches of snow annually, and is an important wildlife corridor for many species. This development has been at the center of controversy since 1986 when the Forest Service first confirmed that the Village proposal and land trade would not serve the public interest.

This Forest Service Decision gives the Forest Supervisor permission to trade approximately 205 federal acres for 177 acres of private land within the boundaries of the Rio Grande National Forest. As a part of this exchange, the U.S. Government is also paying Texas billionaire Red McCombs $70,000 as a “cash equalization payment.” The land exchange intends to connect the private land to U.S. Highway 160, thus securing the ability for a larger population to access the developer’s private inholding.

Instead of repairing flawed analysis from the draft ROD, Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas uses the Record of Decision to justify why he did not and will not follow existing Lynx protections in deciding to approve the land exchange. Conservation groups identified the lack of lynx protections in their Objection to the Forest Supervisor’s decision to promote and approve the land exchange.

“This land exchange decision violates the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment and the planned development is in the middle of a lynx corridor that connects habitat critical to lynx survival and recovery,” said Christine Canaly, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) successfully reintroduced lynx to the Southern Rockies beginning in 1999, selecting the San Juan Mountains core area as the reintroduction site owing to its status as the largest contiguous block of high quality lynx habitat in Colorado. Wolf Creek Pass bisects the San Juan Mountains core area and consequently serves as the principal linkage for lynx moving between the South San Juan Wilderness and the main body of the San Juan Mountains core area. CDOW has documented heavy usage of the Wolf Creek Pass linkage by lynx since reintroduction, and considers it as vital to the recovery of lynx in Colorado.

“It will forever compromise and destroy good lynx habitat and impair the chances for this threatened species to recover to a full, secure population in Colorado. The Forest Service response has already confirmed that the development is not compatible with the lynx,” noted Canaly.

No attempt was made to address concerns of opponents to the land exchange, who continue to point out that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that provides the basis for the Forest Service decision is inadequate and incomplete. The records obtained through FOIA confirm that undue influence on the analysis was key to allowing the developer’s proposal to remain too vague and conceptual to support a full analysis of the anticipated impacts. Concealment of the real impacts of the project has defined the Forest Service handling of the proposal since 1986.

“How is this decision in the public interest? The Forest Service’s Record of Decision and Objection review refuses to acknowledge their legal standing to curtail this grotesque project and is relying on Mineral County to protect federal lands through zoning,” adds Jimbo Buickerood, Public Land Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Maintaining the integrity of the National Forest on Wolf Creek Pass is not just important to lynx, it is important to skiers, hunters, fishers, tourists, and residents who enjoy this unique landscape. The Forest Service is committed to accommodating the developer’s demands, even though the Forest Service admits that impact on Rocky Mountain Elk would be ‘appreciable.’”

“Climate change is reducing snow pack in western North American mountains and shifting distribution of forests northward and up mountain slopes.  High elevation linkage zones like Wolf Creek Pass, known for its concentration of snow pack, will become critical areas to maintain and protect water quality and supply for our south western rivers and agricultural lands. We need these intact ecological zones to be able to buffer and adapt to changing conditions in order to maintain our water quality and wildlife habitat that are critical economic drivers to local, rural communities,” said Frank Simms, Chair of the Chama Peak Land Alliance. The Chama Peak Land Alliance are conservation minded private landowners working collaboratively to practice and promote ecologically and economically sound land management in the southern San Juan Mountains of Colorado and northern New Mexico. These landowners responsibly manage and cooperate with partners on 1.4 million acres of land directly south and adjacent to the Wolf Creek Pass Linkage, creating a continuous, intact landscape being managed with conservation in mind.

Other Wolf Creek Posts

Forest Service ignores objections to land exchange at Wolf Creek Pass
Forest Service paves way for pillage at Wolf Creek

Wolf Creek development enters act 5
Wolf Creek village battle rages on

 • 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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