Proposed USFS land swap near Colo. ski resort nears approval, draws ire
A long-delayed and sometimes controversial ski resort project proposed
within southwest Colorado's Rio Grande National Forest has taken a major
step toward receiving federal approval.
The Forest Service on Friday released a draft environmental impact
statement (EIS) that analyzes a proposal to swap 204 acres of federally
owned forestland for 178 acres of private inholdings within the national
forest owned by the developers of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek
resort. The development group, led by Texas billionaire B.J. "Red"
McCombs, has said the land swap is critical to moving the project forward.
The Forest Service lists the land exchange as its preferred action in the
draft EIS -- a major advancement for a project that since it was first
proposed more than a decade ago has drawn steady fire from environmental
groups and some residents who worry it would have significant impacts on
the area's natural resources and scenic vistas.
"I'm pleased to know it's out and we've got that step behind us now," said
Clint Jones, the Austin, Texas-based project manager overseeing the
development proposal for McCombs.
Jones said the project developers -- formally listed as Leavell-McCombs
Joint Venture -- do not expect to have the first phase of nearly 500
homes, town houses, shops and other buildings completed and sold before
2016. The resort would sit next door to the popular Wolf Creek Ski Area in
the foothills of the San Juan Mountains.
The draft EIS is not a final decision, and Forest Service officials
caution that the agency could still deny the proposal or choose another
alternative based on the public comments received for the draft EIS.
Published Friday in the Federal Register, the draft EIS is open for public
comment through Oct. 1, said Mike Blakeman, a spokesman for the Rio Grande
The Forest Service has scheduled three public hearings on the draft
document for later this month, and a final record of decision approving or
denying the proposed project is not expected until early 2013.
"A lot of hard work has gone into the analysis for this [draft] EIS," Dan
Dallas, supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest, said in a statement.
"I encourage the public, special interest groups and our partner agencies
to carefully review the [draft] EIS and provide comments that will help
further improve our analysis."
A long process
The latest proposal is far different from the original plan submitted in
Under that plan, the developers applied to the Forest Service for rights
of way to install utilities and build roads through the Rio Grande forest
to connect the development to U.S. Highway 160. Federal law requires the
Forest Service to provide access to private parcels that sit within the
boundaries of public land to allow for the "reasonable use and enjoyment"
of the private property.
After the proposal was challenged and became mired in federal court, the
developers went back to the drawing board.
In 2010, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture submitted the latest development
plan and land swap proposal analyzed in the draft EIS. It calls for
building as many as 1,700 homes, town houses and condominiums on the
204-acre Forest Service parcel within the Rio Grande forest, as well as on
about 120 acres of private inholdings the joint venture would retain after
the exchange (Land Letter, March 10, 2011).
The development at the base of Wolf Creek Pass would provide lodging next
to the Wolf Creek Ski Area in Mineral County.
In addition to the homes and condos, the development would include roads,
water treatment and wastewater treatment plants, a possible cable
television center, restaurants, and shops, according to a January 2011
Forest Service feasibility analysis.
In that analysis, which was done to determine whether the proposal
warranted the time and expense of conducting an EIS, Dallas wrote that the
land swap idea "appears in the public interest" and is "technically
The Forest Service started the draft EIS in March 2011.
Among the potential benefits of the land exchange, according to the Forest
Service, is the ability to protect acres of rare fen wetlands on the
private parcel. These wetlands are unique because they receive their
nutrients from groundwater, not precipitation. They typically thrive in
colder climates and provide a nutrient-rich environment for rare flowers
like the lady's slipper and cotton grass.
The 178-acre private parcel is dotted with fen wetlands, while the
204-acre Forest Service parcel is at a higher elevation and does not
contain wetlands, said Jones, the development project manager.
"The parcel we'd swap for doesn't have any wetlands," he said. "That's one
of the reasons why we want to do it."
But the land exchange doesn't guarantee the wetlands will not be affected
by the project, said Josh Pollock, executive director of Denver-based
Rocky Mountain Wild.
Even if the proposed project is not built directly on the wetlands, it
could disrupt the groundwater flow and ultimately dry out the wetlands,
"We're talking about bringing a much higher level of human activity into
the general area," he said. "So even if the land exchange means some
valuable wetlands habitat is actually transferred to federal management,
those wetlands are still going to be sitting next to this larger
development footprint that will have an access road going around them."
In addition, he said, the project would have "devastating" effects on the
threatened Canada lynx. There are only about 1,000 lynx left in the United
States, and the species uses the region as a migration corridor between
winter and summer habitat, he said, along with elk and mule deer.
Jones said that the developers are aware of the Canada lynx issue and that
they will work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to mitigate any impacts
to the lynx.
That doesn't change Pollock's view of the project.
"The public needs to make their feelings known about the values of this
area and their concerns about the development," he said. "A 10,000-person
city on top of Wolf Creek Pass is still a bad idea."
Pagosa residents chilly to Wolf Creek development proposals
PAGOSA SPRINGS – Concerned residents and conservation groups assembled at
the Aragon Recreation Center on Wednesday night to discuss the future of
the proposed resort atop Wolf Creek Pass.
For 25 years, Texas developer Billy Joe “Red” McCombs and his partners
have sought to develop the “Village at Wolf Creek” – complete with
condominiums, townhouses, hotels and restaurants – on his 287-acre parcel
near the existing Wolf Creek Ski Area. But his property is surrounded on
all sides by Forest Service land and is cut off from direct access to U.S.
Disagreement about the size of the village, its environmental footprint
and road access have repeatedly stymied the project.
Two weeks ago, the Forest Service published a 567-page environmental
impact analysis outlining three possible scenarios. The preferred option
is a land exchange that would trade 204 acres of public land for 178 acres
of McCombs’ private holdings. The swap would realign future development to
be adjacent to the highway and farther from the ski area.
The other two options under consideration are approving an access road to
McCombs’ current parcel through an easement or doing nothing.
After a 45-day public comment period ending Sept. 30, Rio Grande National
Forest supervisor Dan Dallas will collate feedback from the public and
release a decision in early 2013.
There were no public speeches from either proponents or opponents of the
village Wednesday night. Instead, illustrated renderings were set up
around the meeting space to help attendees visualize each potential
outcome. Forest Service personnel were on hand to answer questions.
Most locals in attendance did not seem impressed.
“It scares me, all this being up in an otherwise pristine area,” said Norm
French of Pagosa Springs. “Some of us like (Wolf Creek) the way it is.”
Penny Holmes, a 30-year Pagosa Springs resident, thought the village was
simply a pet project by a wealthy investor with no roots in the area.
“This is a little pond, and a big fish has invaded. (McCombs) wants to
pursue this because he can,” she said.
Holmes was echoed by Ron Chacey: “How many times is this guy from Texas
going to come up and disrupt all of Southwest Colorado? Greed knows no
Clint Jones, the lead developer and point man for McCombs, strongly
disagreed and defended his boss’ motives.
“He’s doing this out of a genuine affinity for the area. It’ll bring more
exposure,” Jones said. “New people who have never seen (the area) will
realize how beautiful it is.”
Jones explained that a “full build-out” of the village would accommodate
about 6,000 people and, even if approved, take 30-40 years to complete.
“We may not even get there. The market will dictate,” he said. “I’m not
going to build buildings to sit empty.”
Jones also dismissed concerns that the economic benefits of the village
would not trickle down to Pagosa Springs and South Fork.
To Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the whole idea is
“If you want to benefit the communities, build on both sides of the pass,
not up on the Continental Divide at 10,000 feet,” he said.
Ski area owner Davey Pitcher hoped residents’ responses would “be heard”
and factored into the final decision.
He expressed tentative support for the land swap option because it would
move development to the north, away from wetlands and “cause less impact
to the skiing heritage of Wolf Creek.”
If the “no nothing” option is selected, Jones said the developers would
appeal. Under federal law, private landowners can demand access to their
property if it is enclosed by Forest Service land.
In October 2005, a district judge ruled that Forest Service Road 391
(Tranquility Road), which does connect McCombs’ property to Highway 160,
was not sufficient because it is gravel, single-lane and open only
Wolf Creek: Forest Service should do nothing to aid development of the
Village plan moves ahead: Swap preferred option in Wolf Creek study