Denver, CO – A coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit today in Federal Court to stop a controversial land exchange that would pave the way for the development of a tourist “village” to accommodate 8,000 people at the top of Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado. The land exchange, which was approved by Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas last month, would 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 will also pay Texas billionaire Red McCombs $70,000 as a “cash equalization payment.” The land exchange connects McCombs’ private land to U.S. Highway 160, thus securing the ability for a larger population to access the developer’s private inholding.
“This land exchange was completed without the full and transparent analysis of the impacts that is required by law,” states Matt Sandler, lead attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “These laws are in place to protect the public interest; this Forest Service decision protects the interests of big business and billionaires.” The lawsuit asserts that the Forest Service unnecessarily limited the scope of its environmental analysis to avoid fully analyzing the impacts that the development would have on Forest Service land. Additionally, the suit exposes a biased and conflicted review process within the Service. “Regional Director Maribeth Gustafson, the Forest Service employee who reviewed and dismissed public objections to this land exchange, was directly involved in developing the land exchange decision – which is contrary to stated Forest Service policy. She came to the table with her mind made up,” explains Sandler.
The coalition filing the suit has also sent a delegation to Washington D.C. to meet with elected representatives, as well as members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Our goal is to convince the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, to take a hard look at this development, and to immediately stop any real estate transactions,” explains Jimbo Buickerood, Public Land Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The public has been speaking out against the Pillage for almost 30 years, and we are confident that a truly independent review of this project will show that it is not in the public interest. We will not stop until our voices are heard.”
Opposition to the development has been growing, and includes local businesses, skiers, ranchers, local land owners, downstream water uses, hunters, anglers, and conservationists. “The groundswell of support to save Wolf Creek is very heartening, “ says Christine Canaly, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “This area is so important to the health of our local environment and economy. Over 2000 people from around the state, and nation, have sent letters and messages just last week to the Forest Service in an attempt to save this special place.”
Wolf Creek pass has been nationally recognized as one of the top priority wildlife corridors for protecting biodiversity in the face of climate change. Its high elevation and deep snowpack make it prime habitat for snow dependent species like the Canada lynx and wolverine. It is also the headwaters for the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers, which are a major water source for many downstream communities.
The lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service was brought by: Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and Wilderness Workshop.
You can read our full complaint here: RMW v Dallas Complaint 6.24.15.