Even as beetles ravage forest, the scale of Red McCombs’ plans to build a mountaintop village hinge on land swap

By: Joe Hanel, The Durango Herald
February 18, 2014

Alberta Park, Photo Credit: Josh Stephenson, Durango Herald

Alberta Park, Photo Credit: Josh Stephenson, Durango Herald

A turning point in the three-decade battle over Wolf Creek Pass is expected next month, when the U.S. Forest Service will declare its preference on a land exchange with a Texas developer who wants to build a resort village.

B.J. “Red” McCombs has been trying since 1986 to build the Village at Wolf Creek at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area. His latest proposal – now five years in the making – is to swap his private land in a large meadow below the ski area for Forest Service land abutting U.S. Highway 160.

Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas expects to make a decision on the land swap in early to mid-March.

Much has changed on Wolf Creek Pass since McCombs offered the land trade in 2009.

An outbreak of spruce beetles has mowed through the pass, killing many of the mature trees and altering the landscape for decades or perhaps even centuries. Last June, firefighters labored to keep the Windy Pass Fire from crossing into Wolf Creek Ski Area.

“We hate the loss of the trees with the beetle kill, obviously,” said Clint Jones, who is organizing the development plans for McCombs.

But the forest conditions have not changed plans to go ahead with the village. The Windy Pass Fire stayed on the West side of the pass, so the burned area will not be visible from the proposed resort, Jones said.

The Forest Service’s latest aerial survey of forest health shows the spruce beetle outbreak is gaining strength, and the area’s weakened forests will remain a fire danger during the heat of the summer.

Jones said the developers probably will want to replant trees, even though it would be a long time until the new forest matures.

“We haven’t really gone out there and done a full tree survey of what the spruce beetle has done,” Jones said.

Legacy of lawsuits

The beetles are only the latest in a long line of delays McCombs has faced. He had a falling out and a legal battle with the Pitcher family, which owns Wolf Creek Ski Area, in the 2000s.

He was close to getting approval for the village in 2006, but a series of lawsuits by environmental groups thwarted his plans.

His opponents will be ready next month when the Forest Service releases its final Environmental Impact Statement.

“We’ve got a team set up for review of the document,” said Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

It has taken a long time for the Forest Service to prepare a decision on the land trade. A study of lynx habitat around Wolf Creek Pass has held up the analysis, several people involved in the project said.

The delay has given Jones and his team time to rethink some of the project.

“We started looking at different resorts around the country that have performed well. What might have worked back in the ’80s might not work today,” Jones said.

They have no plans to back away from building the village. But they are looking at different options, like possibly emphasizing homier cabins over a large hotel, for example.

Jones and McCombs have already announced they would build the village in phases if the land exchange goes through. Jones said this month that the initial construction could be even smaller, depending on economic conditions.

“Market demand is going to dictate how much we build and what,” Jones said.

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