By: Jason Blevins, Denver Post
March 27, 2015

After reviewing a deluge of objections to the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of a land swap that delivers a Texas developer access to a proposed village atop Wolf Creek Pass, the agency is green-lighting the trade.

In November, Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas approved a land swap that gave his agency 177.6 acres of wetlands and streams atop the Continental Divide in exchange for delivering Texas investor B.J. “Red” McCombs 204.4 acres of federal land on the pass.

The swap connects the 87-year-old billionaire’s parcel on on Wolf Creek Pass to U.S. 160, providing access to a contentious 1,711-unit village he has planned for almost 30 years. McCombs is not connected with the family that owns Wolf Creek ski area.

Citing an intensive four-year review of the land exchange and the Forest Service’s legal obligation to provide private property owners with access across federal lands, Rocky Mountain Region Deputy Regional Forester Maribeth Gustafson affirmed Dallas’ November decision. Gustafson concluded that Dallas’ decision showed “no violation of law, regulation or policy.”

The approval irked opponents of the project, who have battled McCombs’ village for decades. Objections from opponents ranged from procedural to environmental but most addressed the project’s impact to endangered lynx.

The proposed village is in an area where lynx travel, said Christine Canaly, executive director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

“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,” Canaly said in a statement.

Opponents have filed lawsuits in Colorado’s U.S. District Court over access to Forest Service communications with McCombs’ team “that will reveal whether the developer continues to exert undo influence through Forest Service personnel,” reads a statement from a consortium of environmental groups that filed objections to the land swap.

“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,” Jimbo Buickerood, with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said in the statement. “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.”

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasonblevins

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