By: Jonathan Romeo, The Durango Herald
February 27, 2019

Rendering of the Wolf Creek without a Land Swap
Rendering of the Wolf Creek without a Land Swap

After more than 30 years of legal battles and court proceedings, the proposed Village at Wolf Creek has finally obtained the road access it needs to U.S. Highway 160 to start building. But that doesn’t mean bulldozers will be out anytime soon.

In July, Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas issued a proposal that would grant the developers – Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture – access to Highway 160 through a law known as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, commonly referred to as ANILCA.

Over the past few months, the Forest Service collected additional public comments on the proposal and received updated recommendations from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on how to better protect the endangered lynx in the area.

In a landmark ruling, Dallas on Thursday made the decision to grant road access final.

“The property owned by Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture is surrounded by National Forest System land,” Dallas said in a prepared statement. “My decision provides the access that is legally required for private inholdings.”

Bill Leone, an attorney representing LMJV, lauded the Forest Service’s announcement.

“It’s a valid decision,” he said. “We’re convinced we’re entitled to a road and hopefully there won’t be a lot of litigation over this.”

In 1986, McCombs and LMJV first sought to trade 1,631 acres of degraded land for 420 acres of Forest Service land near the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area for the proposed ski village.

Maribeth Gustafson, a deputy forester for the Forest Service, wrote to a colleague in 2014 that, “The Forest Service initially turned down the proposal but reversed course several weeks later, without any explanation, and approved the land exchange.

“It is commonly understood that Mr. McCombs brought political pressure to bear to realize his dream to develop the ski area,” Gustafson wrote in the email, which was obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Village at Wolf Creek’s scope and size has changed over the years, but the one remaining constant is that the proposed resort has never had road access.

In November 2014, Dallas issued a draft “Record of Decision” that examined three options to provide access to the inholding: a land swap, access through the ANILCA clause or a “no-action alternative.”

Initially, the Forest Service pursued the land-swap option. But a federal judge in May 2017 found rampant faults, inconsistencies and errors in the dealings between the Forest Service and LMJV, calling the Forest Service’s actions an “artful dodge of its responsibility.”

As a result, the judge invalidated the land exchange. LMJV appealed to reverse the decision, but that effort was thrown out.

Dallas said in his decision that he was still legally responsible for allowing LMJV access to its land, prompting his decision to choose the ANILCA option.

LMJV now has access to its 288 acres of private property adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area, which sits atop Wolf Creek Pass at 10,300 feet in elevation in Southwest Colorado. The plan is to build the year-round resort, which would have the capacity for 8,000 to 10,000 people.

But the decision is sure to be challenged by a coalition of environmental groups that has argued for three decades the Forest Service has not seriously taken into consideration the full impact of the proposed resort, possibly because of McCombs’ political clout.

“This decision is illegal for the same reasons the land exchange was illegal,” said Travis Stills, an attorney who represents the groups. “It ignores all the same problems.”

Opponents say the Forest Service has analyzed the environmental impacts of only the road, not the project as a whole. Dallas doesn’t argue this point but says the Forest Service doesn’t have oversight of projects on private property. He says that is up to Mineral County.

“This has been a long, complex project, and I encourage folks to learn more about its status and review the new decision for themselves,” Dallas said in the prepared statement.

Leone said despite the decision, LMJV still has to go through permit processes to start building.

“I don’t expect there will be bulldozers out there for a while,” he said.

Read it at The Durango Herald.

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