FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 1/29/16
Denver, CO — The United States District Court of Colorado has ordered the U.S. Forest Service to conduct further searches for documents pertaining to the decision to approve a controversial land exchange on Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado. “[T]he Court sees no reason to excuse the Forest Service from its duty to perform a proper search,” stated District Court Judge William Martinez. The Court ruled that the Forest Service’s search was unlawfully narrow, it neglected to search necessary high level employees (such as the Chief and Undersecretary), and failed to adequately justify why it withheld documents from public disclosure.
The Court Order came in response to a lawsuit filed by Friends of Wolf Creek coalition member Rocky Mountain Wild. That suit claimed that the Forest Service had violated the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) by unlawfully withholding public records and communications requested through a November 20, 2014 records request. The Court’s order gives the U.S. Forest Service until March 31, 2016 to complete this search and to fully disclose documents pertaining to its decision.
In a separate FOIA lawsuit associated with Wolf Creek document disclosures, on September 30, 2015, United States District Court Judge Wiley Daniel found the Forest Service violated the FOIA in its handling of a February 27, 2014 request seeking communications involving the Wolf Creek Access Decision. In that ruling, Judge Daniel similarly found “the Forest Service has violated FOIA by failing to conduct a reasonable search for responsive documents for this FOIA request, and by withholding information without showing that this information was exempt from disclosure…”
“The Court has again ordered the Forest Service to complete a reasonable and comprehensive search for records” said Matt Sandler, Staff Attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “It’s a shame it takes Court Orders to get the Forest Service to follow the law and act in the public interest.”
The land exchange at the center of this controversy was approved by Rio Grande Forest Supervisor, Dan Dallas, in May of 2015, and would trade 205 federal acres for 177 acres of private land within the boundaries of the Rio Grande National Forest. The exchange gives highway access to the private land, making it possible for the owner/developer to construct a proposed “village” for 8,000 tourists.
Conservation organizations and local communities oppose this development, siting the environmental and economic ramifications for downstream communities, and the direct impacts to wildlife in the area.
Opposition to the development has steadily grown, attracting local businesses, skiers, ranchers, local landowners, downstream water users, hunters, anglers, and conservationists. An online petition has garnered over 80,000 signatures urging the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, to protect the Wolf Creek Pass.
Matt Sandler, Attorney, Rocky Mountain Wild, 303-579-5162
Travis Stills, Attorney, Energy and Conservation Law, 970-375-9231
Friends of Wolf Creek is a coalition of conservation organizations fighting to keep Wolf Creek Pass wild. The coalition includes: Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. More information can be found at www.friendsofwolfcreek.org.