By: Peter Marcus, The Durango Herald
January 9, 2015

January 9, 2015 – Federal officials are sorting through at least 10 objections filed over a proposed land exchange for the Village at Wolf Creek, once again extending the long saga of the wishful project.

The U.S. Forest Service has 45 days to resolve the objections that were filed by the Jan. 5 deadline, though the agency could extend that period an additional 30 days.

The challenges run the gamut, including environmental concerns about wildlife and legal issues about regulatory mandates to manage lands in a sustainable manner.

Texas billionaire 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 proposal is to swap private land in a large meadow below the ski area for the Forest Service land abutting U.S. Highway 160.

In November, forest officials decided in favor of the land swap after a final Environmental Impact Study. Developers would offer about 177 acres of land to the Rio Grande National Forest, in exchange for about 205 acres of federal land.

The developers are considering balancing a more resort, hotel-like environment with the remote feel of the area.

Leading the opposition is a coalition of conservation organizations, including Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, among other groups.

“Our objection makes clear that the Forest Service has added insult to injury by proposing to give away more land with valuable resources to a rich private interest,” said Matt Sandler, attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild.

The coalition’s 96-page filing highlights 22 points, calling on federal officials to invalidate the Environmental Impact Study.

“A 1,171-unit city of 10,000 people will upset the fragile balance the Forest Service has struck,” the objection states.

It goes on to suggest that the EIS did not reflect a “rigorous analysis,” which would violate the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates that federal policy must promote the enhancement of the environment.

Similar challenges have been filed over the course of the nearly three-decade-old project. Allegations that a previous project leader improperly influenced the Forest Service led federal officials to scrap an old EIS for a completely new process, which led to the EIS issued in November.

The Forest Service points out that it delayed release of the EIS on several occasions because additional research was required.

“We feel confident that we did a very thorough analysis here,” said Mike Blakeman, spokesman for the Rio Grande National Forest Service.

Objections will be handled by the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region office in Golden. Officials will first meet with objectors to try to reach resolutions.

The developer, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, believes the land-swap proposal is the best solution for all stakeholders. Without the exchange, developers would be subject to one access road that is closed in the winter. With the swap, they would have year-round access to the resort off of the highway.

Clint Jones, a spokesman for Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, said objectors should respect the careful administrative process that unfolded.

“I’m sorry, but we did it right this time,” Jones said. “I don’t think anyone can stand there and say we didn’t go through four years of rigorous analysis.”

The project has dragged on so long that McCombs is now 87 years old. But Jones said developers remain committed to seeing its completion.

“We’re here to stay,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a very good project for the areas around there.”

Conservation groups remain just as determined. As for reasons to invalidate the study, they point to wildlife – such as migration routes for lynx – and maintaining the integrity of the scenic treasure that surrounds Wolf Creek.

“Given the delays and foot-dragging we have seen to date, I anticipate the Forest Service will take the maximum amount of time to complete its review,” Sandler said. “Whenever they finish, we will still be here. We intend to keep challenging this project.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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