By: Tracy Chamberlin
April 6, 2015

With just a couple more details and some attached documents, developers who first envisioned the Village at Wolf Creek are one step closer to making it a reality.

Recently, the U.S. Forest Service officially released what are called Objection Responses, one of the final steps in the federal process for a land swap between the Forest Service and Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, the development company behind the Village at Wolf Creek. The road to the village really began in 1986 when the Forest Service approved a different land swap with B.J. “Red” McCombs. In exchange for lands located in Saguache County, which is northeast of Mineral County, the Texas-based developer received 300 acres of national forest property just outside the ski area.

The company is looking to build 1,711 housing units like hotels, condominiums, townhomes and single-family homes, along with commercial entities at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area, just outside Pagosa Springs in nearby Mineral County.

The road to the village really began in 1986 when the Forest Service approved a different land swap with B.J. “Red” McCombs. In exchange for lands located in Saguache County, which is northeast of Mineral County, the Texas-based developer received 300 acres of national forest property just outside the ski area.

This acreage is surrounded by public lands. Also called an in-holding, it can be reached in the summer months via a Forest Service road off Highway 160. But when winter arrives, the road closes and the property becomes unreachable.

Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, passed in 1980, if private property is surrounded by conservation lands, like national forest, the landowners must be allowed to access that property.

“That’s the thing people struggle with,” Mike Blakeman, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, said this week. “We have to meet legal obligations to provide that access.”

The Forest Service has two options in this case, according to Blakeman. It can approve the land exchange, which essentially butts the property up against the highway, or it can allow for a road to be built across national forest.

Blakeman said the Forest Service feels the land exchange, in which it would get about 177 acres of private land for about 205 acres of national forest land, has the least impact.

“It’s not for us to decide what’s right and what’s wrong with that private property,” he added.

But others believe the Forest Service does have other options.

Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the Forest Service doesn’t have to approve the land exchange. And, even if that’s the favored option, it has the authority to require distinct boundaries or to include language in the deal that would allow for greater protections.

“They’re denying they have the responsibility …,” Buickerood said. “But they’re sidestepping that responsibility.”

The federal process for completing the land exchange requires research, study and plenty of paperwork, including scoping notices, environmental impact statements, objections, responses, amendments, easements, protocols, plans and more.

A draft of that decision was published in November of last year, and those individuals and organizations already involved in the commenting process have the right to object to the decision.Near the end of this long line of procedures – all steps required by the National Environmental Policy Act – is the Record of Decision, in which Forest Service officials explain what their final decision is and why it’s considered the best option.

Twenty different individuals and groups filed objections. One of those responses involved a group of conservation organizations, which included the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Rocky Mountain Wild.

They came together with 22 points explained over 96 pages. Their remarks ranged from procedural issues to concerns with inadequate wildlife protections.

Although the Forest Service responded to each point, none moved the needle when it came to a final decision.

“After all that, the only thing they think needs to be addressed is a couple of clarifications,” Buickerood said.

The point the Forest Service said needs clarification focused on an objection about the lynx and its habitat.

In 1997, a lynx reintroduction program was started by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It’s considered one of the highest-profile programs of its kind in North America. By 2010, the program was officially deemed a success.

Following the rollout of the program, an amendment was included in the Rio Grande National Forest Management Plan for the Southern Rockies Lynx. It offered guidence and objectives on how to manage the new local lynx population.

Because Wolf Creek Pass is considered part of lynx territory, wildlife officials were even asked to comment during the original environmental impact study for the land exchange.

Buickerood said the pass is a combination of wild private and public territories. As a critical corridor for all wildlife, not just the lynx, he called it a pinch point.

“Once you destroy it, you’re not going to reclaim habitat,” Buickerood said. “You can’t bring that back, you’ve lost it forever.”

The issue needing clarification, however, is not about the wildlife. It’s about the paperwork.

In the conclusion to its response to the objection, the Forest Service gave two instructions. First, Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas is asked to clarify why he deviated from a specific guideline, called Lynx Guideline Link G1; and secondly, how his final decision to approve the land exchange will affect meeting a long-term objective referred to as Lynx Objective Link O1. The second instruction calls for Dallas to include the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment for proper documentation.

Once those steps are taken, Dallas can sign the final decision and move forward with the land exchange.

One potential barrier could still fall on the road to the village. Two lawsuits filed by conservation groups involved in the objection process are currently making their way through the courts.

In an effort to verify the review was truly independent, which is required by law, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council have requested the communications and emails for 23 different federal officials involved.

So far, they’ve received seven of those communications, according to Buickerood.

Jeff Dorschner is the spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, who’s representing the Forest Service. He said they’re waiting for the court to rule and cannot comment on pending litigation.

With two separate Freedom of Information Act requests filed, it’s uncertain how or even if the cases will affect the timeline of the land exchange.

“We’ll see what happens in court,” Buickerood said. “That will help us determine what our next steps are.”