MONTE VISTA — Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas on Wednesday announced a new decision to provide reasonable access to a 288-acre private property parcel adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area owned by Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture. The property owner plans to construct a year-round resort known as the Village at Wolf Creek.
The decision approves a road and utility right-of-way across National Forest System land from U.S. Highway 160 to the private property. The right-of-way is about 1,610 feet in length and would be within a 100-foot corridor with a total area of about 3.7 acres.
The existing Tranquility Road would be extended east about 530 linear feet across National Forest Service lands to provide access between the inholding and Wolf Creek Ski Area, and would provide limited, restricted and seasonal access between Hwy 160 and the private land inholding. Tranquility Road would also provide a route for emergency access/egress.
“The property owned by Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture is surrounded by National Forest System land,” said Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas. “My decision provides the access that is legally required for private inholdings.”
The decision is based on Alternative 3, the so-called ANILCA alternative, as analyzed in the final environmental impact statement completed for the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project in 2014. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), a national authority, grants private landowners surrounded by National Forest System lands a right of reasonable access.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided a new biological opinion to inform the decision. This biological opinion analyzed the effects to the Canada lynx from the proposed authorization of access across the Rio Grande National Forest.
Dallas stated in his decision that the Forest Service does not have regulatory authority over the development itself. That is Mineral County’s jurisdiction.
“ANILCA does not require the Forest Service to decide which use, within a range of reasonable uses, will be ‘allowed.’ The Forest Service’s task is more limited. The Forest Service must simply ensure that it provides access over National Forest System lands that will allow use of the private property within the reasonable range … If year-round automobile access is needed for operation of even a small development, I must grant that level of access. It is then Mineral County’s responsibility to determine the size and configuration of the development that will be allowed using that access,” Dallas stated in his decision.
“This has been a long, complex project and I encourage folks to learn more about its status and review the new decision for themselves,” added Dallas.
In his final Record of Decision, Dallas recounted that his first Record of Decision, issued May 21, 2015, approved a land exchange to provide Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture (LMJV) access to its privately held land adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area and within the Rio Grande National Forest. A lawsuit challenged that decision and the United States District Court for the District of Colorado set the land exchange decision aside on May 19, 2017.
Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. On December 11, 2018, the Tenth Circuit dismissed LMJV’s appeal. The Tenth Circuit noted that the Forest Service “must take some action to provide LMJV with access.
“Faced with the obligation to provide LMJV with access to its lands, and constrained by the court’s decision, I decided to consider granting LMJV access through a right-of-way across Forest Service land instead of through a land exchange,” Dallas wrote.
Staff prepared a supplemental information report to determine if the 2014 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which had considered both a land exchange and a right-of way, would need to be supplemented.
“The interdisciplinary team recommended that changed conditions and new information would not present a significantly different picture of the environmental effects and a supplement to the EIS was not warranted,” Dallas stated.
Dallas issued a second draft record of decision on July 19, 2018, which was administratively challenged. The Deputy Regional Forester considered all objections and issued a 48-page response on November 19, 2018, which found no violation of law, regulation or policy.
After reviewing documents and input, Dallas made his final decision approving access to LMJV’s private inholding through a right-of-way across National Forest System land.
The record of decision and final environmental impact statement is available for public review at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=35945.
VALLEY — Responding to Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas’ final record of decision that could result in an easement over federal public lands to facilitate construction of the Village at Wolf Creek, opponents said the decision circumvents a federal court ruling that invalidated prior approvals for this controversial real estate development.
Opponents stated that the Village at Wolf Creek, located on top of Wolf Creek Pass, would house up to 10,000 people in as many as 2,000 housing units. The parcel, owned by Texas Billionaire Red McCombs, was first obtained under the guise of constructing a 208-unit development, they added. They added that the development plan resulted in decades of controversy, and courts have repeatedly stymied attempts by the developers to fast track approvals or short-circuit environmental studies and public input.
A Colorado federal district court set aside the Forest Service’s approval of a land exchange to facilitate the development in May 2017. “The Forest Service cannot abdicate its responsibility to protect the forest by making an attempt at an artful dodge,” the court declared.
Now, opponents said the Forest Service hopes to use “the same artfully dodged analysis, previously deemed in violation of multiple federal laws,” to approve a different means of providing the developers access.
Travis Stills, attorney with Energy and Conservancy Law, who has represented the groups in several rounds of successful litigation, said, “This proposal flagrantly violates federal laws and the developers’ own agreement to subject any access request to federal scrutiny. We are disappointed the Forest Service will not honor the binding settlement agreement and federal court orders. Should the Forest Service cave to pressure, we will take the steps necessary to protect the National Forest.”
Not only is the Forest Service pushing ahead in violation of legal decisions, it has cut out the public in its latest decision, opponents stated. The agency declared that only individuals or organizations that commented on this project in 2012 could participate in the process in 2018. This administrative restriction has chilled the decision-making process and left many concerned citizens voiceless.
Local advocates and conservationists are particularly concerned about the project’s massive impacts to one of Colorado’s last best places. “What part of creating a massive development in the middle of one of the last remaining core habitat areas in the Southern Rockies do the developers not understand?” said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, having participated in the public process since 2000. “What will it take for common sense to prevail in providing a lasting legacy to future generations of the public, over building excessive housing units that enables ecological ruin at the Rio Grande headwaters?”
Conservation organizations that have battled this development for over a decade were not surprised that the Forest Service “capitulated to the continued demands of a well-connected developer.”
“We anticipated backroom pressure to bend to the billionaire’s demands, hence over 2,300 people recently contacted Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas encouraging him to stand up for the public interest,” said Tehri Parker, executive director of Rocky Mountain Wild. “We are disappointed he chose the wishes of a Texas developer over local forest protection advocates.”
“Once again, it falls to the public to demand protection of Wolf Creek Pass, a place long cherished by generations of visitors and residents alike,” said Jimbo Buickerood, lands program manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Though the Forest Service might be inclined to renege on its stewardship responsibilities, we are ready to insist on compliance with the law and the public’s will.”