The U.S. Forest Service published a key environmental study Friday for a land exchange to benefit a proposed resort atop Wolf Creek Pass.
The publication of the draft environmental impact statement triggers a 45-day public comment period that will include meetings this month in Pagosa Springs, Monte Vista and Creede.
The proposed Village at Wolf Creek has been down this road before.
Since the mid-1980s, Texas businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs has wanted to build a resort village for skiers at Wolf Creek. But after a falling out with the owners of Wolf Creek Ski Area and a flurry of lawsuits, McCombs still doesn’t have the road access he needs to build on his 287 acres of private land.
His current plan asks the Forest Service to trade 204 acres of public land for 178 acres of his private land in order to position the village property next to U.S. Highway 160.
The Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement Friday that designates the land trade as the preferred choice of three options.
The other two options include doing nothing or approving a road to the current private land parcel.
The Forest Service also analyzed three scenarios for building the village.
The biggest one calls for 1,700 dwelling units, including two hotels and 821 condominiums. A moderate scenario calls for 500 units, including a 71-room hotel.
Even the moderate development scenario would increase tourism by 250,000 visitor-days per year. For comparison, Wolf Creek Ski Area now accounts for 225,000 skier days a year.
The Forest Service also looked at the effects of dividing McCombs’ property into eight or nine 35-acre home sites. But that’s not a serious plan, said Clint Jones, the lead developer.
“This is not something we’re proposing or even thinking about doing,” Jones said.
Jones was on the road and did not have time Friday to read the 567-page document.
The complex bureaucratic environment is different for this environmental impact statement compared to the 2006 document.
Village opponents criticized the 2006 EIS for assuming the village would be built even if the Forest Service did not approve access roads. That biased the analysis in favor of the village by absolving the Forest Service of responsibility for the impacts of the resort, critics said.
This time, the “no-action” option will mean just that, said Mike Blakeman, spokesman for Rio Grande National Forest.
Foresters say the law requires them to grant access to the private land because of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which requires private inholdings around the country to be given access roads if the owners want them.
However, in this case McCombs asked for a land trade, not access to his land. If the Forest Service picks the do-nothing option, then McCombs would have to start all over again with a new environmental impact statement that analyzes the access road.
Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas will decide among the three options.
“There’s no pre-decisional thing going on here,” Blakeman said. “(Dallas) certainly feels that he has three viable alternatives to look at and make a decision on.”
Each alternative has pluses and minuses for public lands. If the Forest Service does the land trade, it would gain several wetlands and perennial streams, but it would lose a one-acre pond. It also would lose 147 acres of lynx habitat.
Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, has been a persistent critic of the village.
When the original village was proposed in the 1980s – also through a land trade – developers were talking about building only a few hundred housing units. That mushroomed in the 1990s into plans for a 10,000-person town.
“I’m going to look at it through the eyes of what the original environmental assessment said,” Canaly said.
The Forest Service consciously did not consider the financial viability of the village, human health problems at high altitude and the risk of wildfires.
It also did not consider buying the private property from McCombs because it would need funds and he would have to be willing to sell it.