Developers of the Village at Wolf Creek have asked the U.S. Forest Service for a land exchange near the top of Wolf Creek Pass, but they're not getting help from U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa.
Last year, developer Clint Jones went public with the idea for the land exchange as a way to gain access to U.S. Highway 160 and push the controversial resort farther away from the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area.
The June 7 proposal to the Forest Service formally starts an environmental review that could take 18 months or more. Officials at Rio Grande National Forest said Thursday they are doing an initial review of the plan to decide whether it is complete enough to even accept. If they do accept it, that will trigger a long process that includes public involvement.
"There really isn't a lot of information to share at this point, but considering the high level of interest that has been expressed in the past concerning the private land by Wolf Creek Ski Area, I wanted to make sure the public was aware of this recent action," said Dan Dallas, supervisor of Rio Grande National Forest.
Jones' proposal to the Forest Service leaves the door open to the old plan, which envisioned a resort for thousands of people in a meadow below the ski area.
The owner of the village land, B.J. "Red" McCombs, wanted Salazar to run legislation in Congress to make sure the land trade did not get delayed. But at a town meeting in Alamosa this spring, Salazar encouraged the warring sides to work it out through the regular Forest Service process - known as an environmental impact statement - without the involvement of Congress.
"He's not introducing any legislation right now," said Salazar's spokesman, Eric Wortman. At the Alamosa meeting, "he encouraged folks to pursue the full, open EIS, and that's what's taking place."
Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, said his group wants to keep the land undeveloped. But he is happy to see Leavell-McCombs apply for the environmental review of its plan.
"I think it's great to put all the options on the table and see what makes sense," Bidwell said.
McCombs owns the meadow at the ski area's base and has tried for 20 years to build a resort town on the 287-acre plot.
If the land trade doesn't work, construction on the meadow still is an alternative, Jones said. The Forest Service has not formally accepted the application and is not yet treating it like a public document, but Jones described its substance to the Herald.
The plan calls for three alternatives. Two would develop land around the meadow that McCombs currently owns. But the developers' preferred option is to trade 207 acres of McCombs' land for an identically sized parcel that abuts U.S. Highway 160.
Most of the development would be in the trees on a ridge farther away from the ski area, and it would not intersect ski trails.
"We still believe the land exchange is best for all parties involved. We believe it's best for the public, and that's why we're proposing it," Jones said.
However, Jones said the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act requires that people like McCombs, whose property is surrounded by federal land, be granted access to their property.
Rio Grande forest officials have said the same thing for years. But the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act did not provide the legal trump card developers wanted last time they tried to build the resort.
A previous attempt to build it spurred several state and federal lawsuits, and McCombs' lobbying efforts reached the highest levels of Congress and the Forest Service.
Public records showed unsuccessful attempts by McCombs' company, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, to get former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, to insert a rider into a bill that would have let the company build the village without doing an EIS. Other documents showed communications between Leavell-McCombs and Mark Rey, the Bush administration official who oversaw the Forest Service.
The village stalled two years ago, after developers failed to get road access to their land. They settled a lawsuit with Colorado Wild and other environmental groups by withdrawing their EIS application and promising to do a new one.
They also settled a lawsuit with the owners of Wolf Creek Ski Area. Terms of that settlement have remained secret, but when the settlement was being finalized, Leavell-McCombs submitted a map to Mineral County planners that showed a much smaller village than the developers had originally planned.
McCombs, of San Antonio, is a self-made billionaire. He turned a car dealership into one of the country's largest chains of auto dealers, founded Clear Channel Communications and once owned the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Vikings. He has been a major donor to the national Republican Party and GOP candidates.
Last year, his development company hired Michael Dino, a top Democratic lobbyist from Denver, to make his case to Salazar and Colorado's two Democratic senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet. The senators deferred to Salazar about whether to run a land-exchange bill.