Three environmental organizations say the U.S. Forest Service gave them the back of its hand as a response to their objections to a Texas developer’s plan to develop a year-round community at almost 11,000 feet elevation at Wolf Creek Pass.
In answer, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council said Thursday they have filed two lawsuits in Federal District Court to force the Forest Service to supply agency records requested through the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents – the environmental groups want communications between the agency and the developer, too – relate to a land exchange between the Forest Service and B.J. “Red” McCombs that would allow his development group to build The Village at Wolf Creek – hotels, townhouses, condominiums and restaurants.
In addition, the groups say inadequate concern was given to protecting Canada lynx habitat.
The proposal has been around for nearly 30 years. At that time, the Forest Service said the land swap wouldn’t serve the public interest.
The land exchange would give McCombs access to 287 landlocked acres from U.S. Highway 160. The development group would cede 177 acres for 205 acres of Rio Grande National Forest and $70,000 cash.
Forest Service officials approved the deal with McCombs in late 2014. Environmental groups filed objections Jan. 5, and they learned that the Forest Service had ratified its decision Monday.
There was no violation of law, regulation or policy, the review by Deputy Forester Maribeth Gustafson said. She was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Lawrence M. Lujan, the acting public information officer at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region 2 office in Golden, said Gustafson replied to the objections of the environmental groups and would direct Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas to clarify why he had deviated from guidelines to protect the Canada lynx in approving the land exchange.
Once Dallas acts, the final record of decision can be issued, Lujan said.
The environmental groups say the Environmental Impact Statement that supports the Forest Service decision is incomplete and inadequate.
Also, they say Gustafson has a conflict of interest because documents they obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicate she participated in decision-making and then doubled as the reviewing officer.
Protecting lynx habitat is only one issue, they say. The area is a major wildlife corridor, and although the Forest Service concedes that the impact of The Village at Wolf Creek on the Rocky Mountain elk would be “appreciable,” it approved the development anyway.
What’s more, the environmental groups say, residents of the region, hunters, anglers, skiers and hikers find solace or recreate in the mountains.
Objections to the decision were filed by the three organizations challenging the Forest Service in federal court as well as Defenders of Wildlife, Wilderness Workshop, Colorado Mountain Club, EcoFlight, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative.