A turning point in the three-decade battle over Wolf Creek Pass is expected next month, when the U.S. Forest Service will declare its preference on a land exchange with a Texas developer who wants to build a resort village.
B.J. “Red” McCombs has been trying since 1986 to build the Village at Wolf Creek at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area. His latest proposal – now five years in the making – is to swap his private land in a large meadow below the ski area for Forest Service land abutting U.S. Highway 160.
Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas expects to make a decision on the land swap in early to mid-March.
Much has changed on Wolf Creek Pass since McCombs offered the land trade in 2009.
An outbreak of spruce beetles has mowed through the pass, killing many of the mature trees and altering the landscape for decades or perhaps even centuries. Last June, firefighters labored to keep the Windy Pass Fire from crossing into Wolf Creek Ski Area.
“We hate the loss of the trees with the beetle kill, obviously,” said Clint Jones, who is organizing the development plans for McCombs.
But the forest conditions have not changed plans to go ahead with the village. The Windy Pass Fire stayed on the West side of the pass, so the burned area will not be visible from the proposed resort, Jones said.
The Forest Service’s latest aerial survey of forest health shows the spruce beetle outbreak is gaining strength, and the area’s weakened forests will remain a fire danger during the heat of the summer.
Jones said the developers probably will want to replant trees, even though it would be a long time until the new forest matures.
“We haven’t really gone out there and done a full tree survey of what the spruce beetle has done,” Jones said.
Legacy of lawsuits
The beetles are only the latest in a long line of delays McCombs has faced. He had a falling out and a legal battle with the Pitcher family, which owns Wolf Creek Ski Area, in the 2000s.
He was close to getting approval for the village in 2006, but a series of lawsuits by environmental groups thwarted his plans.
His opponents will be ready next month when the Forest Service releases its final Environmental Impact Statement.
“We’ve got a team set up for review of the document,” said Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
It has taken a long time for the Forest Service to prepare a decision on the land trade. A study of lynx habitat around Wolf Creek Pass has held up the analysis, several people involved in the project said.
The delay has given Jones and his team time to rethink some of the project.
“We started looking at different resorts around the country that have performed well. What might have worked back in the ’80s might not work today,” Jones said.
They have no plans to back away from building the village. But they are looking at different options, like possibly emphasizing homier cabins over a large hotel, for example.
Jones and McCombs have already announced they would build the village in phases if the land exchange goes through. Jones said this month that the initial construction could be even smaller, depending on economic conditions.
“Market demand is going to dictate how much we build and what,” Jones said.
A child born when the Village at Wolf Creek was first proposed would now be preparing for her 10-year high school reunion.
McCombs obtained his property in a 1986 land swap with the Forest Service. Its only access is a dirt road that doubles as a ski trail in the winter.
The lack of road access has kept the Village at Wolf Creek stalled for the past decade.
Forest Service officials say they are bound by law to give McCombs access to his land one way or another. A 1980 law called the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act contains a provision that requires owners of inholdings to be given reasonable access to their property. The Forest Service has interpreted that to mean year-round access to accommodate McCombs’ development plans.
The ANILCA controversy colored the legal battles eight years ago, the last time the Forest Service approved road access for the village. Environmental groups won a settlement that overturned the decision and forced McCombs to start the Environmental Impact Statement all over again.
Instead of starting a new EIS, he hired Jones, who proposed a land swap to put the village right off the highway, sidestepping the access road controversy.
However, the Forest Service is also examining “ANILCA access” to McCombs’ current land as an alternative to the land swap.
Both sides are eager to see what the Forest Service has to say. Jones would like to work on platting his development this year.
“It’s hard to plan something when you don’t know if the land exchange is going to occur or if you’re going to stay on the land you already own,” Jones said.
Buickerood would like a different outcome.
“They could put a nice sign on top of the pass for the Red McCombs wildlife refuge,” he said.