In a bombshell decision, the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday gave the Village at Wolf Creek its long-desired road access to U.S. Highway 160, essentially paving the way for the proposed massive resort atop Wolf Creek Pass.
“The reason is we still have a legal requirement to provide access to landlocked parcels,” Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas told The Durango Herald late Thursday.
The news came as a shock to a coalition of environmental groups that for three decades have opposed what would essentially amount to a new town in a remote part of Southwest Colorado, adjacent to the relatively small Wolf Creek Ski Area.
The decision was especially jarring for environmentalists because a federal judge in May 2017 ruled the Forest Service skirted its responsibilities to protect public lands when it approved a land swap that also sought to give the Village at Wolf Creek road access to U.S. Highway 160.
“I’ve never seen anything this egregious in its disregard for the law,” said Travis Stills, an attorney who represents the environmental groups. “In normal times, people lose their jobs over things like this. But these are not normal times.”
The decision came in the way of a news release sent at 4:39 p.m. Thursday.
In the statement, the Forest Service said the proposed road would be about 1,610 feet in length within a 100-foot corridor amounting to a total area of about 3.7 acres.
Any proposal for the actual development, which previous plans have shown would have the capacity for up to 10,000 people with lodging and businesses, would have to be approved through Mineral County.
Since the 1980s, the would-be developers – Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, spearheaded by Texas billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs – have sought to build the Village at Wolf Creek at the mountain pass at 10,000 feet and 20 miles from the nearest town.
The property, however, has always lacked access to U.S. Highway 160.
About four years ago, the Forest Service approved a land swap with Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture that gave the developers road access. The decision was made after the Forest Service conducted an environmental impact statement, which provided several options for road access.
But the land swap was immediately challenged by environmental groups that said the Forest Service failed to take environmental concerns into account and was unduly influenced by McCombs and his political pressure in drafting the EIS.
A federal court judge in May 2017 agreed, calling the Forest Service’s decision biased and the subsequent EIS an “artful dodge” of its responsibilities.
“What NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) requires is that before taking any major action, a federal agency must stop and take a careful look to determine the environmental impact of that decision, and listen to the public before taking action,” Judge Richard P. Matsch wrote in his decision. “The Forest Service failed to do that.”
Matsch’s decision invalidated the Forest Service’s proposed land swap. While Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture has appealed Matsch’s ruling, the Forest Service has not.
Instead, Dallas said the Forest Service re-evaluated other options in the 2014 EIS that would provide the developers road access other than the land swap. After evaluating options over the last several months, Dallas said the Forest Service is granting access through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which grants landowners with property surrounded by the national forest system the right to “reasonable access.”
This decision, too, is sure to be challenged.
Stills said the Forest Service made its decision based on the EIS that a federal court judge handily dismissed.
“This (decision) ignores and shows utter contempt for the federal court ruling,” Stills said. “This is really unprecedented.”
Dallas disagreed, saying the judge’s ruling took issue with some parts of the land swap in the EIS, not the entire EIS.
“The previous environmental impact statement is still relevant, timely and sound,” he said.
Calls to Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture were not returned Thursday evening.
In January, however, the developers sent a letter to the Forest Service demanding road access, despite the federal court’s decision.
“The full environmental consequences of development ... has been likewise analyzed in the EIS,” project manager Clint Jones wrote. “No further analysis is needed.”
The public may comment for the next 45 days on the Forest Service’s proposed action to give the Village at Wolf Creek road access. After that time frame, the Forest Service will review comments and announce a final decision this fall.
To comment, visit https://bit.ly/2O4ncLQ.