Earlier this month, I went where I had been told that there were pikas, the cold-loving relatives of rabbits, near the Wolf Creek Ski Area. I saw one little critter harvesting grasses for the winter. How much longer would this animal be able to live there before he gets roasted-out by climate change?
Even before climate change makes his rock pile too hot, my little friend will probably be rousted out by human incursion. His home is close to the proposed and hotly contested Village at Wolf Creek.
Wolf Creek already is suffering from climate change; bark beetles are destroying the spruces. In places, all the mature trees look dead. The only green trees are small; it will be decades before the forest is healthy again, if ever.
Billionaire Red McCombs money bought 288 acres of land just north of the ski area. For 25 years, his people have been trying to make that land into a lucrative venture. They want to build a city there that would dwarf Pagosa Springs on one side of the pass and South Fork on the other. In fact, if McCombs got his way, with the maximum density development concept the Village would be almost four times the population of both those communities combined!
Lets look at the practicalities of building a recreational city just below the most dangerous pass in Colorado. The first problem is access. There is only a single lane forest road leading from Highway 160 to the parcel. The U.S. Forest Service is considering a proposal by McCombs people to trade some of his land for land along the highway. His stingy offer is to trade 178 acres of his land for 204 acres of public property.
The closest commercial airports are in Durango and Alamosa, each about an hour and a half away with good road conditions. Stevens Field in Pagosa is closer, but doesnt have commercial flights because it is beset by mountains and bad weather.
The infrastructure for a posh resort also is problematic. The current electric grid is not sufficient to supply the proposed resort. There are no natural-gas lines up there, but apparently, the plan is to truck in natural gas. Gas might be used for generating electricity as well as for heat during the subzero winter nights. It might be practical to get big trucks up there in the summer, but unreliable in the winter when most needed. Although there is adequate water, the Village would require a completely reliable wastewater treatment plant that can function in Arctic conditions. A malfunction would pollute the headwaters of the Rio Grande River and a beautiful trout lake, Alberta Park Reservoir, below this pipe dream.
Health is the most important reason I hope that the Village doesnt get built. This beautiful parcel of land at 10,400 feet would be a magnet for rich people from sea level. Most of these tourists would fly in and drive rental cars directly to the Village. We locals are accustomed to higher elevations, but many of these visitors, especially the obese and elderly, will encounter problems. Some will have to drive to lower elevations, but a few will become acutely and critically ill. They will have to be evacuated by ambulance or helicopter, but there are times when access by either will be impossible. The closest hospital is in Pagosa Springs, more than a half an hour drive with good road conditions, but it doesnt have an intensive-care unit.
McCombs must be a clever person to have gotten so rich. I am sure that he has hired a first-rate staff to look at the problems of building the Village. I can only surmise that they are familiar with all the problems mentioned above. Perhaps he just doesnt want to admit that it is impractical to make a resort out of his 288 acres in Mineral County.
In order to get direct access to the highway, McCombs has offered the above unequal trade. Not only does this deal seem unfair, it also would bring the Village a step closer to reality. The Forest Service is accepting comments about this proposal. I suggest that you learn about the possible land exchange and send your comments about the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline is Oct. 1.
I hope that you will agree with me that the Forest Service would be wisest to choose no action as the best possibility for us, for the health of possible visitors and for my pika friend.
Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at email@example.com. © Richard Grossman MD, 2012