DENVER – Federal officials Thursday decided in favor of a land exchange for the Village at Wolf Creek, perhaps offering an opportunity for developers to move forward with the nearly three-decade-old project.
The U.S. Forest Service issued the decision after a final Environmental Impact Study was released this week.
Texas billionaire 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 proposal is to swap private land in a large meadow below the ski area for Forest Service land abutting U.S. Highway 160.
Developers would offer about 177 acres of land to the Forest Service in Rio Grande, in exchange for about 205 acres of federal land. Officials appraised the land, which doesn’t always work out acre to acre, but more in line with value for each acre.
“The proposal for the Village at Wolf Creek has been rife with controversy and strong feelings for a very long time, and I’m certainly not so naive as to think that my decision will settle the controversy and strong feelings,” Dan Dallas, Rio Grande National Forest supervisor, said during a news conference with reporters.
The decision offers some certainty to developers, who would have been subjected to one access road that is closed in the winter and serves as a ski trail. With the land swap, developers would have year-round access to the resort off of the highway.
The decision starts a 45-day objection period. The final decision will be signed if no objections are received. A 45-day resolution period ensues if objections are submitted, and the resolution period could be extended an additional 30 days.
Southwest Colorado has been waiting for the final decision for months. It is only a small part of the development’s storied saga that has included a long list of lawsuits, including with the Pitcher family, which owns Wolf Creek Ski Area, as well as with environmental interests.
Since the proposal came to light in 1986, concerns have revolved around wildlife – such as migration routes for lynx – and maintaining the integrity of the scenic treasure that surrounds Wolf Creek.
A coalition of local interest groups – including Rocky Mountain Wild, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council – quickly raised objections, suggesting that the battle over the Village at Wolf Creek is far from over.
“For this locale near the top of Wolf Creek Pass, the public has expressed a strong interest in allowing the area to remain a refuge to wildlife with some recreational visitation, rather than a trophy-style development accessed through a major new highway interchange that would be wildly out of character with the surrounding landscape,” said Jimbo Buickerood, public-land coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Developers, however, say the reason they have stuck with the project for so long is because McCombs believes there is great potential for the region. They operate as Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture.
“It’s always been viewed as a means by which to help the region achieve what it’s capable of achieving, and to bring prosperity to the region that would benefit some of the great people there,” said Clint Jones, a spokesman for Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture.
“We’re not finished. We’re not across the finish line. We’ve crossed a hurdle,” Jones said.
He said specific development plans are not finalized, noting the many delays and future obstacles to overcome. But Jones said plans have changed over the years. Developers are currently looking at balancing a more resort, hotel-like environment with the remote feel of the area. One suggestion has been cabins.
Forest officials have taken into account beetle kill, which ravished the landscape, adding to fire danger.
Another issue is jurisdiction with state and local agencies, such as the Colorado Department of Transportation, which would oversee an interchange, and Mineral County, which would handle permitting and zoning issues.
Another environmental issue taken into account by the feds was impact to wetlands, which could become complicated by a pending Environmental Protection Agency rule that would extend the federal government’s authority over waters.
But above all, forest officials considered a 1980 law called the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which contains a provision that requires owners of inholdings to be given reasonable access to their property. That would mean year-round access for developers.
Dallas said the land exchange is the most practical way to get to that outcome.
“There’s a tortured history to it,” Dallas said. “But this amount of time was necessary to get this done right.”