Massive development asks Congress
to end public review
|Dismantled chairs await another
season at the base of Wolf Creek’s Alberta
Lift. The chairlift crosses land owned by
Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs, who proposes
to develop the meadow. Opponents of the ambitious
and Congressman Mark Udall fought this week to
block a “midnight rider.” The rider
would have exempted the
development from an environmental review that is
currently taking place./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
O pening day may still be more than a month away, but Wolf Creek Ski
Area is drawing the spotlight. A proposal to develop a “Vail-sized city” at
the base of the ski area continues to stir up controversy. Now, opponents
and U.S. Representative Mark Udall are alleging that proponent Red McCombs
is trying to pull political strings to skip the public process.
The Village at Wolf Creek is not directly tied to the Wolf Creek Ski
Area, which is widely recognized as an environmentally friendly, no-frills,
family-run operation. However, a Texas development company, funded by
Minnesota Vikings owner McCombs, has proposed a massive development
near the ski area. McCombs would like to develop 287.5 acres just east
of Wolf Creek Pass and at the base of the Alberta lift.
The land was first acquired during a suspicious 1989 land exchange
with the Forest Service. The swap was originally denied by the Rio Grande
National Forest for not being in the public's best interest. Two weeks
later, an order issued from Forest Service headquarters in Washington,
D.C., overturned the local agency and allowed the land exchange to proceed.
Nearly 15 years later, the Rio Grande National Forest is now studying
a proposal by McCombs to construct 2,172 new housing units and 222,100
square feet of commercial space. As part of the plan, 12 new restaurants,
several hotels and a convention center would also be built on the meadow.
Opposition to the Village at Wolf Creek has been off the charts.
graphic courtesy Friends of Wolf
“This is a ridiculous development proposal,” said Jeff Berman, executive
director of Colorado Wild. “Trying to put a city half the size of Durango
on less than 300 acres, at 10,300 feet of elevation and at the snowiest
place in Colorado makes no sense whatsoever.”
In addition, Berman said that the development will essentially destroy
the character of the current ski area. “Besides the obvious environmental
impacts, such a ridiculous development would steer away most skiers
who go to Wolf Creek precisely because it's not Vail,” he said.
This factor has driven the owners of Wolf Creek Ski Area, the Pitcher
family, to join the coalition called Friends of Wolf Creek, which includes
individuals, businesses and conservation groups. This week, the Pitchers
alerted the coalition and Congressman Udall that more dirty business
seemed to be taking place.
The Pitchers received word that McCombs was working with Sen. Kay Bailey
Hutchison, a Texas republican, to introduce a last minute amendment
to an Interior Department appropriations bill. The “midnight rider” would
have exempted the 287-acre parcel from public review and allowed McCombs
to essentially break ground without public approval. In recent months,
4 the Village at Wolf Creek development team has publicly stated that
such an exemption is warranted, claiming that the project has already
gone through two environmental analysis processes.A0However, last Monday
and Tuesday, the Friends of Wolf Creek and Udall successfully fought
to keep the rider off the bill.
Lawrence Pacheco, Udall's press secretary, commented, “It's unconscionable
for a senator who lives outside Colorado to introduce this kind of rider
to help a major contributor like McCombs. Congressman Udall firmly believes
that this kind of business should be done in the full daylight. What
the developers are proposing is a midnight rider that essentially eliminates
Berman added, “That this kind of thing can go on at all is a sad example
of how our political system can work.”
On Monday, Berman sent e-mail alerts to hundreds of people urging them
to contact Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who sits on the Senate Appropriations
Committee, and ask him to remove the Wolf Creek rider. The rider was
not introduced into Tuesday's Interior Department appropriations bill,
according to staff with Campbell's office.
However, Berman and Pacheco agreed that it has also not gone away.
There are a total of 13 appropriations bills that must be approved for
next year's budget. In most years, the bills are combined into a giant
one that inevitably carries numerous unrelated riders like McCombs'.
“If it's not offered today, it may be offered at another time in the
future,” Pacheco said on Tuesday. “Typically, they wind up wrapping
all of these bills into one omnibus spending bill that's thousands of
pages long. Numerous things get snuck into these large bills.”
As a result, Berman said that the Friends of Wolf Creek will be keeping
a close eye on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Nothing is ever
for sure in this kind of thing,” he said. “We have to keep our ears
to the ground.”
Meanwhile, the Rio Grande National Forest is continuing to evaluate
the environmental impacts of the Village at Wolf Creek, exactly the
process that the Village at Wolf Creek has tried to evade. During this
time, Steve Brigham, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator,
said that the proposal has drawn record levels of interest and opposition
in the otherwise sleepy district. A total of 520 letters on the Village
at Wolf Creek were sent to the Forest Service during public scoping.
Eighty-three percent of them adamantly opposed the development.
Brigham's office is now working to assess these comments and on-the-ground
studies and release a draft environmental impact study of the proposed
development. The draft is expected in coming weeks.
“It sounds like the draft will be coming out at the end of September
or sometime in October,” Brigham said. “The public will then have 45
days to comment on the draft. We'll look at those comments and they'll
influence where we go from there.”
However, the draft will prove to be controversial. Berman said that
if it is released that soon, the Forest Service can expect some serious
negative feedback. He charged that the agency has been working on the
usually exhaustive document only since April 15 and the process appears
to be on a fast track. Consequently, Berman said that the Friends of
Wolf Creek are expecting a thrown-together document.
“I've heard rumors that they're trying to publish the draft EIS at
the end of this month,” he said in closing. “If so, it's guaranteed
to be one of the shoddiest drafts and will be ripe for criticism.”