Wetlands heat up Wolf Creek debate
Agencies clash over mapping of ‘old-growth’ fens

Skiers and snowboarders meander through the base area of Wolf Creek on Monday. The Village at Wolf Creek, proposed not far from the current base area, is continuing to stir up controversy. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection agency are currently at odds over wetlands regulation./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Adam Howell 

Wetlands are currently boiling with controversy in the vicinity of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

According to recently obtained e-mails, two agencies are throwing jabs in a recent bout over the regulation of wetlands as they relate to the proposed Village at Wolf Creek. According to the exchange, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Albuquerque District has prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from verifying the locations of wetlands at the site of the proposed developed.

Courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), several work-related e-mails were recently acquired from the EPA regarding the proposed “Village,” which would include 2,172 new units and 222,100 square feet of commercial space on 287.5 acres near the base of the current Wolf Creek Ski Area. Proposing the development is the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture funded by Texas billionaire Billie Joe “Red” McCombs, co-founder of Clear Channel Communications Inc. Unaffiliated with the family-run Wolf Creek Ski Area, McCombs and his venture partner Bob Honts, a Texas-based developer, want to build what opponents call a “Vail-sized city” within the property boundaries of the current ski area at the base of the Alberta lift.

As part of the development process, the Army Corps was reviewing a map prepared by the developer’s consultants. Such delineations are done to outline the boundaries of and prevent impacts to wetlands. In the case of the Wolf Creek wetlands, the Army Corps had previously accepted a request from the Environmental Protection Agency to participate in the field verification of the wetlands boundaries. As a result, Project Manager Anita Culp of the Corps’ Southern Colorado Regulatory Office offered the EPA dates in September for when the two agencies could work together on the project. But shortly thereafter, her boss, Dan Malanchuk, chief of the Corps’ Albuquerque District, refused to clear it and ordered her to block the EPA’s request to review their wetlands delineations.

At that time, Culp called Gene Reetz, the EPA’s wetlands team leader, saying that their original offer was “off the table,” according to the emails. Furthermore, since the EPA does only a couple delineations per year, it would be inappropriate for them to get involved, Malanchuk said in a recent interview.

Reetz responded to the turn-down the next day in a letter to Malanchuk, writing, “To say that I am disappointed is to put it mildly.” Given the controversy surrounding the proposed “Village,” Reetz said he desired a more cooperative effort; at the same time, he did not leave out legal action as a possibility. He also cited a 1979 legal precedent under former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civilleti that gives the EPA jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act to make the final determination as to what constitutes “waters of the United States.”

Although the Army Corps implements the delineation program, the EPA has enforcement authority and can veto permits authorizing the discharge of dredged or fill materials within waters of the U.S. in “special cases,” Reetz said.

Plus, the Corps’ exclusion of the EPA comes amid their shared responsibilities to implement the Clean Water Act. In the Corps’ Regulatory Program Mission Statement, it avows, “During the permit process, the Corps considers the views of other federal, state and local agencies, interest groups, and the general public.”

A full parking lot sits above the proposed site for the Village at Wolf Creek. Opponents of the massive development suspect political leverage is responsible for the current wetlands impasse./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

For the Corps to exclude the EPA suggests that political meddling is occurring, says Jeff Berman, director of the Friends of Wolf Creek. Especially disconcerting to Berman is that a FOIA request to the Corps’ Albuquerque District has received no response. “They should tell us if Red McCombs and their attorneys in Washington, D.C. are pulling strings,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rio Grande National Forest continues to write the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Village at Wolf Creek. As the process unfolds, the development proposal continues to generate opposition.

Spearheading opposition to the development, the Friends of Wolf Creek includes representation from a variety of conservation groups like Colorado Wild, the American Lands Alliance, the Colorado Mountain Club, San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Wilderness Society. In addition, the owners of the Wolf Creek Ski Corp. and Congressman John Salazar have gone on the record, opposing the development.

This opposition coincides with the “significant likelihood of direct, indirect and cumulative adverse impacts to wetlands that could result from the proposal,” as the EPA warned in response to the Rio Grande National Forest’s Draft EIS.

Specifically, the EPA has serious concerns about the protection of fen wetlands at Wolf Creek. Considered old-growth wetland ecosystems, fens are irreplaceable habitats, according to the EPA. As groundwater driven systems dependent on a seasonally stable water supply, fens are particularly susceptible to groundwater interception or any alteration of hydrology.

Whether or not the developers will need a 404 permit to discharge dredged and fill materials into surrounding fen wetlands is irrelevant to their protection, according to wetlands experts and hydrologists at the EPA. That’s because the permit-regulated fens on the parcel are fairly sensitive to minor changes to the land surrounding them, according to Mike Wireman, a groundwater hydrologist with the EPA.

Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who looked over the site last June with Wireman, agreed about the risks, saying in an interview that the development most likely will impact groundwater that feeds into the wetlands there.

Despite proposals by the developer to avoid impacts to wetlands by bridging tributaries and wetlands in the base area, Sarah Fowler, a wetlands expert at the EPA who also walked the site in June, remains concerned. The construction of below-grade foundations in the area, for example, can significantly lower groundwater in adjacent wetlands.

At the Breckenridge Ski Area base facility, for instance, groundwater models completed there have demonstrated that even minimal impingement into groundwater from foundations will have far reaching effects on down-gradient wetlands, Fowler said.

Moreover, foundations from buildings in the vicinity of the fens on the developer’s land could act as groundwater wells creating cones of depression impacting critical groundwater supporting the fens, she said.

However, Honts believes that the project can be done without impacting the parcel’s wetlands. To assure there’s no downstream impact, the uplands development will be monitored and studied with underground monitoring wells, he said.

In response to the Corps’ verification of his consultant’s wetlands delineations for the land, Honts concluded, “We’ve complied with the law, and we’re pleased to say that.” As for the EPA’s exclusion from the process, “It sounds like the environmentalists want a second bite at the apple,” he said. •



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