Village gets a green light
Forest Service awards McCombs access to parcel

SideStory: The backside of the decision: Colorado Wild continues to allege corruption

A snowboarder unloads fat Wolf Creek Ski Area earlier this winter. Developers of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek, which is unaffiliated with and opposed by the ski area, cleared a major hurdle this week with approval from the Forest Service to build an access road to the development parcel./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

The Forest Service opened a door for the Village at Wolf Creek this week. On Monday, the agency officially removed a stumbling block to the massive development when it authorized access to the parcel at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The Village at Wolf Creek is not directly affiliated with the Wolf Creek Ski Area, which is widely recognized as a sleepy, no-frills, family-run operation. Still, a Texas development company, funded by former Minnesota Vikings owner and Clear Channel Radio baron Red McCombs, is looking to capitalize on the ski area. The group has proposed developing 287.5 acres, located just east of Wolf Creek Pass at the base of the Alberta lift and acquired in a 1989 land exchange with the Forest Service. The “village” would include 2,172 new units of housing and 222,100 square feet of commercial space. As part of the plan, 12 new restaurants, several hotels and a convention center would be built

on the meadow. As many as 10,000 people could occupy the development at build-out.

Immediately after its announcement, opposition to The Village at Wolf Creek was off the charts. As it analyzed a request to allow access to the isolated inholding, the Rio Grande National Forest stepped into the fray. The controversy boiled over Monday when Peter Clark, Rio Grande National Forest supervisor, announced his approval of a permanent road to access the large development.

Clark and the Forest Service considered the decision for two years and concluded that the agency is required by law to provide access across public land to private inholdings.

Citing legal precedent, Clark remarked, “We are required to grant access to property owners for reasonable use and enjoyment that that property.”

Clark added that at no time during his analysis did he consider rejecting McCombs’ request, saying, “Not granting access was never on the table and never considered … I consider it reasonable to develop a resort next to an existing ski area.”

The decision authorizes access on a new 750-foot road between U.S. Highway 160 and the Village at Wolf Creek. Clark also approved direct access on an existing road leaving the lower Wolf Creek Ski Area parking lot but only for emergency vehicles and shuttle buses.

Ironically, the development’s proponents are not hailing the decision with entirely open arms. On the one hand, Bob Honts, Village at Wolf Creek development manager, commented that he and McCombs are pleased to have a decision.

“We’re pleased to be through the process,” Honts said. “It’s a little like a guy hitting his head with a hammer. He tells you he’s pleased once he finally stops.”

However, Honts pegged construction of the road as high as $9 million and said he would have preferred use of the existing road.

“The other side is we didn’t get what we asked for, which was use of the existing road,” he said. “What we got was limited use of that road and permission to build a new road at a probable cost of millions of dollars. I’d say this is a mixed decision.”

Honts added that it could be a mixed decision for Wolf Creek Ski Area as well, saying, “The bad news is that it’s going to be very expensive for us and the ski company.”

“Bad news” is also the rallying call of Village at Wolf Creek opponents this week. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., expressed his disappointment in the Forest Service, saying the agency failed to adequately assess the Village at Wolf Creek’s impacts.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Forest Service chose not to analyze the full impact the Village of Wolf Creek development will have on our watersheds and wetlands, but instead chose to focus solely on the access issue,” he said.

Colorado Wild, a Durango-based conservation group and a leading opponent of the development, commented that the decision is not unexpected but is very disappointing.

Ryan Demmy Bidwell, the group’s executive director, said, “Based on what we have seen through our Freedom of Information Act requests, the Forest Service decision was not a surprise.”

However, the group is not taking Monday’s announcement lying down and is already planning its appeal.

“We believe that the decision is fundamentally flawed,” Bidwell said. “First, we believe that the developer has had undo and possibly illegal influence on the Forest Service and the third-party contractor that was hired to write the environmental impact statement. Second, the statement assumes that the development has to occur because of temporary access we believe was illegally granted in 2004.”

Bidwell went on to add, “Essentially, the Forest Service backhandedly approved this temporary access in 2004 and then they used that approval as the foundation of the environmental impact statement.”

Should Colorado Wild’s appeal fail, the group will take the fight to court and file a lawsuit against the agency. The group is also focusing energy on two remaining hurdles standing in McCombs’ and Honts’ way – a permit from the Colorado Department of Transportation and final approval from Mineral County, where Wolf Creek Pass is located.

On the flip side, Honts said that he and McCombs are ready to meet any and all future challenges to their plans for a large resort at close to 10,000 feet in elevation.

“One would presume that there are going to be administrative appeals of this decision and then there will be legal appeals,” Honts said. “Those are steps in the minefield that lies ahead.”

Minefield or no minefield, ground could be broken on the Village at Wolf Creek as early as this summer.

“We anticipate that we may be able to begin work as early as this summer,” Honts said in closing. “It’s our land, and we’re legally entitled to do what we want with it.” •