Wolf Creek under pressure
Colorado Wild files for injunction extension

The now-empty meadow near the base of Wolf Creek’s Alberta quad, seen in this file photo, is slated as the home of the Village at Wolf Creek. Opponents to the controversial development won a victory this week when they were awarded a continuance of an injunction on road-building. Developers also have agreed to hand over e-mail correspondence with contractors hired to complete the Forest Service EIS./File photo

by Missy Votel

The ground atop Wolf Creek Pass may be thawing, but the bulldozers’ engines will remain cold, at least for a few more weeks.

Last week, Durango-based environmental group Colorado Wild was granted an extension to its injunction temporarily halting construction of a road to the controversial Village at Wolf Creek. The original injunction, issued Nov. 15, 2006, expired May 1. However, a federal district court judge agreed to extend the injunction until at least June 15 at the group’s request. Colorado Wild is currently working on its case to extend the injunction indefinitely while it compiles documentation necessary to make its case against the development in court.

“The big piece holding that up is waiting for documentation of what went into the (environmental impact statement),” said Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild. “The Forest Service is taking its time pulling things together.”

A Texas development company, headed by Clear Channel Radio baron and former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs has pitched the “Village at Wolf Creek” for 287.5 acres at the base of the Alberta quad, adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area. The “village” would include 2,172 units on 162 lots, 5,176 bedrooms and 222,100 square feet of commercial space including 12 restaurants, multiple hotels and a convention center.

Last April, the Rio Grande National Forest released its EIS on the development, approving access to the private inholding via a new 750-foot road between U.S. Hwy. 160 and the parcel as well as extension of an existing road. Immediately afterward, Colorado Wild and other groups filed challenges, alleging major errors in the Forest Service analysis, failure to include the public in the process, behind-the scenes collusion between the agency and the developer, and violation of several laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit also alleges that Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Peter Clark also illegally granted permission to the developers last August to start road work.

Colorado Wild also experienced another victory in the battle when developers agreed to relinquish e-mails between his company and the consultant entrusted with conducting the EIS. According to Bidwell, McCombs and Tetra Tech, a global firm with offices in Farmington, had a relationship that went beyond that allowed under law.

“The Wolf Creek developer pays the bills, but the contractor works for the Forest Service,” said Bidwell. “It appears there was strategizing between the contractor and the developer and that is of concern to us.”

Bidwell said Colorado Wild was made aware of the e-mail correspondence via the Associated Press, which was leaked about four or five e-mails. Bidwell said those e-mails, in turn, referenced several other e-mails, creating a massive cyber trail. “There appears to be a great deal of correspondences,” he said.

As per a memorandum of understanding signed by the Forest Service and Tetra Tech, the firm was to have no direct contact with the developers on the content of the EIS and could only correspond regarding financial matters. “That communication protocol seems to have been thrown out the window,” Bidwell said.

He expects the e-mails to be turned over some time this week. “Basically, they could hand them over or they could be ordered to hand them over,” he said. “The developer has been involved in several other lawsuits, so they should have been keeping all their e-mails since all those communications can be required by court.”

McCombs partner, Bob Honts, did not return a call seeking comment.

Bidwell said the Tetra Tech development is just the latest in a long series of evidence of corruption surrounding the development. “After looking at thousands of pages of documents, we started to clue in to what was going on behind the scenes,” he said. “It stems all the way from the highest level in Washington D.C. down to the local level. The developer is directly working with these individuals.”

Consequently, the entire process leading up to access approval was skewed, Bidwell contends. “As a result, the Forest Service ended up with a document that never took a hard look at the village.”

The allegation is one the Forest Service’s Clark flatly denies. “The decision I made was based solely on the law, environmental analysis, the public comment I received and my personal judgment,” Clark remarked to the Telegraph last year. “We are required by law to grant access to property owners for reasonable use and enjoyment of that property.”

Despite the current good news, Bidwell said his group’s work if far from over. “It’s encouraging that slowly but surely these documents appear to be making their way in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what is going on.”

Between now and June 15, the court is expected to make a decision on whether or not to extend the injunction until Colorado Wild is able to amass all the documents it needs to present its case. “Once we all agree the court has all the documents, then we will go argue our case in front of the court,” Bidwell said. During this time, the court will examine the documents on record and determine whether the Forest Service decision was “arbitrary and capricious or well-informed.” That process is expected to take between three and four months to be completed. “That’s why it’s so important to get an injunction. We don’t want them to go in and tear things up before we decide to move forward,” Bidwell said.

In an interview in April 2006, Honts said he had anticipated breaking ground in the summer of 2006. “It’s our land and we’re legally entitled to do what we want with it,” he said.

The developers still will need permission to build an intersection at U.S. Hwy. 160 from the Colorado Department of Transportation as well as final approval from Mineral County before moving ahead with the project.

In the meantime, Bidwell is hopeful that the public will get a clearer picture of the malfeasances associated with the project. “The more we see, the worse it looks,” he said. “And the more the public sees, the more likely it is to see what is wrong with the process.”

 

 

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