Red visits the reservation
McCombs gets cool reception on Navajo Nation

SideStory: Son of the Village: New Wolf Creek plan in works

Barbed wire keeps members of the public away from the edge at Lake Powell’s southern end. Red McCombs, the Texas developer who has gained local notoriety for his Village at Wolf Creek, was recently shut out on the Navajo Nation. McCombs and partner Bob Honts had proposed thousands of homes, several hotels and casinos, and multiple golf courses on Navajo land fronting Lake Powell. However, three Navajo chapters came in out in opposition to the plan, which they termed a “land grab.”/Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

Red McCombs has been working to stake a claim in another of the Southwest’s Four Corners. In recent years, the Texas billionaire developer has actively pushed two ventures on the Navajo Nation – a mega-development and an alternative energy project. However, just like McCombs’ other venture near Wolf Creek, the tides have turned against the Texan and his partner, Bob Honts.

McCombs and Honts gained notoriety in Durango in recent years for their proposed Village at Wolf Creek. The Clear Channel Radio baron and his “lieutenant” envisioned a virtual city at the base of the Wolf Creek Ski Area with plans for 2,172 housing units and more than 220,000 square feet of commercial space, including restaurants and hotels. Opponents fought the project for years and eventually applauded a move by the Rio Grande National Forest to take the “village” out of the planning process (see sidebar).

At the same time, McCombs and Honts were busy on several other fronts and actively pursuing a similar project in a different neck of the local woods. Under the guise of a company called Navajo Enterprises Inc., McCombs and Honts set their eyes on a picturesque section of the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona near Lake Powell. The 50,000 acres follow Navajo Canyon and are adjacent to Antelope Canyon, “the most photographed canyon in America,” as well as fronting Lake Powell. The acreage in question also crosses the LeChee, Kaibeto and Inscription House chapters of the Navajo Nation. On this desertscape, McCombs and Honts proposed three hotels, multiple golf courses, three casinos, thousands of residential units and an airport with berths for private jets.

But just like the Village at Wolf Creek, McCombs’ and Honts’ plan for Navajo Canyon have also drawn widespread opposition. Ivan Gamble, a LeChee resident and grassroots organizer, has been fighting the Navajo Canyon plan since he heard of it late in 2007. The land in question is sacred to the Navajo, he said, and would represent a major impact on the three chapters and the Navajo Nation as a whole.

“We’ve always been taught that there’s a sacred relationship between the people and the land,” Gamble said. “This is especially true with Navajo Canyon, which is probably one of the most gorgeous places on the planet. The size of the plan was also a problem. Fifty-thousand acres is a huge chunk of land, even for the Navajo.”

There has also been speculation that McCombs and Honts were planning for more than tee boxes, slot machines and trophy homes in Navajo Canyon. The land in question is rich with oil, gas and uranium deposits, and Gamble argued that the Navajo government and the developers were discussing vague terms for the 50,000 acres.

“The leases they were discussing were so vague, the people didn’t know what was being proposed,” he said. “Many of us decided to act and basically told our central government that we would sue if they continued to try to deal our lands away.”

Echoing this sentiment, the LeChee, Kaibeto and Inscription House chapters all adopted resolutions opposing the plan early this year. In their resolutions, the chapter councils termed the development plant a land grab orchestrated by the developers and the central Navajo government. The chapters also called on the Navajo Nation to disclose any discussions on the venture before proceeding forward.

The Navajo Constitution is structured in a bottom-up fashion, according to Gamble, with chapters having direct control over chapter lands. In this sense, the resolutions effectively barred McCombs and Honts from setting foot in Navajo Canyon. “At this point, their plans are dead,” he said. “We’ve chased them off. Even if they do get local landowners to sell, they’ll never get access to water.”

For its part, the Navajo government has denied any wrongdoing at Navajo Canyon. Navajo Resources Chairman George Arthur told the Navajo Times that the development plans never progressed beyond a “conversation over coffee.” However, McCombs’ and Honts’ company did enter into an agreement with the Navajo Nation in 2007. After inking the deal, Navajo Enterprises was granted the right to conduct feasibility studies on many Navajo trust properties.

One property on the other side of the Navajo Reservation is the Big Boquillas Ranch, located near Cameron, in Arizona. McCombs and Honts, along with the company Native Energy, inserted themselves into the pool of players wanting to build a wind farm at the location. Partnering with Foresight Wind Energy LLC and Edison Mission Energy, the pair had hoped to finance and build the $1 billion alternative energy project.

However, two other companies – Sempra Energy and Citizens Energy – are also courting the Navajos with plans to build 100 wind turbines at the location. Citizens offered the tribe 20 percent of the project, while Sempra offered undisclosed benefits. McCombs offered to finance the project personally, but only if the Navajo Nation put the 49,100-acre Big Boquillas Ranch up for collateral.

The in-fighting between the companies got so severe that Cameron Chapter president Ed Singer issued a press release in January of this year. In it, Singer demanded that other companies and the Diné Power Authority, an arm of the Navajo government, stop interfering with the chapter’s growing partnership with Sempra Energy.

Once again, the Navajo government backpeddled and appears to have sidelined McCombs and Honts. Tribal officials recently announced that that they will be drafting guidelines for alternative energy companies to follow.

Bob Honts opted not to return Durango Telegraph phone calls for this story. •