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Conservation groups challenge road access for Village at Wolf Creek

Forest Service says environmental reviews sound
Environmental groups say the Forest Service is using an environmental impact statement invalidated by a federal court judge to justify road access to developers of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek.

A coalition of environmental groups Tuesday filed a challenge of the U.S. Forest Service’s approval last year to grant road access to the Village at Wolf Creek, a decision that ultimately paves the way for the proposed massive development atop Wolf Creek Pass.

“Once again, it falls to the public to demand protection of Wolf Creek Pass, a place long cherished by generations of visitors and residents alike,” said Jimbo Buickerood, lands program manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance, in a prepared statement. “Though the Forest Service might be inclined to renege on its stewardship responsibilities, we are ready to insist on compliance with the law and the public’s will.”

For more than 30 years, Texas billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs – under Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture – has sought to build a new development with the capacity for an estimated 8,000 people adjacent to the relatively small Wolf Creek Ski Area at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.

Environmental groups and some members of the public, however, have challenged the development, arguing it would adversely affect the environment on the remote mountain pass, and the full extent of that damage has never been truly analyzed because of McCombs’ political clout.

The proposed development is surrounded by national forest lands and has lacked road access to U.S. Highway 160. The most recent legal battle stems from a federal court judge’s ruling a few years ago.

About five years ago, the Forest Service approved a land swap with Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture that gave the developers road access, a decision based on an environmental impact statement the Forest Service conducted.

But the land swap was immediately challenged by environmental groups that said the Forest Service failed to take environmental concerns into account and was unduly influenced by McCombs and his political pressure in drafting the environmental impact statement.

A federal court judge in May 2017 agreed, calling the Forest Service’s decision biased and the subsequent environmental impact statement an “artful dodge” of its responsibilities.

“What NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) requires is that before taking any major action, a federal agency must stop and take a careful look to determine the environmental impact of that decision, and listen to the public before taking action,” Judge Richard P. Matsch wrote in his decision. “The Forest Service failed to do that.”

While the environmental groups called for the Forest Service to conduct a new environmental impact statement, the agency instead evaluated other options listed in the study and chose an alternative option to give the developers road access.

A spokesman with the Forest Service said Tuesday the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas, who made the decision, said at the time the “previous environmental impact statement is still relevant, timely and sound.”

Environmental groups, however, disagree. They said the Forest Service is relying on the same environmental impact statement that was dismissed by a federal court judge to justify granting Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture access.

“This decision flagrantly violates federal laws,” said Travis Stills, an attorney representing the environmental groups. “We are disappointed the Forest Service will not honor the binding settlement agreement and federal court orders.”

Bill Leone, an attorney representing Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, disagreed that Matsch’s ruling invalidated the 2014 environmental impact statement. Instead, he said Matsch, who recently died, took issue with the land exchange itself.

“Our position hasn’t changed,” Leone said. “(Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture) own the property at the base of the ski area, they have a legal right to use the property and the Forest Service has a legal obligation to provide them with year-round, snow-plowed access to their property.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Oct 15, 2021
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Oct 15, 2021
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