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Forest Service dismisses Village at Wolf Creek concerns

Project could move forward after meeting two conditions
The U.S. Forest Service on Monday rejected objections raised over the Village at Wolf Creek and said the project can move forward pending the resolution of two conditions.

The U.S. Forest Service has dismissed objections raised over the Village at Wolf Creek and intends to give road access to the developer of the proposed project atop Wolf Creek Pass.

In July, the Forest Service announced it would grant Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture its long-desired road access to U.S. Highway 160, essentially paving the way for the resort, expected to be the size of Aspen.

Tamara Whittington, deputy regional forester for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, responded Monday to objections raised about the project. Acting as the reviewing officer of the objections, Whittington said the concerns raised were not valid.

She wrote that the Forest Service acted in accordance with federal law and regulations in issuing the developer road access.

“I find that the analysis in the project record supports the rationale contained in the draft (Record of Decision),” Whittington wrote. “Objectors’ suggested remedies are denied.”

Whittington did attach two conditions that must be met before the Village at Wolf Creek can move forward.

First, the Forest Service cannot issue a final Record of Decision until a “Biological Opinion” is received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the Village at Wolf Creek’s potential impact to the threatened lynx.

Second, the Forest Service is not allowed to implement the new decision until the 2015 Record of Decision, which calls for a land swap, is undone.

Lawrence Lujan, spokesman for the Forest Service, said the agency expects a final decision in mid-December.

Lujan said about 900 letters were received in the objection period, but only 52 were valid objections.

“To object to a proposed project, citizens must have previously submitted timely, specific written comments during the specified public comment periods,” he said.

Driven by Texas billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs, efforts to build a resort at the top of Wolf Creek Pass have been ongoing for more than 30 years. The property, however, has always lacked road access to U.S. Highway 160.

The resort would be located about 20 miles from the nearest towns – Pagosa Springs and South Fork – at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, adjacent to the relatively small Wolf Creek Ski Area.

About four years ago, the Forest Service approved a land swap that gave the developer road access, but it was immediately challenged by environmental groups.

These groups alleged the Forest Service failed to take environmental concerns into account and the agency was unduly influenced by McCombs’ political pressure to grant road access.

A federal court judge in May 2017 agreed, calling the Forest Service’s decision biased, and the environmental review that justified the land swap an “artful dodge” of its responsibilities to protect public lands.

The July decision to grant the developer access through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, came as a shock to environmental groups. The act promises owners of in-holdings access to their land.

In her response to objectors, Whittington shot down a long list of concerns with the Village at Wolf Creek, including the project’s impact on the high-elevation environment and the alleged political influence McCombs has used in the process to get the resort approved.

One of the major points of contention – that the Forest Service did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act in evaluating the village – was addressed.

Whittington said the Forest Service is tasked with weighing the impacts of the proposed access road, and the overall impact of the project would have to be taken into account at the local level once construction plans are in place.

Jimbo Buickerood, a public lands manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, one of the groups contesting the village, disagreed with the assessment.

“Once again, the USFS is attempting to assert the absurdity that they do not have jurisdictional authority over the development activities intended for the road they apparently desire to approve atop Wolf Creek Pass,” he wrote in an email to the Herald. “The public knows that it’s a ‘Road to an 8,000-Person Town,’ perhaps the USFS will eventually pull their head out of the powder snow and come to this realization, too.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

This article has been updated to correct when the Forest Service expects a final decision. Incorrect information was given to the Herald.

Village at Wolf Creek objectio (PDF)

Village at Wolf Creek objectio (PDF)

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