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Groups ‘appalled’ with delay in releasing Village at Wolf Creek documents

Judge grants agency more time to finish search for papers
Environmental groups are “appalled” that U.S. Forest Service officials have delayed the release of public documents related to the proposed development near the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

A district court judge has granted the U.S. Forest Service more time to comply with a court order to release documents about the proposed Village at Wolf Creek.

Environmental groups opposed to the development argue the agency’s request, filed Oct. 27, suggests the Forest Service will do whatever it takes to withhold and delay disclosure.

“Even when faced with a court order, the Forest Service still failed to allocate the necessary resources to get us the records we are legally entitled to,” said Matt Sandler, an attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild, which has been leading efforts against the proposed development.

A Colorado U.S. District Court on Sept. 30 not only ordered the release of thousands of pages of documents, but also admonished the Forest Service for unjustifiably withholding the materials.

Environmental groups requested communications between the Forest Service and other agencies, developers, third-party interests and the public.

Senior Judge Wiley Y. Daniel found that the Forest Service violated the Freedom of Information Act and gave the agency until Oct. 30 to conduct a new, more complete search of documents and communications.

Forest officials then filed a motion for an additional 30 days to comply with the order. Forest Service attorneys argued for more time because of “a large number of additional custodians who were asked to review and search for additional documents, and because of the time-intensive nature of such review.”

The motion underscores “efforts to identify additional custodians” and points out that officials “have searched and located additional potentially responsive documents.

“Defendants must review the universe of produced documents for responsive records, and then review these documents for potentially privileged documents and information,” the motion continued. It stated 40 custodians are involved.

Judge Daniel agreed on Oct. 30, pointing out that the Forest Service established “the steps they have taken towards compliance,” and “have explained the volume of work that remains.” That said, he added that no future extension requests will be considered.

Texas billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs has been trying since 1986 to build the Village at Wolf Creek at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

His proposal is to swap 177 acres of private land in the Rio Grande National Forest in a large meadow below the ski area for about 205 acres of Forest Service land abutting U.S. Highway 160.

The project would create hotels, townhouses, condominiums and restaurants within the remote area.

The Forest Service in May gave the land swap the go-ahead. But additional lawsuits have slowed progress.

Critics of the development point to environmental fears, including damaging migration routes for lynx and maintaining the integrity of the scenic treasure that surrounds Wolf Creek.

Forest officials, however, say the swap is their only recourse given legal parameters. The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act contains a provision that requires owners of in-holdings be given reasonable access to their property. That means year-round access for developers, officials say.

The agency already released more than 25,000 pages of documents. A spokesman for the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is responding to lawsuits on behalf of the Forest Service, said last month that the agency “intends to carry out the steps ordered by the court.”

Once the rest of the materials are released, Rocky Mountain Wild and other environmental groups plan on establishing a “wiki-leaks type information center” to share the information with the public.

“The Forest Service’s lack of public disclosure is appalling,” said Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, another group fighting the development. “After waiting more than a year for the Forest Service to comply with a perfectly reasonable FOIA request, the public is asked to wait even longer. The question is simple: What are they working so hard to hide?”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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