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Wolf Creek Pass receives a reprieve

The proposed Village at Wolf Creek development atop Wolf Creek Pass was recently rejected again by a federal judge. For some who might not be familiar, this is a long-suffering attempt to create a city half the size of Durango in one of the snowiest locations in the Rocky Mountains at an elevation above 10,500 feet. The development proposal dates back decades, and it’s worthwhile to understand the genesis and concerns about it.

The nexus with the public is that the development is proposed on a privately owned parcel entirely surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest. Hence, the Forest Service necessarily must evaluate the environmental consequences to the surrounding public lands and habitat associated with approving the development by virtue of granting a multilane access road. Various environmental impact statements over the years have been subject to public comment, and when the underlying federal laws were not appropriately applied, litigation by community groups subsequently followed.

The proposed Village at Wolf Creek is situated on a 288-acre parcel immediately adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area, but not associated with the ski area. This was entirely national forest land until 1986, when developers conceived the idea of gaining ownership of public land near the ski area in order to build residential and commercial development.

Developers proposed a land swap in 1986 with the Forest Service to acquire this property. In a prescient move, it was originally rejected by the Forest Service as not in the public interest. Unfortunately, that rejection by local managers was overruled via political arm twisting behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., and the land exchange went through over local objections.

As originally conceived, the property was pitched for a modest amount of lodging, no more than 208 rooms perhaps in a single lodge. However, once developers gained ownership, the proposal exploded in size. In 2005, the Village at Wolf Creek applied for access to build 2,172 units that could house 10,000 people at one time, and 220,000-square feet of commercial space, equivalent to two Walmarts for comparison. In the most recent proposal, that was adjusted downward slightly to 1,700 units for 8,000 people.

Not surprisingly, folks who value the remote and undeveloped character of Wolf Creek Pass view the Village as an enormously bad idea – the wrong project in the wrong place.

The developers, led by Texas billionaire Red McCombs, were familiar and experienced buildings projects in Texas and Florida. In contrast, the Village at Wolf Creek entails enormous challenges to build a high-altitude city in one of Colorado’s snowiest locations. The power infrastructure does not exist for development of this scale, water resources are lacking on the top of the pass, emergency services are miles distant and frequently inaccessible during winter snowstorms, among myriad concerns.

Wolf Creek Pass is not pristine, given the highway, ski area and past logging, but it is also entirely rural and remote. The Pass is the most significant linkage corridor in the San Juans for lynx. It’s quiet and untraveled for at least half the hours of the day. Now imagine a bustling city of 8,000 with all the lights, noise, traffic and hubbub day and night in the heart of a key wildlife connection.

It’s back to the drawing board for the Village at Wolf Creek. At heart, the conflict revolves around one’s vision for the future of Colorado and our remote mountain landscapes. For those passionate about our cherished San Juan Mountains, one can hold out hope for an eventual outcome that preserves the character of Wolf Creek Pass for generations to come.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.