Proposed USFS land swap near Colo. ski resort nears approval, draws ire
Written bySCOTT STREATER, Greenwire
A long-delayed and sometimes controversial ski resort project proposed within southwest Colorado's Rio Grande National Forest has taken a major step toward receiving federal approval.
The Forest Service on Friday released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that analyzes a proposal to swap 204 acres of federally owned forestland for 178 acres of private inholdings within the national forest owned by the developers of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek resort. The development group, led by Texas billionaire B.J. "Red" McCombs, has said the land swap is critical to moving the project forward.
The Forest Service lists the land exchange as its preferred action in the draft EIS -- a major advancement for a project that since it was first proposed more than a decade ago has drawn steady fire from environmental groups and some residents who worry it would have significant impacts on the area's natural resources and scenic vistas.
"I'm pleased to know it's out and we've got that step behind us now," said Clint Jones, the Austin, Texas-based project manager overseeing the development proposal for McCombs.
Jones said the project developers -- formally listed as Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture -- do not expect to have the first phase of nearly 500 homes, town houses, shops and other buildings completed and sold before 2016. The resort would sit next door to the popular Wolf Creek Ski Area in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains.
The draft EIS is not a final decision, and Forest Service officials caution that the agency could still deny the proposal or choose another alternative based on the public comments received for the draft EIS. Published Friday in the Federal Register, the draft EIS is open for public comment through Oct. 1, said Mike Blakeman, a spokesman for the Rio Grande National Forest.
The Forest Service has scheduled three public hearings on the draft document for later this month, and a final record of decision approving or denying the proposed project is not expected until early 2013.
"A lot of hard work has gone into the analysis for this [draft] EIS," Dan Dallas, supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest, said in a statement. "I encourage the public, special interest groups and our partner agencies to carefully review the [draft] EIS and provide comments that will help further improve our analysis."
A long process
The latest proposal is far different from the original plan submitted in 2001.
Under that plan, the developers applied to the Forest Service for rights of way to install utilities and build roads through the Rio Grande forest to connect the development to U.S. Highway 160. Federal law requires the Forest Service to provide access to private parcels that sit within the boundaries of public land to allow for the "reasonable use and enjoyment" of the private property.
After the proposal was challenged and became mired in federal court, the developers went back to the drawing board.
In 2010, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture submitted the latest development plan and land swap proposal analyzed in the draft EIS. It calls for building as many as 1,700 homes, town houses and condominiums on the 204-acre Forest Service parcel within the Rio Grande forest, as well as on about 120 acres of private inholdings the joint venture would retain after the exchange (Land Letter, March 10, 2011).
The development at the base of Wolf Creek Pass would provide lodging next to the Wolf Creek Ski Area in Mineral County.
In addition to the homes and condos, the development would include roads, water treatment and wastewater treatment plants, a possible cable television center, restaurants, and shops, according to a January 2011 Forest Service feasibility analysis.
In that analysis, which was done to determine whether the proposal warranted the time and expense of conducting an EIS, Dallas wrote that the land swap idea "appears in the public interest" and is "technically feasible."
The Forest Service started the draft EIS in March 2011.
Among the potential benefits of the land exchange, according to the Forest Service, is the ability to protect acres of rare fen wetlands on the private parcel. These wetlands are unique because they receive their nutrients from groundwater, not precipitation. They typically thrive in colder climates and provide a nutrient-rich environment for rare flowers like the lady's slipper and cotton grass.
The 178-acre private parcel is dotted with fen wetlands, while the 204-acre Forest Service parcel is at a higher elevation and does not contain wetlands, said Jones, the development project manager.
"The parcel we'd swap for doesn't have any wetlands," he said. "That's one of the reasons why we want to do it."
But the land exchange doesn't guarantee the wetlands will not be affected by the project, said Josh Pollock, executive director of Denver-based Rocky Mountain Wild.
Even if the proposed project is not built directly on the wetlands, it could disrupt the groundwater flow and ultimately dry out the wetlands, Pollock said.
"We're talking about bringing a much higher level of human activity into the general area," he said. "So even if the land exchange means some valuable wetlands habitat is actually transferred to federal management, those wetlands are still going to be sitting next to this larger development footprint that will have an access road going around them."
In addition, he said, the project would have "devastating" effects on the threatened Canada lynx. There are only about 1,000 lynx left in the United States, and the species uses the region as a migration corridor between winter and summer habitat, he said, along with elk and mule deer.
Jones said that the developers are aware of the Canada lynx issue and that they will work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to mitigate any impacts to the lynx.
That doesn't change Pollock's view of the project.
"The public needs to make their feelings known about the values of this area and their concerns about the development," he said. "A 10,000-person city on top of Wolf Creek Pass is still a bad idea."