by Christine Canaly & Friends of Wolf Creek

The Forest Service, finalizing its Record of Decision, is paving the way to provide a Texas billionaire, Red McCombs, with public land to develop the private inholding known as the “Village at Wolf Creek.” A large part of this controversy is the secrecy surrounding how the Forest Service reached its decision, using limited impacts analysis to justify the land exchange.

In order to understand how the Forest Service made this decision, Rocky Mountain Wild (RMW) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on two separate occasions (February and November, 2014), requesting correspondence between the Forest Service, other agencies, the project proponent, and the consultants hired by the developers.  The Forest Service has been unwilling to release the communications that altered the structure and narrowed the scope of the environmental review, citing “exemptions” and claiming that the public is not entitled to review “deliberations” that took place between the Forest Service, developers and their consultants.

The Forest Service’s recently released Record of Decision (ROD) is also wrought with internal conflict since the reviewing officer for the Objections, Maribeth Gustafson, Deputy Regional Forester, was also heavily involved in developing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) content, and most likely, the Final Decision itself.  The Forest Service has not subjected these decisions to independent review within the agency.  The few documents that have been obtained through FOIA litigation reveal that Ms. Gustafson served as reviewing officer of her own decision.

Matt Sandler, attorney representing Rocky Mountain Wild believes “Many of the same problems involving undue influence and bias that resulted in an Injunction last time have still not been addressed. It seems Federal Court is the only place our comments and objections will get a fair and independent review. ”

At issue is that portions of the National Forest are being provided to a development group led by Red McCombs that plans to construct a city the size of Aspen, housing 6,000-10,000 people, rotating through 1,700 units. This high-altitude location receives an average of 428” of snow annually, and is an important wildlife corridor for many species. This development has been at the center of controversy since 1986 when the Forest Service first confirmed that the Village proposal and land trade would not serve the public interest, and then reversed its decision two weeks later.

Conservation groups identified the lack of lynx protections in their objection to the Forest Supervisor’s decision to promote and approve the land exchange. “This land exchange decision violates the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment and the planned development is in the middle of a lynx corridor that connects habitat critical to lynx survival and recovery,” said Christine Canaly, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) successfully reintroduced lynx to the southern Rockies beginning in 1999, selecting the San Juan Mountains core area as the reintroduction site, owing to its status as the largest contiguous block of high quality lynx habitat in Colorado.  Wolf Creek Pass bisects the San Juan Mountains core area and consequently serves as the principal linkage for lynx moving between the South San Juan Wilderness and the main body of the San Juan Mountains core area.

“Climate change is reducing snow pack in western North American mountains and shifting distribution of forests northward and up mountain slopes.  High elevation linkage zones like Wolf Creek Pass, known for its concentration of snow pack, will become critical areas to maintain and protect water quality and supply for our south western rivers and agricultural lands. We need these intact ecological zones to be able to buffer and adapt to changing conditions in order to maintain the critical economic drivers to local, rural communities,” said Frank Simms, Chair of the Chama Peak Land Alliance.

For more info, visit http://friendsofwolfcreek.org and http://slvec.org.