Federal judge stops Wolf Creek land exchange
Any future village proposal must address impacts on the National Forest & lynx
The Honorable Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch issued an order today affirming that the Forest Service “failed to consider important aspects of the issues before them, offered an explanation for their decision that runs counter to the evidence, failed to base their decision on consideration of the relevant factors, and based their decision on an analysis that is contrary to law.” This order concludes another chapter in this decade’s long saga to protect Wolf Creek Pass from a large-scale residential and commercial development that could accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 visitors.
“This ruling is an incredible victory for the flora and fauna that rely on Wolf Creek Pass for their survival,” stated Tehri Parker, Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Wild. “This order specifically recognizes the unique environmental qualities of this region, and the role that it plays as a wildlife movement corridor between the Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness areas. We couldn’t be happier with this outcome and getting this great news on Endangered Species Day!”
The court rejected the Forest Service conclusion that it lacked any control over the use of the private parcel. The court explained that “there is no legal or logical basis for Defendants’ position in the FEIS and ROD that the Forest Service had no power or jurisdiction to limit or regulate development on the federal lands being conveyed to LMJV in the present exchange.” The court was troubled by the fact that the Forest Service previously conditioned use of the original parcel created in 1986 “with a scenic easement that limited development.”
Judge Matsch was also concerned with the fact that “development resulting from the Forest Service’s approval of the land exchange will adversely impact an endangered species, yet fails to comply with the statutory requirements for the protection of that species.” The species the court was referring to is the Federally listed Canada lynx which would have been harmed had the village construction and operation commenced.
“Environmental organizations’ dedication of relentless time and effort to protect Wolf Creek Pass over the past seventeen years has been worthwhile,” said Christine Canaly of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “The American public expressed strong opposition to this development proposal, recognizing that it was a bad idea, in the wrong place, at a perilous time. It would have severely damaged the headwaters of the upper Rio Grande, which is already expected to buffer the burdensome impacts of climate change. This is a special core area of the forest that is essential for the Canada lynx and it deserves long term protection.”
The court also recognized that political influence and pressure played a key role in the exchange since its inception. “We took up this fight because approval of this project stank of inappropriate political influence, because the Forest Service completely ignored public comments asking for protection of the area, and because it would wreck one of the most important wildlife corridors in the state,” Sloan Shoemaker, Director at Wilderness Workshop stated. “Today’s decision is a victory for open and transparent public process, and against undue influence of big campaign donors. Importantly, too, this is a big victory for lynx and for those of us who want to see them continue to thrive throughout the state of Colorado.”
“What NEPA requires is that before taking any major action a federal agency must stop and take a careful look to determine the environmental impact of that decision, and listen to the public before taking action,” Judge Matsch wrote in his decision. “The Forest Service failed to do that in the Record of Decision. The duty of this court is to set it aside.”
“Wolf Creek is precious to people in southwest Colorado. Thank you to Judge Matsch for recognizing the enormous wildlife and natural resources at risk from the proposed resort development. This decision gives us the chance to get it right,” said Jimbo Buickerood of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “We look forward to working with the Forest Service to make sure we find a solution that keeps Wolf Creek just the way it is for everyone’s benefit.”
Matt Sandler of Rocky Mountain Wild and Travis Stills of Energy & Conservancy Law handled litigation for Friends of Wolf Creek—a coalition of organizations including Rocky Mountain Wild, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and Wilderness Workshop.
Order on Merits
Background on “Village at Wolf Creek”