Village land swap receives tentative green light

Map courtesy Rio Grande National Forest A map shows the potential land exchange between Leavell-McCombs and the Rio Grande National Forest. The land exchange was given a tentative green light last week when a draft record of decision was released by RGNF  Supervisor Dan Dallas. Map courtesy Rio Grande National Forest
A map shows the potential land exchange between Leavell-McCombs and the Rio Grande National Forest. The land exchange was given a tentative green light last week when a draft record of decision was released by RGNF
Supervisor Dan Dallas.

Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas has given a tentative green light to a land swap between the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) and Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture (LMJV) that would provide the needed land and access to accommodate the proposed and controversial Village at Wolf Creek.

The decision on the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project was released Thursday, Nov. 20, in a draft record of decision (RoD) and Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

In releasing the documents, and in an associated press conference, Dallas recognized the strong feelings attached to the controversial project and the land swap proposal, but stated he was confident that his decision was reached through transparent and thorough analysis.

Dallas also addressed the timing of the decision, stating that while he wished the decision had been made earlier, “this amount of time was necessary to get this done right.”

Dallas added that the RGNF had no set amount of time in which the decision had to be made.

According to the village’s official website, “Many factors will affect the timeline on which the Village will be built such as the various approval processes, construction delays, and ultimately market demand. For example, due to the limited construction season at Alberta Park, which lies just below Wolf Creek Pass, it will likely take two seasons to complete the basic infrastructure including the entry road and utilities. The first couple of buildings built will likely be the hotel and a condominium building or two. Market demand will dictate when the remainder of the condominiums in the first phase will be built. Some single family lots will also be available for sale during the first phase of development, but it will take time to sell these lots and complete construction. In other words, no one can accurately predict the future, but this project will require a number of years to work through its first phase.”

LMJV representatives have stated previously that future phases of the project would be tied to expansion of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The draft decision

Dallas considered three alternatives in his decision:

• Alternative 1: No action.

• Alternative 2: Land exchange (the proposed action).

• Alternative 3: ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), which is to provide adequate access to nonfederally owned land to secure to the owner the reasonable use and enjoyment thereof.

In the draft RoD, Dallas selected Alternative 2, which was the proposed land exchange between the two entities that would provide the opportunity for LMJV to develop year-round access to the property.

Alternative 2 conveys approximately 177 acres of privately held land to the RGNF in exchange for approximately 205 acres of national forest system land managed by the RGNF.

“After a thorough review of the final environmental impact statement and public comments, I have decided to approve Alternative 2, the land exchange,” said Dallas. “I believe this is the best decision for the land and the public while providing the access to which the proponent is legally entitled.”

The land exchange would create a private land parcel of approximately 325 acres extending to U.S. 160 and will accommodate year-round vehicular access.

According to the RGNF, the existing Tranquility Road would be extended east across RGNF land to the private land. This road would provide restricted seasonal access between Wolf Creek Ski Area and the private land.

It would also eliminate the need for vehicles to use U.S. 160 between the ski area and the private property in the winter, Dallas explained.

According to the RGNF, “the primary benefits of the land exchange proposal over the previous right of way proposal include relocation of most of the proposed private land development to an area farther away from the ski area and Forest Service acquisition of wetlands and a perennial stream.”

LMJV previously sought a right of way access across RGNF from U.S. 160 to their private land (see more below).

“The rationale for my decision is based on a thorough review of seven factors that I identified as being key to my decision. These seven factors were evaluated to demonstrate how the selected alternative meets the Purpose and Need for Action. Each of the following seven factors, including why they are key to my decision, are explored in detail, below,” Dallas wrote in the RoD, listing the seven factors:

“1) Forest Plan Direction

“2) History of the Non-Federal Parcel

“3) Reasonable Use and Enjoyment, Adequate Access & Similarly Situated Properties

“4) Connected Actions

“5) Range of Alternatives

“6) Environmental effects associated with each of the alternatives analyzed in the FEIS

“7) Public Interest Determination”

Dallas said at the press conference that strong opinions expressed about the project were fairly evenly split between being in favor of or against the project, “but the common thread was they felt pretty strongly about it.”

“We tried to do the best, most comprehensive and most transparent analysis that could be done,” he stated when asked if he felt the decision would hold up.

Some other points noted by Dallas during the press conference:

• Multiple agencies were invited to take part in the analysis, with several other agencies having jurisdiction over parts of the project.

The Colorado Department of Transportation, Dallas said, was one of the most involved because of the potential for added traffic and how that would affect the endangered Canada lynx in the area.

“We worked hand-in-hand with all the agencies in a way that they kind of chose to be involved,” Dallas said.

• Dallas stated that Alternative 1 remained an “attractive” and viable option throughout the analysis, but that he felt it would not completely meet the forest’s legal requirements under ALICA based on recent court activity regarding similarly situated properties.

• Dallas said the current condition of the pass, including the vast beetle kill, was primarily taken into account while looking at the land in terms of the Endangered Species Act and the Canada lynx.

Objection period

The publication of the draft record of decision in the Valley Courier starts a 45-day objection period. The final decision will be signed if no objections are received.

A 45-day resolution period ensues if objections are submitted by individuals who previously provided comments. The resolution period may be extended an additional 30 days for a total of 75 days. The final decision is signed following this resolution period.

At the press conference, Dallas noted that any objections will trigger a face-to-face or phone meeting between the RGNF and the objector to see if objections can be resolved at the lowest level.

If not, the objections would go to the regional forester or deputy regional forester, who would then determine if the analysis was sound or if it should be remanded back to Dallas for correction.

If the decision were upheld, an objector could file a civil suit in federal court.

The regional forester for Region 2 is based out of Lakewood, Dallas noted.

For more information about the proposed Village at Wolf Creek Access Project, visit the RGNF website at

Final Environmental

Impact Statement

Also released on Nov. 20 was the FEIS.

The FEIS, which is 809 pages including the appendices, states in part in its executive summary, “The Forest Service has no authority to regulate the degree or density of development on private land. Mineral County has the authority to regulate the use and development of the LMJV’s private lands in the future. The Forest Service’s legal obligation is to accommodate the private landowner with access considered to be adequate with respect to reasonable use and enjoyment of the property.”

The summary further states that there is “not presently a Planned Unit Development (PUD) approved by Mineral County for any level of development of the private lands, and the level of any future development that may be approved by Mineral County is unclear.”

The document continues, “Therefore, in order to adequately disclose the range of indirect effects associated with private land development that could occur as a result of Forest Service approval of either a land exchange or a road access corridor across NFS lands, a range of development concepts, including Low, Moderate and Maximum Density, has been evaluated for each Action Alternative. Information on each of these potential development concepts was provided by the Proponent, and some assumptions were made for specific elements of each development concept. Whatever development concept plan which may ultimately be approved by Mineral County in the future would likely vary from what is analyzed here.”

In his press conference on Nov. 20, Dallas reiterated that the density estimates were provided by the project’s proponents.

The FEIS goes on to state, “Note: the Forest Service will not, and cannot, approve a specific level of development on private lands; the range of development concepts is simply included to provide an estimate of potential indirect effects.”

Quick opposition

Following the Nov. 20 release of the draft decision and FEIS, several area groups opposing the process put out a press release “slamming” the decision for allowing “construction of a city of 10,000 people near the top of Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado.”

The press release came jointly from Rocky Mountain Wild, the San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC). Rocky Mountain Wild also sent out a press release on its own.

“The effects of this approval could be devastating,” Christine Canaly, executive director for the SLVEC, is quoted as saying. “An important migration route for the threatened Canada lynx could be destroyed. There would be strong negative impacts to habitat for other wildlife, and to wetlands, scenery, and winter traffic safety as well.”

SJCA Public Land Coordinator Jimbo Buickerood is quoted as stating, “With snow covering this area about 10,000 feet for up to eight months of the year, this is certainly not an appropriate locale to build a city of any size. For this locale near the top of Wolf Creek Pass, the public has expressed a strong interest in allowing the area to remain a refuge to wildlife with some recreational visitation, rather than a trophy-style development accessed through a major new highway interchange that would be wildly out of character with the surrounding landscape.”

The opponents also state that the decision is against the public interest and could potentially hurt area businesses.

The groups vowed to continue to challenge the proposal.

Project history

The Village’s storied history began in 1986, when a decision notice approved the conveyance of approximately 300 acres of RGNF lands adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area in exchange for nonfederal lands in Saguache County, Colo.

In June 2001, LMJV applied to the RGNF for rights of way across national forest lands between U.S. 160 and the private inholding, more specifically requesting that the Forest Service provide permanent, year-round vehicular access to the property through the extension of the Tranquility parking lot at Wolf Creek Ski Area.

In compliance with its statutory obligations under ANILCA, RGNF determined that an environmental impact analysis was necessary, with the Village at Wolf Creek Environmental Impact Statement analyzing four alternatives:

• Alternative 1: No action.

• Alternative 2: The proposed action (request for a single additional access to the property via an extension of Tranquility Road).

• Alternative 3: Snow shed/east village access alternative (a single-access alternative using a new road, referred to as the “Snow Shed Road”).

• Alternative 4: Dual-access road (a dual-access alternative requiring construction and use of both the Snow Shed Road and the extended Tranquility Road).

In March 2006, a RoD was signed by then RGNF Supervisor Peter Clark, with that decision a combination of Alternative 3 and Alternative 4. Four separate appeals of that RoD were received in April and May of that same year, but the decision was upheld.

In October 2006, a lawsuit was filed against the Forest Service alleging that, among other things, the EIS and RoD were “arbitrary and capricious.”

In November 2006, a temporary restraining order was granted that prohibited the Forest Service from taking certain actions related to the project and, in October 2007, a plaintiff’s request for continued preliminary injunctive relief was granted.

In February 2008, the U.S. Forest Service negotiated a settlement with the plaintiff to close the litigation and allow for a new analysis.

In July 2010, LMJV submitted a proposal for a land exchange to the RGNF, with that process getting underway in earnest in 2011.