Developers push ahead with mammoth ski village
Feds say they’re largely powerless to regulate impacts of ‘The Village at Wolf Creek’
The developers of what will be the largest ski resort village in Colorado say they’re ready to begin construction in Alberta Park, an alpine meadow high in the San Juan Mountains. The project’s opponents, meanwhile, are trying to derail "The Village at Wolf Creek," using whatever roadblocks they can find.
Billy Joe "Red" McCombs, co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, and his venture partner, Austin, Texas-based developer Bob Honts, plan to build their resort at 10,500 feet in an inholding surrounded by the existing Wolf Creek Ski Area. The proposed development would house 10,000 people year-round in 1,200 hotel rooms, 129 homes and 1,661 condos in Mineral County, which is currently home to just 831 people (HCN, 6/7/04: Small-time ski operator fights for his life).
Last October, the controversial project received a boost after the U.S. Forest Service approved the developers’ plans to build two access roads into their private 288-acre enclave within the Rio Grande National Forest. But opponents — including the owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area and residents of Pagosa Springs, Durango and the rural San Luis Valley — say the agency’s draft study failed to address the resort’s impacts on the ski area, surrounding communities, and the ecosystem.
Under pressure from federal and state lawmakers, the Forest Service extended its public comment period for 30 days and held a meeting in the Denver area at the end of last year. But agency officials say they have no jurisdiction over the main issues raised: development on private land and the cumulative impacts of the village. Furthermore, according to forest planner Robert Dalrymple, the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act of 1980 requires the agency to grant Honts and McCombs access to their inholding. ‘The Forest Service’s hands are tied by the law," Dalrymple says.
Just weeks after the agency’s decision to allow road construction, the Mineral County commissioners approved the development plans. Although environmental and community groups have sued the county, alleging that the commissioners illegally fast-tracked their approval, the development’s opponents are running out of time and options. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers still have to weigh in on the project’s impacts to wildlife and wetlands before the Forest Service issues its final decision at the end of 2005. Neither agency, however, has more than piecemeal influence over development projects such as this.
Alberta Park links two wilderness areas and is a migration corridor for the threatened Canada lynx, which the state began releasing into the area six years ago (HCN, 3/15/04: More lynx, less habitat). That means the Fish and Wildlife Service must reach a conservation agreement with the developers that will minimize harm to lynx. The Endangered Species Act alone will not stop the project, says Kurt Broderdorp, the agency’s lynx biologist. Even in the worst-case scenario — if the development jeopardized the continued existence of lynx in the Lower 48 states — federal law would require the agency to present a "reasonable and prudent alternative," rather than killing the project.
"Bob Honts will try to do what’s right for his resort development and I will try to do what’s right for the lynx," Broderdorp says. "We will hammer out an agreement."
Almost one-third of Alberta Park, including land on which the Forest Service is proposing access roads, is designated fen wetlands — rare groundwater-fed peat meadows. Construction there would trigger involvement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which permits projects in streams, wetlands and lakes under the Clean Water Act. Any violation causing damage to fen wetlands would be a "big strike," says Durango Office Chief Houston Hannafious.
But the Corps has not received a development plan to review, Hannafious says, just a letter from Honts stating the village development will not damage wetlands or streams. "We wrote Honts a letter stating if that were true, he would not need permits from the Corps," Hannafious says. "Honts took that letter and has been flashing it around saying he has our approval, which isn’t true. The village proposal has generated enough controversy that if construction touches a wetland, the corps will know," he adds. "Honts is being watched like a hawk."
The author, a former HCN intern, is a reporter for Colorado Community Newspapers.
Rio Grande National Forest Robert Dalrymple, 719-852-5941, www.fs.fed.us/r2/riogrande
The complete online catalog of documents for The Village at Wolf Creek, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, www.fs.fed.us/r2/riogrande/efoia/wcfoia/.