« Return to this article

Know the West

The incredible growing shrinking ski resort!


Do you remember those little packets of gel-cap pills? The ones that would, when submerged in water, swell to become little sponge dinosaurs? Only the little sponge dinosaurs were tiny and flat and lame and never came close to the awesomeness promised by the full-sized dinosaurs rampaging across the label?

Seems that could be the parable for lots of ski area development proposals these days. There's Battle Mountain, a private ski area proposed for Minturn, Colo., whose original developer pulled out and whose new developers, who came on the scene last year, have whittled it down considerably. There's the infamous Bitterroot Resort just outside of Missoula, Mont., which fell into foreclosure in 2009, but whose developers are still, apparently, clinging to hope.  And then, there's a personal favorite of mine, at least as far as soap-operatic twists and turns go: The ambitious Village at Wolf Creek in Colorado, which  came up in the news again earlier this month.

Packaging: Ever since the project surfaced in the late '80s, it has appeared to be something of a T. Rex. The baby of ClearChannel Communications cofounder B.J. "Red" McCombs, it roared ferociously in with enough space to house 10,000 people -- that is, 1,200 hotel rooms, 1,661 multi-family dwellings, 129 lots for single family homes, 4,525 covered parking spaces, and 220,000 square feet of commercial space -- on an inholding within the existing, relatively wee Wolf Creek Ski Area, deep in the San Juan Mountains. This in a county with fewer than 1,000 permanent residents. (Run away! No, wait ... If you don't move, it can't see you ...)

The reality: Of course, when you propose to build a new luxury town from scratch on top of a relatively undeveloped and extraordinarily beautiful part of Colorado -- one that happens to be smack dab in the middle of a habitat corridor used by threatened Canada lynx -- and if you maybe get some special favors from federal officials behind closed doors -- you can expect a fight from somebody. Indeed, everyone from the Wolf Creek Ski Area owner to various environmental groups have piled on, stalling the project most recently through legal challenges of the Forest Service's decision to grant a right of way across a swatch of the Rio Grande National Forest to allow developers to access their project.

Then in 2009, the developers missed a key deadline, and the Forest Service killed its environmental review of the village's access road altogether. Perhaps more significant was the fallout from the explosion of the housing bubble in late 2008, which rocked even previously untouchable, already established resort communities like Snowmass, Colo.

Just add water? (with possible impacts on neighboring wetlands!): The Forest Service recently announced that it would conduct a new environmental review of the developers' latest proposal: A land swap which would eliminate the right-of-way battle altogether by trading out the inholding for a similarly sized parcel on the highway. Groups like Friends of Wolf Creek are still concerned about the project's impacts on lynx, where it will get its water and what its presence will do to local water quality and wetlands, etc. But the village is now looking a bit more like a velociraptor than a T. Rex -- still threatening, perhaps, but much less intimidating, with the first phase of development squeaking in at just under 500 units, and with continued development (up to around 1,700 units) predicated on further expansion of the existing ski area.



Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor

Photo courtesy Travis Nicholson.