Monday, June 29, 2015

Pictures of Alberta Park the proposed site for the luxury Village at Wolf Creek


I drove up to Wolf Creek Ski Area Saturday the 20th to see what the Honoring Wolf Creek art project was all about and though I'm certainly no artist I did wind up doing a little art of my own . . .  


Wolf Creek Ski Area Parking lot

The rendezvous point for participants of the 
By the time I got there most artists were dispersed throughout the area with easels and 
other implements in hand.  

They did have some musicians and a drum circle, 
but I was antsy to go for a walk and a bit of mediating.

I figured since I have a fancy new phone that can 
take some decent pictures I should try to 
share the moment.  Here's my offering. 


US Route 160 in the distance

Looking towards Alberta Park

Alberta Park wetlands

Alberta Park close up - 
(all other images, including the following 14 were taken by me during my June 20th visit and walk.)

Update: Lawsuit filed to Stop Wolf Creek Land Swap


Here's another slightly overdue update.

Lawsuit Filed to Stop Wolf Creek Land Swap

By Erika Brown | San Juan Citizens Alliance
June 24, 2015

We’ve been telling you that the process the Forest Service used to approve the land exchange, which paves the way for the Pillage at Wolf Creek, was highly flawed and illegal.  After sifting through tens of thousands of documents released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), our lawyers have put together a compelling legal case.  And today we filed the lawsuit with our partners.

Meanwhile, our delegation is in Washington meeting with members of Congress and agency officials. We are educating them about why the process was so flawed, why Wolf Creek Pass deserves protection and asking for their help.

The public has been amplifying our message all along the way.  If you haven’t already, please make your voice heard.

Here is the press release regarding the lawsuit:

For Immediate Release: June 24, 2015
Media Contacts
Matt Sandler, Attorney, Rocky Mountain Wild, matt@rockymountainwild.org
Christine Canaly, Director, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, slvwater@fairpoint.net
Dan Olson, Executive Director, San Juan Citizens Alliance danolson@sanjuancitizens.org

Conservation Organizations File Lawsuit to Stop Controversial Land Swap at Wolf Creek Pass

Denver, CO – A coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit today in Federal Court to stop a controversial land exchange that would pave the way for the development of a tourist “village” to accommodate 8,000 people at the top of Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado. The land exchange, which was approved by Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas last month, would trade approximately 205 federal acres for 177 acres of private land within the boundaries of the Rio Grande National Forest. As a part of this exchange, the U.S. 

Government will also pay Texas billionaire Red McCombs $70,000 as a “cash equalization payment.” The land exchange connects McCombs’ private land to U.S. Highway 160, thus securing the ability for a larger population to access the developer’s private inholding.

“This land exchange was completed without the full and transparent analysis of the impacts that is required by law,” states Matt Sandler, lead attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “These laws are in place to protect the public interest; this Forest Service decision protects the interests of big business and billionaires.” The lawsuit asserts that the Forest Service unnecessarily limited the scope of its environmental analysis to avoid fully analyzing the impacts that the development would have on Forest Service land. 

Additionally, the suit exposes a biased and conflicted review process within the Service. “Regional Director Maribeth Gustafson, the Forest Service employee who reviewed and dismissed public objections to this land exchange, was directly involved in developing the land exchange decision – which is contrary to stated Forest Service policy. She came to the table with her mind made up,” explains Sandler.

The coalition filing the suit has also sent a delegation to Washington D.C. to meet with elected representatives, as well as members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Our goal is to convince the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, to take a hard look at this development, and to immediately stop any real estate transactions,” explains Jimbo Buickerood, Public Land Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. 

“The public has been speaking out against the Pillage for almost 30 years, and we are confident that a truly independent review of this project will show that it is not in the public interest. We will not stop until our voices are heard.”

Opposition to the development has been growing, and includes local businesses, skiers, ranchers, local land owners, downstream water uses, hunters, anglers, and conservationists. “The groundswell of support to save Wolf Creek is very heartening, “ says Christine Canaly, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “This area is so important to the health of our local environment and economy. Over 2000 people from around the state, and nation, have sent letters and messages just last week to the Forest Service in an attempt to save this special place.”

Wolf Creek pass has been nationally recognized as one of the top priority wildlife corridors for protecting biodiversity in the face of climate change. Its high elevation and deep snowpack make it prime habitat for snow dependent species like the Canada lynx and wolverine. It is also the headwaters for the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers, which are a major water source for many downstream communities.

The lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service was brought by: Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and Wilderness Workshop.

Stay updated with information at:
http://friendsofwolfcreek.org
http://rockymountainwild.org 
http://slvec.org
http://sanjuancitizens.org


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For a more detailed look at Mr. McCombs, you'll want to read this:



Best: Wolf Creek impasse

By Allen Best
The Denver Post
6/13/2015
In late May, Texas businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs got a land exchange with the U.S. government in southern Colorado, and it looks a lot like what he originally proposed 30 years ago. Whether it was a good thing then, or now, is another matter.
McCombs, who owned the Denver Nuggets from 1978 to 1985, has wanted to build a real estate development adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area. No private land existed next to the ski area. In 1986, with partners that included the owners of the ski area, the McCombs-Leavell Joint Partnership got an island of 300 acres of land in exchange for private lands elsewhere that were added to the national forest.
The Pitcher family, owners of the ski area, at the time thought lodging at the base would be good. Many ski areas have such lodging, but not all.
But this land exchange 29 years ago was flawed at birth. At 10,000 feet in elevation, the area gets an average 485 inches of snowfall per year. There were wetlands, never a good thing if you’re planning to build a real-estate complex of more than 2,011 units, as originally proposed.
That parcel was also isolated from U.S. Highway 160, except for a seasonal gravel road that goes through the ski area. In announcing his recent approval of a reconfigured parcel of 325 acres, Dan Dallas, supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest, said he believes he was mandated by federal law to provide a direct link to the highway. In a sense, he was fixing somebody’s past mistake.
McCombs, who was worth $1.85 billion as of December, according to Forbes magazine, is now 87. Even if he lives to be a much riper age, he still needs a permit from the state highway department and, depending upon his final development plans, a wetlands permit from the federal government and a revised development permit from Mineral County.
The Forest Service assumed 500 units. Environmental groups in Colorado have vowed to challenge the legality of the new land exchange . . .
continue at:

http://friendsofwolfcreek.org/best-wolf-creek-impasse/

Update 6/26/15 - citizens task force visits Washington D.C.


Village at Wolf Creek faces hurdle

By Peter Marcus  | June 24, 2015 |  Herald Denver Bureau

 A coalition of conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday after the U.S. Forest Service gave the land swap the go-ahead in May. Developers would offer 177 acres of private land to the Forest Service in the Rio Grande National Forest in exchange for about 205 acres of federal land.

...

The nearly 30-year effort has been overshadowed by several previous lawsuits, all of which sought to stop the ambitious development. Developers crossed a major hurdle last month, but they fully expected additional roadblocks. That delay was realized Wednesday.

“This land exchange was completed without the full and transparent analysis of the impacts that is required by law,” said Matt Sandler, an attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild, who filed the lawsuit. “These laws are in place to protect the public interest; this Forest Service decision protects the interests of big business and billionaires.”

...

They considered a 1980 law called the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which contains a provision that requires owners of in-holdings to be given reasonable access to their property. That means year-round access for developers, officials say.

Concerns have revolved around wildlife – such as migration routes for lynx – and maintaining the integrity of the scenic treasure that surrounds Wolf Creek.

Opponents recently organized a coalition to travel to Washington, D.C., to speak with lawmakers and federal officials about the matter. ...

______________________________________________________________________

Report From Our Wolf Creek Trip To DC
By Jimbo Buickerood  |  June 26, 2015
http://sanjuancitizens.org/report-from-our-wolf-creek-trip-to-dc/


Last Friday night I camped on our national forest lands to the east and just below Wolf Creek Pass. Before snuggling into my sleeping bag, I bid a goodnight to the couple dozen elk grazing amongst the ponds and wetland fens nearby. The next morning I roamed the meadows, streamsides and forest while appreciating the thrush’s song harmonizing with the morning light.

On Monday night my pre-bedtime walk switched to bidding a stone-faced George Washington (on horse, not elk) goodnight before climbing into my bed in a Washington, DC inn. My morning walk the next day was a strident and timely effort to hop onto the Metro’s redline to arrive in time for our first meeting of the day in the Ford House Office Building – no time to listen for a bird’s song. Later that day we entered the headquarters of the Department of Agriculture – there were no elk to comfort me, but the wildlife photos on the walls assured me the agency had some interest in backcountry habitat.

There were five of us on our team – a diverse collection of conservations from Colorado and beyond who journeyed to Washington to Stop the Pillage.

Our objective was to inform administration officials and members of the Colorado federal delegation of the current status to develop (and profit from) a private inholding set amidst our public lands on the east side of Wolf Creek Pass – the one owned by that out-of-state billionaire. We were also there to listen to the experts on possible avenues to save the Wolf Creek Pass fens, forest and their resident creatures from the developers.

Most of the high level managers and elected officials (and their staff) we talked with were to some degree aware of the long and twisted history of the effort (conspiracy?) to airdrop a city of 8,000 people on the east side of Wolf Creek pass at the foot of the ski area. All were interested in an update of the situation that includes the recent signing of the Record of Decision (ROD) by Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas to approve the proposed land exchange. 

You probably already know that the land exchange would give the developer direct access to Highway 160 for the first time since the private inholding “miraculously” appeared in the middle of our national forest in 1986, enabling vehicles to fill the envisioned 4,000+ parking spaces. Just thinking (and digressing) about 4,000 parking spaces in a location with an average of more than 400 inches of snow per year – perhaps “Shoveling at Wolf Creek” is the envisioned tagline for the development…..

Meanwhile, back in Washington – we emphasized our observations that the approved Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was flawed to the core as we had noted in our official 96-page Objection to the FEIS and is detailed again in the legal complaint we filed this week in federal court. If you derived two lists from the FEIS, one listing “Important Issues Analyzed” and the other “Important Issues Ignored”, the second list would be longer – much longer. The so-called scope of the FEIS was very narrow, basically it looked at the exchange of real estate parcels while ignoring the proposal of airdropping in that 8,000-person “village.” Yes, that would include those 4,000+ parking spaces where those elk were grazing, the thrush was singing and the marshmarigolds were beginning to bloom.

Our meeting hosts asked a wide range of questions regarding community interests, wildlife habitat, the environmental analysis process, involvement of various agencies, concerns of nearby landowners, specifics of the project history, and more. There was one question they did not ask, as they seemed to already know – our mettle was strong as ever and our intentions were clear, Stop the Pillage.

While making the rounds of the Capitol and departmental offices we were buoyed by the tremendous amount of support being shown by supporters of a wild Wolf Creek Pass with the thousands of letters, postcards, phone calls and petition signers weighing in as we walked the marble and granite halls and told our story. It was evident by the words and expressions of many that we met with that we were not standing alone in our nation’s capitol – they knew, we knew – that we had all of you with us.


The multi-decade effort to Stop the Pillage has been long, convoluted, strange and demanding and we would certainly would have received our Patience and Persistence badges had been this a scouting achievement effort. With the incredible public support, a wide array of committed partners, a strong Stop the Pillage strategy, and certainly the knowledge that these lands deserve to be wild (not asphalt) I feel as confident as ever we will prevail.

Together we will – Stop the Pillage!
______________________________________

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Saturday, June 20th, get together Wolf Creek Ski Area

______________________________

    
Art for the Endangered Landscape: 
Honoring Wolf Creek 

Art for the Endangered Landscape: Honoring Wolf Creek will take place on Saturday June 20, 2015, at the Wolf Creek Ski Area, above Pagosa Springs.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Short history of the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture - Village at Wolf Creek. part two


Ryan Bidwell, then Executive Director of Colorado Wild reviews the Village at Wolf Creek's first Environmental Impact Study - 2009

Ryan Bidwell, Executive Director of Colorado Wild, provides his group's position on the proposed Village at Wolf Creek.  The talk was at the Riverwalk Cafe, in downtown Pagosa Springs, during business hours, so please excuse the side noise and cell phones.  Fortunately Ryan is a good speaker so he's easy to follow.

These videos were filmed and uploaded onto YouTube by D. West Davies, http://www.dwestdavies.com  Oct 22, 2009
I tip of my hat to West for his efforts and for his encouragement.
I have added rough notes to give an outline of what each segment contains.

If you're new to the Village at Wolf Creek preservation struggle and trying to figure out just what's going on this talk offers some valuable background.  It was given not long after LMJV's unveiled his nifty new land swap offer that would get him right next to the highway. 
___________________________________________________

Wolf Creek Village Presentation 
by Ryan Bidwell from Colorado Wild, 2009 - Part 1/9 


Short history of the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture - Village at Wolf Creek. part one


I'll begin with Christine Canaly of the San Luis Valley Ecosystems Counsel responding to some questions I asked her. Followed by a timeline of highlights going back to 1986 and the original land trade.  Followed by the first segment of a history lesson Ryan Bidwell gave back in 2009.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Could you describe the Friends of Wolf Creek's position on development at Alberta Park?

Why are these environmental organizations joining forces to sue the USDA Forest Service?
What are they asking for?

Can you shed light on rumors of other land-trade offers being floated?  Namely offering Mr. McCombs and LMJV a comparable parcel of developable land at lower elevation and closer to existing infrastructure?

In terms of your questions: 
1. The lawsuits we have filed and the one we are preparing for is based on NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). 
NEPA analysis is based on process analysis, that is our strongest leverage at this time, because we believe that "the process" has been violated. 
Having said that, we are taking this to Federal District Court so we need substantive arguments regarding policy, law CEQ's etc., being violated during the NEPA process. 
2. The one question we have not had answered and the Forest Service has avoided it, is how many units can that area actually handle?
What size of development, if any, is the "appropriate size" for that area?
 
THAT ANALYSIS HAS NEVER BEEN DONE. 
3. Not only has the question never been answered, but the Forest Service (FS) continues to take the stand that "this is not within our scope of analysis." 
Within Forest Service scope of analysis, which they purposely narrowed to "road access" to avoid having to do real analysis of impacts, FS is basically side stepping this big question by saying "this is a private property rights issue and needs to be settled though the PUD process in Mineral County". 
4. So, you see what keeps happening, the developers pressure the Forest Service to maintain the narrow scope of analysis because the developers don't want to know what the proper number of units would be, if any. I'm sure they see it as "not good" for marketing this "VWC" vision, in their opinion. 
5. To answer your question about the Environmental organizations and our position, the reality is, "since there has never been proper analysis done on impacts to determine what that area could possibly handle, we have to take the position that we don't know the answer, since that analysis has not been done." 

June 4, 2015 - Wolf Creek Land Exchange - Inside Durango TV

Updated 6/6/2015
Supervisor Dallas responds to my questions 


June 4, 2015 - Wolf Creek Land Exchange

Published on Jun 3, 2015

Opponents of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek have vowed to continue their fight against the controversial development after Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas last month issued a final decision to approve a land exchange between the Forest Service and Texas Billionaire Red McCombs.  IDTV
_________________________________________

I send Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas the following questions and he was kind enough to respond:

3:00  Forest Service slow to comply with court order to turn over documents

Supervisor Dallas: From what I have been told by those who are more directly involved, the FS is complying with a schedule for providing documents to the court.

3:15 The brewing illegal conflict of interest scandal of Deputy Forester Gustafson. 

She developed content for the Environmental Impact Statement, then served as the reviewing officer of her own handy work when objections to the EIS were filed.  

Supervisor Dallas: I can say definitively she (Maribeth Gustafson) did NOT develop content for the EIS.

CC: Not surprisingly she dismissed all objections.  -   {the project must move a head, eh} but wait.

4:30 Dan Dallas says Deputy Forester Gustafson was not involved in the "work of the day to day analysis process" which RGNF Supervisor Dallas was in charge of. 
  
CC: Hmmm, so what exactly does that mean?  
Supervisor Dallas: See above.  To summarize, the analysis process took place at the Forest Level.  The Regional Office was contacted as necessary for technical advice to the Forest associated with the analysis but this generally was with technical experts such as realty specialists, recreation specialists, wildlife biologists, and others for example, not regional line officers such as Deputy Regional Foresters.

CC: What did Gustafson have to do with producing this Village at Wolf Creek Access Environmental Impact study? 
Supervisor Dallas: Lands and Land Adjustments is in her portfolio (basically a division of labor between the two Deputy Regional Foresters) so the regional oversight of the project was her responsibility.  The actual responsibility for her was to at a broad, regional level, through interactions with the Director of Lands in the Regional Office, keep track of the project so she could brief the Regional Forester on any issues associated with the conduct and progress of the analysis process if necessary.

CC: Why was she chosen to do the review of objections? 
Supervisor Dallas: Explained above.  She was the person responsible for reviewing the objections.

One last comment.  Your use of the term “brewing” conflict of interest scandal should be very telling to the readers of your blog.  Region 2 of the Forest Service encompasses 5 states,  11 National Forests and 8 National Grasslands.  At any point in time there are multiple complex and controversial EIS analyses processes going on that often create intense controversy when the decision is rendered by a local Forest Service line officer. 

In addition, there are many multiple more National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) actions called Environmental Assessments (EA’s) and Categorical Exclusions (CE’s) in various stages going on also on every Forest and Grassland.  The Wolf Creek project is no different in regards to controversy unfortunately.  A person in the Deputy Regional Forester position, whether it’s DRF Gustafson or any other person in this position simply does not have time to delve into the specifics of a local project and certainly not develop content as implied by accusations that are being made now in the response from the objectors to my decision.  

This so called scandal is indeed being brewed I’ll grant you, but is it from actual heat or rapid stirring?  Your readers can decide that.  Thanks again for your interest and contact for the other side to the story.
 ________________________________________________________________________
I thank Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas for his interest and taking the time to explain.  Regarding Forester Gustafson I was simply asking, I did not, and I do not imply wrong doing, that would be for others who have way more information and insight than I do to judge.  

I do want to make clear that the glaring scandal that I see is allowing Alberta Park to be written off with such casual disregard for what will be lost to the America people and the Rio Grande National Forest.  Shifting that speculative development a couple hundred yards over isn't going to mitigate cascading damages worth a fig.
 ________________________________________________________________________

Update June 9th.  

I received an email from Mike Blakeman Public Affairs Specialist for the RGNF, he has been out on personal leave and was catching up with me.  He included one comment I feel honor bound to share:

I’m dealing with flooding concerns and a fire at the moment (yep, both), so don’t have time to dig deeply into the Village controversy at the moment, except to say that to the best of my knowledge there have been no conflict of interest boundaries breached. One part I have not seen mentioned is that a regional objection review team (composed of people from other forests and the regional office who had nothing to do with the Village project) reviewed the objections and then provided their recommendations to Maribeth Gustafson. 
 ________________________________________________________________________

For the official documents visit; fs.usda.gov/riogrande
http://friendsofwolfcreek.org
________________________________________________________________________

fyi:  Forest Service responds to objections to proposed Village at Wolf Creek
Hannah Grover, Daily Times | April 3, 2015
http://www.daily-times.com/four_corners-news/ci_27845626/forest-service-responds-objections-proposed-village-at-wolf