Monday, October 17, 2011

Alberta Park's Rio Grande Nat'l Forest Service....... 'open house hike' September 20, 2011

revised 2/26/12 to reflect final draft

Printed in the Four Corners Free Press 
November 2011 issue
page 28

"Moving The Village"

It appears Billy Joe “Red” McCombs’ longtime dream of constructing a luxury resort town in the middle of Alberta Park (elevation: 10,300 feet), nestled against the Continental Divide on Wolf Creek Pass Colorado and coincidentally home to some forty feet of annual snowfall, burns hot as ever.

After having over a decade's worth of development preparations thwarted McCombs dumped Bob Honts, his developer, regrouped his Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture and has hired a new developer, Clint Jones, to spearhead a new plan of attack.

Since their current location is so contentious, they have proposed a landswap. The new plan is to trade approximately 170 acres of the southern portion of McCombs’ holding for roughly 204 acres of Rio Grande National Forest located north and northeast of his property. This parcel would bridge McCombs’ holdings to US Highway 160.  And it contains a smaller wetlands area. The difference in development potential between the two parcels of land is that of night and day.

Half a year ago the Rio Grande National Forest agreed to consider McCombs' landswap offer and is currently conducting an Environmental Impact Statement study on the proposal. They hope to release a draft EIS early in 2012, followed by a public comment period. It’s estimated that a final draft will appear during the summer.

Considering the great controversy surrounding this project the Rio Grande National Forest decided to sponsor a four hour field trip/hike September 20th through Alberta Park, site of the proposed development. Led by District Ranger Tom Malecek the tour was intended to inform the interested public about the project as well as offering a friendly setting for folks to speak with various participants.

In addition to US Forest Service officials, representatives from the US Army Corp of Engineers, Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife and state Department of Transportation were in attendance, as were Wolf Creek Ski Area’s Davey Pritcher and some of his folks, the developer Clint Jones and Dusty Hicks, Mineral Commissioner Scott Lamb and Archuleta County Commissioner Michael Whiting from, Paul Joyce and Warren Rider from Rocky Mountain Wild, Rio de la Vista with the San Luis Valley Wetlands Group and Chris Canaly from the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, along with another 60-80 assorted interested citizens.

In all over a hundred people met up at the Wolf Creek Ski Area’s East parking lot on a beautiful early autumn morning and set off hiking toward Albert Park via County Road 391. It occurred to me what a wonderful idea it was to make all of us walk through this sparkling mountain morning.

After walking about a mile we stopped at a splendid overview of Alberta Park, with the Great Divide and Wolf Creek Ski Area’s slopes gracing the background.

District Ranger Malecek brought along a few large mounted maps and described the borders of the land in question. He touched on access issues regarding FR 391 which is a seasonal dirt road meaning that when the snow starts falling, it gets closed until spring thaw.

Also it’s a dirt road engineered for light traffic. To build a luxury resort, one needs access for heavy trucks and equipment and all the other traffic that comes with the construction zone. FR 391 presents a major obstacle to developing McCombs’ parcel.

Then it was on to discussing the targeted piece of federal land which lies next to US 160. It was explained that Clint Jones has initiated preliminary discussions with CDOT regarding a highway interchange but given the tentative nature of the swap and construction, these talks have more to do with opening communication than any actual planning.

Ranger Malecek was asked about water rights and water availability. Responding that, though not final, the legal team does seem to indicate water rights are secure and USFS engineers/geologist seemed to be establishing that the quantity of water needed is available. The group’s response was skeptical leading to more questions and a couple heated comments until a decision was made to move on, so off we hiked.

After about another mile, including some fun off trail bushwhacking down a forested slope, we arrived at a tiny lake surrounded by bog terrain that felt spongy underfoot. Occasionally the water would ripple, reminding us that there was a teaming community under that water’s mirror surface

While gazing out at this idilic scene some of us pictured it becoming surrounded by pavement and multi-story McMansions sitting empty, another speculative obsession gone bust. Appetites spoiled, we began asking about the development’s potential destruction of such a pristine area, which includes a biological community stretching out beyond the wetlands to existing wildlife corridors, wildlife habitat, Rio Grande River and riparian zone.

More questions arose regarding how energy will be supplied to the town, among other infrastructure challenges. These questions were rejected as out of bounds because the agency is bound to only consider the landswap - not any future development intentions or potential impacts.

Ranger Malecek pointed out that most of the above issues will need to be taken up with the Mineral County Commissioners who have jurisdiction over development within their county once the swap is settled and the project moves forward.

Many folks voiced frustration that protecting species habitat, migration corridors, the fens and other watershed elements seemed important but lost issues: Why weren’t down to earth questions regarding the many threats such a speculative development poses to this existing productive biological community considered in the Forest Service decision-making processes?

Ranger Malecek explained these items are being considered in the EIS, but, the Forest Service may not have legal jurisdiction over some of them. Still, the agency can and will analyze the potential impacts. During the public comment period following the draft release, citizens are encouraged to bring up specific issues, and they will be read and will receive due consideration along with being incorporated into the final EIS statement.

Other questions turned to further logistical issues, road maintenance, police, and other emergency services, impacts on surrounding communities and all their related costs and who’s going to pay? But, it was pleaded that these were issues outside of the current Forest Service scope and they would not be resolved during this pleasant walk in any event.

Clint Jones had remained in the background, but at this respite it was appropriate for him to share his thoughts in response to questions. He laid down a simple argument, one directed toward those such as myself who want to reject any development of Alberta Park.

Jones said there is a simple choice here:
Mr. McCombs will develop his parcel - we can do it easy, or we can do it hard.

The easy route, he said, would be to support the landswap. Because if that fails, McCombs will have no choice but to develop on his existing property in the heart of Alberta Park with all its difficulties and unavoidable damage to sensitive wetlands.

It all seemed quite simple to him: If you’re an environmentalist concerned with fens, wetland features and all that, why wouldn’t you support the development being moved slightly uphill? His challenge was: Which outcome would you rather be a part of?

Listening to Mr. Jones, I got the feeling he sincerely believes this land must be developed. 

It struck me that perhaps folks such as me {and hopefully many others} have been challenged to try educating Mr. Jones and Mr. McCombs (including his business partner daughter Marsha), and the Rio Grande National Forest decision makers regarding the many reasons why a speculative luxury residential resort development smack against the Continental Divide is a fatally flawed pipedream that should be laid to rest once and for all. Before it does damage!
~ ~ ~

PS. If this article peeked your interest ~ please take the time to look up and read how a pro described our Alberta Park Open-house Hike along with weaving in a wonderfully concise history of the battle over Alberta Park. I attest to the fidelity of his description of our hike.

“Long-contentious plans to build village near Wolf Creek Ski Area may get underway after wetlands exchange” 
By Jason Blevins ~ The Denver Post ~ 9/25/11

1 comment:

  1. Hello to all, the contents existing at this website are truly remarkable for people experience, well, keep up the nice work fellows.
    my website > PR News Press Distribution Services