Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Red McCombs’ Alberta Park Real Estate Poker Game

The saga continues: 
{updated March 23, 2012}  
Red McCombs’ 
Alberta Park Poker Game 
{Yup, the one near Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado.}

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The sad saga of Alberta Park began back in the 1980’s when a billionaire purchased some private land within the Saguache Ranger District of the Rio Grande National Forest. It was nice land; land the Forest Service had been eyeing for some time.

With those chips in hand Red McCombs saddled up to the public lands real estate table. Proposing to trade his coveted Saguache District chips for an incredible parcel smack in the middle of the high country. In 1986 after due process McCombs’ proposal was rejected by Rio Grande National Forest officials. But, McCombs had a few cards up his sleeve. . .

Within days, back in Washington DC, an appointee quietly performed an ‘administrative override’ on the Rio Grande National Forest’s decision. Thereby giving McCombs Title to the heart of Alberta Park and wrenching this valuable parcel from its protected status within the embrace of the Rio Grande National Forest - and placing it in the grasp of a speculator intent on development and profits.

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Update:  I have been corrected by Rio Grande National Forest Public Affairs Officer, Mike Blakeman that, in fact, no one knows exactly what happened between RGNF, WDC, RGNF. The decision was simply passed down channels through the Department of Agriculture.

According to Mr. Blakeman all we know for certain is that the decision was later returned to the District Office labeled “Accepted.”

But, I gotta say, this is even more bizarre than the way I described it. Get this: Something as important as trading away the heart of a spectacular high country watershed, heck, part of the source waters to the international Rio Grande River, gets rejected by the lawful guardians of the Rio Grande National Forest. But, in the process of being codified back in Reagan era Washington DC, like a miracle, Red’s Alberta Park Swap Proposal was reborn and returned to the Rio Grande National Forest with a thumbs up and a Deed for Red. What’s up with that? What if it was a clerical error?

It’s too weird. Thus, March 15th I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the paper trail from the RGNF rejection, to the Deed of Title for Mr. McCombs (LMJV).

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Given this background is it any wonder many feel McCombs’ pilfered that land from the Rio Grande National Forest. Furthermore, that his people have no more claim on “personal property rights” than a thief does claiming stolen property his own.

But, returning to those early days. Back then Red was talking up a low key development, 200 housing units in harmony with the unique nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area. That changed when Bob Honts, Red’s partner, unveiled plans for a luxury vacation village of ten thousand people.

Problem was (actually, only one of many): The parcel is landlocked with one seasonal dirt road as access. And it crosses National Forest land. McCombs spent a decade trying to get access and permission to buildout the road, but caught in shady backroom dealings, losing a significant court battle, then settling out of court on another, those plans have pretty well died.

Ever resourceful, McCombs finding himself with an empty hand decided to reshuffle the cards. His new bet, trade in 178 acres of his next to impossible to develop land, for 204 acres with highway frontage. First he tried to enlist our local Congressman to bypass U.S. Forest Service “red tape” - that plan sputtered for a while then died.

Then, left with no other options, McCombs returned to traditional channels. In the spring of 2011 the RGNF began the required Environmental Impact Study. Originally US Forest Service officials hoped the preliminary draft could be released in late December or January.

Now, we’re nearly into April and the Forest Service continues to be vague on when the report can be expected. Officials cite an interest in thoroughness, although some point out McCombs’ team is slow in returning requested information and perhaps being less than helpful.

What's going on here? Has McCombs and his team realized that “The Village at Wolf Creek” is a lost cause? Are they scrambling to develop an exit strategy? Using the cover of - acquiring highway frontage to facilitate a revised friendlier village - are they actually focused on genuine real-estate gold? Secure the land trade, then sell out to the highest bidder, then git outta Dodge?

Good poker move and even US Forest Service officials acknowledge that McCombs would be fully within his rights to pursue such a strategy.

But! What about Alberta Park? Or that Rio Grande River watershed? What about the wildlife that’s being corned into smaller and smaller patches of land? What about the coming drying of the Southwest? Isn't that productive biological resource valuable as it is?

What about the public’s interests?
Is all of this nothing more than some grand real estate poker game for politician owning billionaires? Who knows? The cynic would say damned straight it is. The optimist would say the Forest Service listens to our concerns and has the public interest at heart. We will see.

Here’s the important part. After many delays we are arriving at a critical crossroad where that theory will be put to the test. McCombs has made his Alberta Park Hail Mary Pass.

Pretty soon, for a few short weeks, We The People will be legal participants in advising the Rio Grande National Forest decision makers. After years of being confined to spectator status, we get to speak up and the-powers-that-be must listen to our rational presentations of the dangers and arguments for why McCombs landswap needs to be refused outright.

Alberta Park is a piece of biosphere, it can’t defend itself. It needs concerned citizens ~ people, who depending on their own expertise, can do a little research, become informed. Then write some rational, polite letters to the Rio Grande National Forest decision makers explaining why McCombs’ proposal needs to be rejected. And just as important, why McCombs’ portion of Alberta Park should be returned to RGNF protection.

If all the folks who have ‘NO Pillage at the Village” bumper stickers, or who share the sentiment, would become engaged and take the time/trouble to express themselves over these next few crucial months... it would have an amazing impact.

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Regarding the original land swap and my FOIA request see:

SUNDAY, MAY 6, 2012

FOIA RESULTS = USDA Forest Service: Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact {3/6/86}

The following is a faithful reproduction {though it may contain typos.} of the pdf I was sent by the RGNF,  when they replied to my FOIA request.    
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For more information visit the Rio Grand National Forest webpage
~  "Village at Wolf Creek Land Exchange Proposal"  ~

Comments to the draft EIS will be processed through: 

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