Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wetlands and ‘old-growth’ fens heat up Wolf Creek debate

Here is an article that details a few of the reasons why people fear for the Alberta Park watershed area.  

Any massive development in Alberta Park at 10,300 will cause unavoidable damage followed by cascading consequences that will impact the interstate, international Rio Grande River !

The fact that McCombs is suggesting moving his project a few hundred yards and slightly uphill, and closer to the highway will not mitigate that unavoidable destruction.

Think before digging!

reprinted with permission from The Durango Telegraph

Wetlands heat up Wolf Creek debate
Agencies clash over mapping of ‘old-growth’ fens

Skiers and snowboarders meander through the base area of Wolf Creek on Monday. 
The Village at Wolf Creek, proposed not far from the current base area, is continuing 
to stir up controversy. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental 
Protection agency are currently at odds over wetlands regulation.
/Photo by Todd Newcomer. 

by Adam Howell  

Wetlands are currently boiling with controversy in the vicinity of Wolf
Creek Ski Area. According to recently obtained e-mails, two agencies
are throwing jabs in a recent bout over the regulation of wetlands as
they relate to the proposed Village at Wolf Creek. According to the
exchange, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Albuquerque District has
prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from verifying the
locations of wetlands at the site of the proposed developed.

Courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), several work-
related e-mails were recently acquired from the EPA regarding the
proposed “Village,” which would include 2,172 new units and 222,100
square feet of commercial space on 287.5 acres near the base of the
current Wolf Creek Ski Area. Proposing the development is the
Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture funded by Texas billionaire Billie Joe
“Red” McCombs, co-founder of Clear Channel Communications Inc.
Unaffiliated with the family-run Wolf Creek Ski Area, McCombs and
his venture partner Bob Honts, a Texas-based developer, want to build
what opponents call a “Vail-sized city” within the property boundaries
of the current ski area at the base of the Alberta lift.

As part of the development process, the Army Corps was reviewing a
map prepared by the developer’s consultants. Such delineations are
done to outline the boundaries of and prevent impacts to wetlands. In
the case of the Wolf Creek wetlands, the Army Corps had previously
accepted a request from the Environmental Protection Agency to
participate in the field verification of the wetlands boundaries. As a
result, Project Manager Anita Culp of the Corps’ Southern Colorado
Regulatory Office offered the EPA dates in September for when the
two agencies could work together on the project. But shortly thereafter,
her boss, Dan Malanchuk, chief of the Corps’ Albuquerque District,
refused to clear it and ordered her to block the EPA’s request to review
their wetlands delineations.

At that time, Culp called Gene Reetz, the EPA’s wetlands team leader,
saying that their original offer was “off the table,” according to the emails.
Furthermore, since the EPA does only a couple delineations per year, it
would be inappropriate for them to get involved, Malanchuk said in a
recent interview.

Reetz responded to the turn-down the next day in a letter to Malanchuk,
writing, “To say that I am disappointed is to put it mildly.” Given the
controversy surrounding the proposed “Village,” Reetz said he desired a
more cooperative effort; at the same time, he did not leave out legal
action as a possibility. He also cited a 1979 legal precedent under
former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civilleti that gives the EPA
jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act to make the final determination
as to what constitutes “waters of the United States.”

Although the Army Corps implements the delineation 
program, the EPA has enforcement authority and can veto 
 permits authorizing the discharge of dredged or fill materials 
within waters of the U.S. in “special cases,” Reetz said.

Plus, the Corps’ exclusion of the EPA comes amid their 
shared responsibilities to implement the Clean Water Act. In 
the Corps’ Regulatory Program Mission Statement, it avows, 
“During the permit process, the Corps considers the views of 
other federal, state and local agencies, interest groups, and 
the general public.”

For the Corps to exclude the EPA suggests that political meddling 
is occurring, says Jeff Berman, director of the Friends of Wolf Creek.
Especially disconcerting to Berman is that a FOIA request to the Corps’
Albuquerque District has received no response. “They should tell us
if Red McCombs and their attorneys in Washington, D.C. are pulling
strings,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rio Grande National Forest continues to write the
final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Village at Wolf
Creek. As the process unfolds, the development proposal continues
to generate opposition.

Spearheading opposition to the development, the Friends of Wolf
Creek includes representation from a variety of conservation groups
like Colorado Wild, the American Lands Alliance, the Colorado
Mountain Club, San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Wilderness
Society. In addition, the owners of the Wolf Creek Ski Corp. and
Congressman John Salazar have gone on the record,
opposing the development.

This opposition coincides with the “significant likelihood of direct,
indirect and cumulative adverse impacts to wetlands that could result
from the proposal,” as the EPA warned in response to the Rio Grande
National Forest’s Draft EIS. 

Specifically, the EPA has serious concerns about the 
protection of fen wetlands at Wolf Creek. Considered old-
growth wetland ecosystems, fens are irreplaceable habitats, 
according to the EPA. As groundwater driven systems 
dependent on a seasonally stable water supply, fens are 
particularly susceptible to groundwater interception or 
any alteration of hydrology. 

Whether or not the developers will need a 404 permit to 
discharge dredged and fill materials into surrounding fen 
 wetlands is irrelevant to their protection, according to wet-
lands experts and hydrologists at the EPA. That’s because 
the permit-regulated fens on the parcel are fairly sensitive 
to minor changes to the land surrounding them, according 
to Mike Wireman, a groundwater hydrologist with the EPA. 

Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado 
at Boulder who looked over the site last June with Wireman, 
agreed about the risks, saying in an interview that the 
development most likely will impact groundwater that feeds 
into the wetlands there.

Despite proposals by the developer to avoid impacts to 
wetlands by bridging tributaries and wetlands in the base 
area, Sarah Fowler, a wetlands expert at the EPA who also 
walked the site in June, remains concerned. The construction 
of below-grade foundations in the area, for example, can 
significantly lower groundwater in adjacent wetlands.

At the Breckenridge Ski Area base facility, for instance, 
groundwater models completed there have demonstrated 
that even minimal impingement into groundwater from 
foundations will have far reaching effects on down-gradient 
wetlands, Fowler said. 

Moreover, foundations from buildings in the vicinity of the 
fens on the developer’s land could act as groundwater wells 
creating cones of depression impacting critical groundwater 
supporting the fens, she said. 

However, Honts believes that the project can be done without
impacting the parcel’s wetlands. To assure there’s no downstream
impact, the uplands development will be monitored and studied
with underground monitoring wells, he said.

In response to the Corps’ verification of his consultant’s wetlands
delineations for the land, Honts concluded, “We’ve complied with
the law, and we’re pleased to say that.” As for the EPA’s exclusion
from the process, “It sounds like the environmentalists want a
 second bite at the apple,” he said. •

by Adam Howell ~ The Durango Telegraph ~ 12/29/05
Thank you Missy Votel for permission to reprint this article.

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