Sunday, January 17, 2016

Same as it ever was, Red's saga continues.


{edited 1/19/16, 2:45 PM - I wrote this after an already long day and made a mess of some of dates.  My apologies, think I've finally gotten the tangled mess properly straightened out. }

This was originally posted March 21, 2012.  Considering today's news I thought it would be appropriate to dust it off a bit, update it a bunch and share.


The Village at Wolf Creek, It’s A Scandal  (March 21, 2012)

Let me tell you a story about a man called Red, a gambling man with a plan.  He was going to buy into Colorado's high mountain Real Estate game during those booming 1980s.  The plan, buy up a few scattered private parcels that were besmirching the lower Saguache Ranger District of the Rio Grande National Forest. It was nice land; land the Rio Grande Forest Service had been eyeing in order to consolidate ownership of that range land and clean up their map.  Red had it all figured out.

With those chips in hand Red saddled up to the public lands real estate table, proposing to trade his coveted Saguache District chips for an incredible jackpot smack in the middle of the high country, near US Highway 160 just shy of Wolf Creek Pass and the ski area smack in a beautiful productive watershed, headwaters to the Rio Grande River don't you know.  

In 1986 after due process Red’s proposal was rejected by RGNF officials because the Albert Park parcel was too precious to lose, consolidated Saguache District map be damned.

RGNF sent the official rejection papers to the Reagan era US Department of Agriculture for processing, where the trade was miraculously reborn, then returned to RGNF marked ‘land trade accepted’ and Mr. Red McCombs received Title. 
Amazingly, when I asked (in early 2012), RGNF officials were unable to produce a record of how that reversal actually occurred. Since it was past the statute of limitations, no one seemed interested in learning about it. 
Well I was, so March 15th I submitted a Freedom of Information request for the paper trail of what transpired between the RGNF’s rejection and McCombs receiving Title.  
In May I received my answer, and shared the USDA's Amended Decision Notice.  Yup, it turned out to be a shady bureaucratic back room adjustment to the record.  But nothing, no one, can do anything about it.  You can read about it here: May 6, 2012  - "AMENDED Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact {9/29/86}" }
In those early pre-landswap days McCombs spoke of developing a low key 200 housing units "in harmony" with the unique nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area. That changed after the deal was done.  Bob Honts, Red’s partner, stepped up and unveiled plans for a luxury vacation village of ten thousand people.  

A plan that only a lowlander with no comprehension of the parcel - that is the biologically productive watershed and wildlife habitat they had just procured, at over ten thousand feet, with some of the deepest snow falls in Colorado - nor did they have a clue about the reality of actually living up there for extended periods of time.  But that's another story to read up on.

Red's problem was, actually, only one of many, but this one was a major legal hurdle - his booty was landlocked with only one seasonal dirt road as access, and it crossed National Forest land. McCombs spent a decade trying to gain access; but caught in shady backroom dealings, losing a significant court battle, then settling out of court on another, he found himself back at first base with nothing to show but intentions.

Ever resourceful, McCombs came up with a new deal in 2008.  This time his plan was to swap 
178 acres of his next to impossible to develop land for 204 acres of Rio Grande National Forest that had highway frontage.  Gotta hand it to him, the man drives a hell of a bargain. 

First he tried to enlist our US Congressman to bypass U.S. Forest Service “red tape” - that plan sputtered for a while then died.

Then Red settled for traditional RGNF channels, which required an Environmental Impact Study.  Begun in the spring of 2009, released in August 2012 giving Mr. McCombs what he wanted.  

Fortunately there was the comment period where the public would have it's chance to explain why this is about more than a real estate poker game for a bully billionaire  Like protecting the wellbeing of Alberta Park and that Rio Grande River watershed.  Including the wildlife that depend on that unmolested parcel. What about the continuing drying of the Southwest and us people preparing for the more challenging future barreling down on us?

For some of us we saw it as an opportunity to ask Rio Grande National Forest administrators about defending that valuable biological resource that was actively producing a vital societal function as it cleans and stores Rio Grande Water?  Aren't RGNF administrators conscious of their stewardship responsibilities and considering the bigger picture?  Why isn't the importance of that biological productive area given more status?

The cynics said don't expect any profiles in courage from them.  The optimist said the Forest Service listens to our concerns and has the public interest at heart.  Many commented were made on the VWC-landswap EIS and submitted by the deadline.  Then we started waiting, yet again.  2013 came and went.  2014 was speeding by without a word from the RGNF, except they were committed to doing a thorough analysis.

What's going on here? Had McCombs and his team realized that their village is a lost cause? Are they scrambling? Perhaps considering an exit strategy? Acquire highway frontage, genuine real-estate gold, sell to the highest bidder, then git outta Dodge?

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

On the optimistic side, some hoped that perhaps Mr. McCombs was finally coming to his senses and looking for a way to swap his Alberta Park holdings for something more realistic and developable a bit lower in the mountains.

Then just before the Thanksgiving Day holiday 2014 came around the hopeful bubbles were burst as the Rio Grande Forest Service released their decision Village at Wolf Creek Access Project "Final Environmental Impact Statement" basically once again gave Red McCombs and LMJV what they asked for.  Another comment period which was extended to February 17.  Those comments where analyzed and dispensed with in less than six week and March 26, 2015 
Reviewing Officer Deputy Regional Forester Maribeth Gustafson affirmed the original decision and offered instruction to the Rio Grande National Forest on how to proceed."

Of course that meant it was time for a few heroic lawyers and support staff, to demand that the will of the law be honored, by filing law suits having a judge review the situation.  In recalling all this and getting my dates and memory of events straightened out I kept having the movie Groundhog Day pop in to my thoughts.

Sure enough, here we are 2016 and it's like deja vu all over again, with evidence coming to light of Red's agents once again being caught exerting direct pressure on the EIS process and RGFS/USDA staff and the rest of us having another interminable wait until the next chapter of Red's Village at Wolf Creek saga is written by the federal judge.

Interestingly on the Rio Grande National Forest's website, their Village at Wolf Creek Project webpage ( no longer opens up.  Guess it's getting revamped, or something, I'm curious to see how they revise it - hopefully with some good news.

Stay tuned, this story isn't over yet.  Unfortunately.

Final Record of Decision
Village at Wolf Creek Access Project Final Environmental Impact Statement 
May 21, 2015
For some more interesting history see: 

Wolf Creek development tangled with political ties

By Mike Soraghan | February 5, 2006
Denver Post Staff Writer 


Uploaded on Oct 22, 2009
Ryan Bidwell, Executive Director of Colorado Wild, provides his group's position on the proposed Village at Wolf Creek. Filmed by D. West Davies of Jim Smith Realty ( at the Riverwalk Cafe in downtown Pagosa Springs.

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