Collusion charged in new Wolf Creek development
DENVER ” An attorney for developers of a contentious proposal for a resort at the base of one of Colorado’s most rustic ski areas secretly wrote federal policy governing his client’s project, according to an environmental group that sued to obtain the records.
The documents obtained by Durango-based Colorado Wild appear to show that an attorney representing the Village at Wolf Creek, proposed by Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, drafted a letter eventually sent last year by the U.S. Forest Service to the developers ” his client. The letter said the developers could temporarily use a Forest Service road to get to their land, a key step in winning approval from the county for the $1 billion project.
A crucial decision by the Forest Service is pending on whether developers can build a permanent road across forest land to connect the resort to a state highway in southwestern Colorado. Operators of the Wolf Ski area and critics of the ski village claim the series of faxes between the Forest Service and Washington, D.C., attorney Steven Quarles confirms their suspicions that the federal agency is rubber stamping decisions.
Texas developer Bob Honts, president and chief executive of the company building the project, accused Colorado Wild of misleading the public. He said the series of faxes from May to June 2003 simply shows attorneys for the Village at Wolf Creek and the Forest Service conferring on a contract.
“What Colorado Wild is saying, as with most things they say, is untrue,” Honts said.
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A spokeswoman for Quarles said he was out of the office Friday and unavailable for comment.
Forest Service officials hadn’t reviewed the allegations by Colorado Wild and no one was available to discuss them, said Janelle Smith, spokeswoman in the agency’s regional office in Lakewood.
“The Forest Service has essentially thrown impartiality out the window,” said Brad Bartlett, an attorney for Colorado Wild.
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., believes the records released under court order raise serious questions about how the Forest Service is handling the project, his spokesman, Lawrence Pacheco, said.
“It’s highly unusual for a federal agency to use letters that are ghostwritten by a lobbyist that benefits the client the lobbyist represents,” Pacheco said.
John Wilder, attorney for Mineral County, said it’s not unusal for him to ask a developer or company doing business with the county to submit a draft document, which he then “rewrites to my heart’s content.” He said he knows nothing about the involvement of Quarles in the letter that helped persuade the county to give the go-ahead to the resort.
The faxes are the first bunch of documents released by the Forest Service in response to Colorado Wild’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act. A federal magistrate in Durango has ordered another release Oct. 7.
A May 7, 2003, fax from Quarles to Jim Snow, in the U.S. Department Agriculture’s general counsel office, includes the message “Here is the proposed letter” and a shorter, similar version of later letters faxed from Snow and other officials to Quarles.
The documents are drafts of a letter from the Forest Service to the developers outlining conditions for using the existing road while consideration of a final road is pending.
Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., whose district includes the ski area, has asked the Forest Service to give him a briefing on Wolf Creek and will address questions raised by the documents, spokeswoman Nayyera Haq said.
Davey Pitcher, whose family has run the Wolf Creek ski area on forest land for nearly three decades, said he wasn’t surprised by what appears to be the developer’s attorney suggesting how the Forest Service write a letter to his client.
“I think the Forest Service has been in collusion with Mr. McCombs from the very beginning at a high level,” Pitcher said.
Once a supporter and partner in the venture, the Pitcher family is fighting McCombs’ plan. The family says Kingsbury Pitcher, who preceded his son as head of the ski company, signed on for what he thought was a much smaller development.
Honts has disputed that, saying the Pitchers knew all along the full scope of the plans.
Forest Service officials say they are required by law to provide access to private land surrounded by forest land.
McCombs wants to build 2,200 housing units, enough for up to 10,500 people, and 222,100 square feet of commercial space on nearly 300 acres of land inside the Rio Grande National Forest.
The project’s critics fear the impacts on wetlands, wildlife, including the endangered lynx, traffic, water and the ski area, which has an 11,900-foot-high summit in the San Juan Mountains and an annual snowfall of 40 feet. They warn of huge strains on schools, police and fire agencies and other services in a county with only 932 full-time residents.
Supporters say the development will bring many new jobs and revenue for local governments in an economically depressed part of the state.
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