Senator calls for probe into approval of ski village
DENVER – Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., wants federal investigators to determine whether politics were behind approval of two roads needed before a huge housing and commercial project can be built at the base of southwestern Colorado ski resort.Salazar said Tuesday that he asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate claims by that high-ranking officials pressured U.S. Forest Service employees on behalf of the developer, Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs.”Because of the size and scope of the proposed project, it is incumbent upon government agencies and decision makers at all levels to conduct their reviews and base their findings and decisions on the best information and science available, in an open and fair process, free of political influence,” Salazar said.Inspector General Phyllis Fong’s office confirmed receiving Salazar’s letter Tuesday, but had no immediate comment.Salazar also asked Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who oversees the Forest Service, to suspend any action on the project until an investigation is completed. Spokeswoman Terri Teuber said Johanns was taking the request seriously and will respond after reviewing additional information.Last month, the Forest Service approved construction of two roads across national forest land to the developer’s private property. McCombs, co-founder of media giant Clear Channel Communications, wants to build 222,100 square feet of commercial space and enough housing for up to 10,500 people at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area.Opponents, including the ski area’s operators, complain the Forest Service didn’t consider the entire project’s potential environmental impacts because of the developer’s political clout. The agency has said it considered only the impacts of the roads because private landowners must be given access to their property.Ed Ryberg, who recently retired as head of the winter sports programs for the regional Forest Service office, told The Denver Post in April that staffers studying the environmental effects of the roads were pressured by their supervisors to help the developer.Bob Honts, president and chief executive of the corporation building the ski village, has denied that McCombs has received special treatment, noting the time and money he has spent on the project.Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron said the agency will cooperate in an investigation, but added that Salazar isn’t raising new issues.”The decision was done at the field level. We feel very good about the decision-making process. There’s nothing new here,” Jiron said.Dusty Hicks, a South Fork sporting goods store owner and consultant for the developer, said the allegations are similar to ones raised in the state Legislature. In March, Colorado lawmakers rejected a resolution criticizing the Forest Service’s approval of the project.”I said then I’m not afraid of an investigation and I’ll say it now,” Hicks said.Ryan Bidwell of Colorado Wild, a Durango-based environmental group, said he welcomed Salazar’s request for an investigation.”I have a lot of respect for the senator for taking his time and listening to his constituents and doing his research,” Bidwell said.Colorado Wild, which is appealing the Forest Service’s decision on the roads, recently gave Salazar a petition signed by 800 people calling for an investigation. The group is also part of a lawsuit challenging Mineral County’s approval of the development’s building plans.The Pitcher family, which has operated the Wolf Creek ski area for about three decades, is also suing to block the development. The Pitchers once had a stake in the project, but withdrew after saying they had agreed to a smaller development.The family accused McCombs of using his political clout to attach approval of the ski village to unrelated federal legislation. The bills failed.The developer has countersued, accusing the Pitchers of violating an agreement to help build an access road from their property to McCombs’ land, forcing the developer to go through a costly federal environmental review.
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