Several challenge USFS decision on roads to ski development
DENVER – Both sides in a contentious battle over a huge development at a rustic Colorado ski resort have appealed U.S. Forest Service approval of access roads to the remote site in southwestern Colorado.Developers of the Village at Wolf Creek said Wednesday the decision unfairly requires them to build a 750-foot road at cost of about $12 million, when a shorter extension of an existing road would be cheaper and have less environmental impact.Three separate appeals by opponents said the Forest Service greatly underestimated the impact of the project and said the agency was improperly influenced by the developer.Texas billionaire Bill Joe “Red” McCombs wants to build shops and housing for up to 10,500 people at the Wolf Creek ski area in the San Juan Mountains about 170 miles southwest of Denver.Opponents fear the development will hurt the environment and overtax schools and other services in tiny Mineral County, home to fewer than 1,000 full-time residents. Supporters say it will bring much-needed jobs and tax revenue to an economically depressed part of the state.Last month, the Forest Service released its long-awaited decision approving road construction for the development. The decision called for a new 750-foot road for primary access to the site from U.S. 160, and a 250-foot extension of an existing road to link the development to ski area parking lots.When the ski area is open, access to the latter road would be limited to emergency and mass-transit vehicles.Bob Honts, president of the Village at Wolf Creek, the company developing the project, objected to building the longer road.”They’ve effectively denied our federal right to have meaningful access to our property,” Honts said. “Building that second road could affect the financial viability of the project.”An appeal by Colorado Wild, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and the San Juan Citizens Alliance said the Forest Service ignored environmental impacts and violated conservation laws and legally binding scenic easement.It also alleges the developers’ influence “compromised the integrity” of the agency’s analysis of the project.”The Forest Service adopted the developer’s legal argument as their own thinly veiled justification for the project after generous lobbying and influence from the developer,” said Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild.Honts called the influence allegation “sour grapes.””They’ve only lost in every venue they’ve been in,” he said. “When they lose an argument, they claim somebody did something unusual.”Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., has asked the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, to determine whether politics were behind the approval of the roads.An appeal by Carson Forest Watch in Llano, N.M., said an environmental impact statement on the project ignored numerous problems, including potential threats to the habitat of lynx, a threatened species.Forest Watch said the decision to approve the access roads was arbitrary.An appeal by Jonelle Tucker of Lyons, Colo., questioned whether a 1984 land exchange that gave developers possession of the Wolf Creek property was properly executed.Tucker also said the Forest Service failed to consider the costs the development would impose on nearby counties, where she said many of the project’s employees would live even though those counties would get none of the tax revenue.Rio Grande National Forest spokesman Mike Blakeman said Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Mike Cables has 45 days to decide the appeals.”The Forest Service decision might be upheld for some of the appeals, or it may be in some of the cases we have to do more work,” he said.
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