By KAY MATTHEWS
Wolf Creek Ski Area looms large in the imagination of those of us who’ve long skied there—particularly those of us from New Mexico—as the antithesis of Aspen, Vail, and even Taos Ski Valley now that it’s been bought by billionaire Louis Bacon (tickets are now $100). The fact that Wolf Creek often receives more snow than any other ski area in Colorado also contributes to its mythology, along with the chairless (at least until very recently) Waterfall area where one could ski fresh powder and get pulled by a snowcat back to base. So the news that a federal judge in Colorado blocked the Rio Grande National Forest Service decision to approve a land exchange that would have enabled Red McCombs, a billionaire Texas oilman, to develop a huge resort at the ski area base, is cause for celebration. This is tempered by the fact that the family-owned ski area is also buying into the “bigger is better” agenda and is looking to expand its skiable acres.
There are no condos and restaurants and bars and boutiques that serve Wolf Creek, except in Pagosa Springs, 20 miles to the west down Wolf Creek Pass, and to a lesser extent, South Fork, on the eastern side of the pass. South Fork is where we used to stay, in funky cabins with kitchens, when we took our kids there to ski. The first day we’d drop them off to downhill while we took off on our cross-country skis at the top of the pass on a series of trails that headed north into the backcountry. The second day we’d join them on the downhill, venturing into Waterfall terrain, even with Max, our younger son, who was little enough to ride on the snowcat instead of being pulled back to the base. At night we’d sit out in the communal hot tub, often with young homespun Texans who loved to ski but couldn’t afford the larger resorts. Despite our New Mexican bias against all things Texas (and California—the joke goes, “If a Texan and a Californian jump off a building who lands first? Who cares?”), it was good to spend time with the perceived enemy who was actually quite charming and polite (we never talked politics).
After our older son Jakob came back to New Mexico after graduate school and work around the country, he couldn’t wait to get back on his skis. Wolf Creek was usually first to open, so he’d get up at 4 a.m., drive for three hours, ski all day, and then drive three hours home. When he had the time he’d meet his buddies and ski the Wolf Creek backcountry. Now that he’s a dad he’ll be taking Lucia, who at three and a half already knows how to ski, and Marcos, who at eighteen months will learn next year, to ski as a family, at a family friendly ski area that still retains—at least for now—a downhome experience.
Billy Joe “Red” McCombs has been trying for almost 30 years to ruin that experience by building a resort village at the base of the ski area to accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 people. To access this proposed “city” the Forest Service, claiming that federal law left “no option but to allow access to the inholding,” gave McCombs a permit in early April of 2006 to build a 750-foot road connecting State Highway 160 with his private land, which he obtained in a land exchange. The agency also gave him authority to extend a road from the Wolf Creek Ski Area for 250 feet, although this latter road could be used only for shuttles and emergency vehicles during ski season. McCombs, one of the richest men in American, planned to build approximately 400 single-family homes and 1,800 weekly time-share units on his 237 acre parcel.
In October of 2006 La Jicarita News reprinted an article, “Are Some Strings Being Pulled to Develop Wolf Creek Village?” by Allen Best from Colorado Central Magazine . The thrust of Best’s article dealt with allegations that the Forest Service decision approving the access road was influenced by political pressure emanating from the George Bush administration. Best quotes Peter Clark, Supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest, from a letter sent to The Denver Post: “At no time during this process did I receive direction, influence or pressure from higher levels on how or what decision to make.”
This is Best’s analysis of the allegations:
“[Clark’s] insistence flew in the face of claims by critics, who for many months had been saying that McCombs had unethically gained influence over Bush appointees who oversee the Forest Service. In March, The Denver Post presented evidence that circumstantially supported them. McCombs had given generously to candidates for Congress, mostly Republicans from Texas. In turn, he had lobbied for the appointment of Mark Rey, a former timber industry representative, to the position of undersecretary of agriculture in charge of the Forest Service. The Post also found that McCombs representatives had met with Rey — although Rey, in a letter to the editor, curtly noted that he had also met with opponents.
Far more damning was the allegation by a recently retired Forest Service employee Ed Ryberg. Ryberg, who had overseen ski areas in Colorado for many years, said that Dave Tenny, an assistant to Mark Rey, had intervened with regional officials, indicating he wanted ‘movement’ on the road case at Wolf Creek. Ryberg told The Post that ‘it’s not often you get a deputy undersecretary involved in an easement issue.’ In this case, a conference telephone call was held, and ‘we were basically told by Tenny to help these guys and address their issues,’ said Ryberg. He added: ‘The ski area was being obstinate, and they needed to be able to demonstrate they already had access so the project could move along.’ Ryberg also argued that the environmental impact statement was flawed, because of an implausible no-action alternative.”
Known as a Forest Service company man, Ryberg’s statements were given considerable credence. And ironically, he was standing up for the owners of Wolf Creek, who had been fighting McCombs over development of the village ever since they disagreed on its size. Owner Kingsbury Pitcher, who was involved in the development of Ski Apache and the Santa Fe Ski Basin, wanted a much smaller real estate development and contested McCombs’s large scale plans in federal court. The Pitcher family also disputed McCombs’s claim that there is sufficient water in dry years to support this kind of development.
A local environmental group, Colorado Wild (now Rocky Mountain Wild) filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service in 2006, in which the judge found evidence that the Environmental Impact Statement process was illegally influenced by the developer and issued an injunction preventing the Forest Service from using the EIS. The Forest Service was forced to issue a new EIS that would supposedly be transparent and unbiased, but the November 2014 issuance of the EIS opted to grant a land exchange that would trade approximately 205 acres of federal land for 177 acres of private land. This land exchange would connect the private land to U.S. Highway 160, negating the need for a Forest Service easement and allowing for the development of the private inholding. The Friends of Wolf Creek Coalition filed another lawsuit, and in a hearing in October of 2015 another judge found that the Forest Service had withheld thousands of documents pertaining to its decision and ordered the agency to release them through the Freedom of Information Act.
Finally, on May 19, 2017, Judge Richard P. Matsch invalidated the Forest Service’s decision to approve the land exchange that would have essentially brought McComb’s proposed Village at Wolf Creek to fruition. In his decision he wrote: “What NEPA requires is that before taking any major action a federal agency must stop and take a careful look to determine the environmental impact of that decision, and listen to the public before taking action. The Forest Service failed to do that in the Record of Decision. The duty of this Court is to set it aside. . . . Public awareness of the fragility of the natural environment has greatly increased in the intervening 30 years, and the need for a scientifically based analysis of the impact of the Forest Service decisions in managing national forest system lands to support a decision is imperative in explaining the decision to the public.” He emphasized the 900 public comments that had been submitted and protection of the Canada lynx.
Matsch also brought up the alleged political interference in the Forest Service’s decision with this startling quote by Deputy Forester Maribeth Gustafson in a 2014 email to a colleague: “It is commonly understood that Mr. McCombs brought political pressure to bear to realize his dream to develop the ski area.”
Davey Pitcher, Kingbury’s youngest son, now runs the ski area and was the family member who took on the responsibility of fighting McComb’s development. With considerable irony and ill-timing, he is now the proponent of a “bigger is better” proposal himself. His proposal necessitates an expansion of the ski area’s permit boundary from the Rio Grande National Forest onto the San Juan National Forest, which adjusted its new forest plan to accommodate winter recreation in the expansion area. The proposal calls for 1,000 acres of new terrain: 250 acres of intermediate, groomed slopes to the northwest of the ski area and 750 acres of expert slopes to the southeast. He claims the 20-year expansion plan would not significantly boost skier visits and remains opposed to any destination resort development. He would install a four-tower, funifor or jig-back style tram, with a pair of cable cars mounted on side-by-side cables in the 750-acre backcountry acreage for expert skiers to avoid clear-cutting for lifts and new trails.
The environmental groups that are celebrating the decision in the McComb’s case are disappointed with Pitcher’s proposal (“the timing really stinks”), but as we’ve seen over and over again, ski areas are going to continue to expand to compete for a shrinking skier population, buy up water rights to compensate for a dearth of natural snow, and raise ticket prices to pay for all of it—risky measures that may or may not maintain their viability. We’ll have to wait and see what happens at Wolf Creek: McCombs could appeal Judge Matsch’s decision overruling the Forest Service Record of Decision and Davey McComb could get the expansion he wants. In the meantime, I hope Lucia and Marcos have a great time skiing there.