By RUTH HEIDE
WOLF CREEK — About 100 people from both sides of Wolf Creek Pass took a field trip on Tuesday to the site of a proposed land exchange between the federal government and the Village at Wolf Creek developer.
Residents of the San Luis Valley and Pagosa Springs hiked the properties being considered in the land exchange and asked questions of representatives from the Rio Grande National Forest, ski area, developer and highway department.
Mineral County Commissioner Scott Lamb was also present. The planned unit development will ultimately go back to the Mineral County commissioners for approval.
All of the proposed development lies in Mineral County.
Divide District Ranger Tom Malecek led the field trip.
Field trip participants included area residents supportive of the proposed development near Wolf Creek Ski Area as well as those opposed to it.
Malecek said one of the main purposes for the field trip was to gather public input and answer questions.
The first question posed to Malecek was, “Is the fix in? Is this a corrupt deal?”
Malecek said, “I really don’t think that deserves an answer but I would say no.”
Later in the onsite tour, Malecek said, “There’s no doubt it stirs passions.”
Participants’ questions ranged from water issues and wildlife habitat to timelines and highway access.
The Rio Grande National Forest is conducting an environmental analysis of a proposal for a land exchange with Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, property owner of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek. The proposed exchange would swap about 204 acres of federal land for about 178 acres of private land.
Malecek said although currently the exchange involves more acreage of federal land being given up, an appraisal would be conducted before any swap would be finalized.
Part of the federal land proposed for exchange would connect the private land to Highway 160, which would provide access to the proposed Village.
Access to the property now is Forest Service Road 391, also known as the Alberta Road, since it leads to Alberta Lake. The road is closed during the winter, however, and the Forest Service and the courts have determined it is not a suitable access road for the proposed development, Malecek explained during the field trip.
“They have no access right now other than the single access which is not sufficient should anyone want to develop this property,” he said.
The Forest Service by law must permit access. Malecek said there would not be multiple accesses to the highway.
“The Village development, whether it is the current situation or the proposed action, would have one access that’s year round to the highway,” he said.
Wherever the access winds up, the developer will have to obtain an access permit from the Colorado Department of Transportation and pay for that access, a highway department spokesman explained to the group on Tuesday.
In addition to resolving the access issue, the proposed land exchange would place most of the wetlands that are currently privately owned into the hands of the federal government. That includes special wetlands called fens, which are “really wet and been there a long time,” wetlands specialist Heather Houston told the group.
One of the wetlands areas that would still remain in the proposed development is located at the proposed highway access point. Malecek said the plan would be to “bridge the drainages and wetlands and not to plow through them.”
Speaking on behalf of the developers, Dusty Hicks said there would be no development along the highway because there is just enough room there for the intersection improvement and nothing more.
“We will protect wetlands,” he said. “We intend to avoid wetlands but we will work with the Corps [of Engineers] the entire time.”
Another benefit of the proposed exchange would be less potential development right up against the ski area, since the private property abutting the ski area is proposed to go to the federal government as part of the land exchange.
Although the land exchange is the primary alternative, Malecek said the Forest Service is considering another access alternative if the land exchange is not approved.
Field trip participants asked numerous questions including the extent that wildlife impacts would be analyzed. Division of Wildlife staff are involved in the current environmental impact statement process.
Residents also asked about water sources for the Village. Malecek said he understood the Village has sufficient water. It will be coming from Pass Creek.
SLV Ecosystem Council Director Chris Canaly said, “We really have a concern about that issue. I really don’t see it being resolved in terms of what they are proposing right now.”
The draft EIS (environmental impact statement) may be out by the early part of 2012, Malecek said, after which the public has a 45-day comment period. The final EIS would be completed 4-6 months after that, probably in the summer of 2012, Malecek said.
He said public comments are welcome anytime on this issue but would probably be most effective after the draft EIS is released early next year.
Comments may be mailed to: Dan Dallas, Forest Service c/o Tom Malecek, Divide District Ranger, Rio Grande National Forest, 13308 West Hwy 160, Del Norte 81132; faxed to 657-6035; or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information see www.fs.usda.gov/riogrande/