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Texas investor Red McCombs swapped the Forest Service for 300 acres on Wolf Creek Pass in 1986. He envisions a resort village for 10,000 people on the parcel surrounded by Rio Grande National Forest and bordering the Wolf Creek ski area. (Courtesy The Village at Wolf Creek)

A federal judge has rejected Forest Service approval of an access road to a billionaire’s proposed village atop Wolf Creek Pass. 

The decision Thursday is the third rejection for Texas investor Red McCombs, who has spent 36 years trying to develop a highly controversial village on about 300 isolated acres in the Rio Grande National Forest adjacent to the Wolf Creek ski area. Environmental groups have fought for decades to block McCombs’ vision for as many as 8,000 units in a mountaintop resort. 

In 2019 the forest supervisor approved an access road to the inholding of private land, ruling the agency was required to provide “adequate access” under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA. A consortium of environmental groups — including Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and Wilderness Workshop — sued to overturn the 2019 approval that would have launched development of the village after more than 20 years of environmental review and courtroom battles. 

U.S. District Judge Christine M. Arguello on Thursday confirmed an earlier ruling that the Forest Service “failed to consider important aspects of the issues before them, offered an explanation for their decision that runs counter to the evidence, failed to base their decision on consideration of the relevant factors, and based their decision on an analysis that is contrary to the law.”

Environmental groups hailed the decision.

“We’ve never seen an honest evaluation of the environmental impacts of constructing a city of 8,000 people at over 10,000 feet atop one of snowiest locations in Colorado, probably because the impacts if revealed would be staggering,” Mark Pearson, executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance, said in a statement.

McCombs, who built an empire of car dealerships and media properties in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s, swapped 1,631 acres of land he owned in Saguache County for 300 acres of Forest Service land at the top of Wolf Creek Pass in 1986. The next year he began work on an easement across Forest Service land from U.S. 160 that would allow access to his island of private land on the pass. 

In 2000, Mineral County approved development of a 10,000-bed village with 500,000 square feet of commercial space. Environmental groups sued and, after lower-court decisions rejecting the approval, the Colorado Court of Appeals in 2007 overturned the county approval. 

In 2010, McCombs proposed swapping some of his acres for Forest Service land that would allow for road access to the proposed village. In 2015, after several years of environmental review, the Forest Service approved a plan to allow access to the village. 

Environmental groups sued over the approved land exchange, arguing the Forest Service did not study the future effects of the land exchange on the environment and wildlife, including the endangered Canada lynx. A federal court agreed with the environmental groups and blocked the land exchange. McCombs appealed the decision. 

During the appeal McCombs asked the Forest Service to approve an adjusted plan for an access road, which the agency approved in 2019, saying the new plan fixed the problems with the 2015 land exchange. 

The environmental groups sued the Forest Service again, this time over the 2019 approval of a right-of-way allowing the access road. Their argument was the same: The agency granted access for a “massive resort development without considering or taking the steps necessary to reduce the eliminate impacts to the surrounding National Forest System lands.”

A similar proposal is under review in the Eagle River Valley above Edwards. A Florida developer is seeking Forest Service approval for a road to access an island of private land on top of the mountain where 19 luxury homes are planned. That developer also is arguing the agency must provide a way to cross federal land to the 680-acre inholding under ANILCA and its requirement for “adequate access” so landowners can enjoy “reasonable use” of their property. 

Judge Arguello on Thursday ruled that the Forest Service should not have relied on its “flawed” and “legally deficient” 2015 environmental review of Wolf Creek Village to make its 2019 access decision. She ruled both the 2019 right-of-way decision by the Forest Service, just like the agency’s 2015 approval of the land exchange, was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Clint Jones, who has shepherded the Wolf Creek Village plan for the now 95-year-old McCombs, has spent the last three years waiting for a decision on the 2019 Forest Service access decision. He said the redevelopment’s legal team is going through the ruling and planning a meeting with the Forest Service “to determine our next steps.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com Email: jason@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jasonblevins