It takes a village to fight the Village
By Peter Miesler
The sad saga of Alberta Park began back in the 1980s, when a billionaire purchased some private land within the Saguache Ranger District of the Rio Grande National Forest. It was nice land — land the Forest Service had been eyeing for some time.
With those chips in hand, Red McCombs saddled up to the public-lands real-estate table, proposing to trade his coveted Saguache District chips for an incredible parcel smack in the middle of the high country. In 1986 McCombs’ proposal was rejected by Rio Grande National Forest officials. But Mc- Combs had a few cards up his sleeve.
Somehow, within days, back in Washington D.C., the Rio Grande National Forest’s decision was overturned, thereby giving Mc- Combs title to the heart of Alberta Park and wrenching this valuable parcel from its protected status within the embrace of the Rio Grande National Forest.
I have been told by Rio Grande National Forest Public Affairs Officer Mike Blakeman that no one knows exactly what happened. The decision was simply passed down channels through the Department of Agriculture. According to Mr. Blakeman, all we know is that the decision was later returned to the District Office labeled “accepted.”
Get this: Something as important as trading away the heart of a spectacular highcountry watershed, part of the source waters to the international Rio Grande River, gets rejected by the lawful guardians of the Rio Grande National Forest. But, in the process of being codified back in Reagan-era D.C., Red’s Alberta Park swap proposal was reborn and returned to the Rio Grande National Forest with a thumbs-up. What if it was a clerical error?
Thus, on March 15 of this year I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the paper trail from the RGNF rejection, to the Deed of Title for Mr. McCombs (LMJV). I will be sharing the progress of that FOIA request at http://No-VillageAtWolfCreek. blogspot.com
Given this background, is it any wonder many feel McCombs pilfered that land from the Rio Grande National Forest? Furthermore, that his people have no more claim on “personal property rights” than a thief does claiming stolen property as his own?
But back to those early days. McCombs was talking up a low-key development, 200 housing units in harmony with the nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area. That changed when Bob Honts, McCombs’ partner, unveiled plans for a luxury vacation village of 10,000 people. Problem was (actually, only one of many): The parcel is landlocked with one seasonal dirt road as access. And it crosses national forest land. McCombs spent a decade trying to get access and permission to build the road, but caught in shady backroom dealings, losing a significant court battle, then settling out of court on another, those plans have pretty well died.
Ever resourceful, McCombs decided to reshuffle the cards. His new bet: Trade in 178 acres of his next-to-impossible-to-develop land for 204 acres with highway frontage. First he tried to enlist our local Congressman to bypass U.S. Forest Service “red tape” — that plan sputtered and died.
Then McCombs returned to traditional channels. In the spring of 2011 the RGNF began the required Environmental Impact Study. Originally Forest Service officials hoped the preliminary draft could be released in late December or January.
Now, we’re nearly into April and the Forest Service continues to be vague on when the report can be expected. Officials cite an interest in thoroughness, although some point out McCombs’ team is slow in returning requested information and perhaps being less than helpful.
What’s going on? Have McCombs and his team realized that “The Village at Wolf Creek” is a lost cause? Are they scrambling to develop an exit strategy? Using the cover of acquiring highway frontage to facilitate a revised friendlier village, are they actually focused on genuine real-estate gold? Secure the land trade, then sell out to the highest bidder, then git outta Dodge?
Good poker move and even Forest Service officials acknowledge that McCombs would be fully within his rights to pursue such a strategy.
But what about Alberta Park? Or that Rio Grande River watershed? What about the wildlife that’s being cornered into smaller and smaller patches of land? What about the coming drying of the Southwest? Isn’t that productive biological resource valuable as it is?
What about the public’s interests? Is all of this just a grand real-estate poker game for politician-owning billionaires? Who knows? The cynic would say, ‘Damn straight it is.’ The optimist would say, ‘The Forest Service listens to our concerns and has the public interest at heart.’ We will see.
Here’s the important part. After many delays we are arriving at a critical crossroad where that theory will be put to the test. Mc- Combs has made his Alberta Park Hail Mary pass.
Pretty soon, for a few short weeks, We the People will be legal participants in advising the Rio Grande National Forest decisionmakers. After years of being confined to spectator status, we get to speak up and thepowers- that-be must listen to our rational presentations of the dangers and arguments for why McCombs’ land swap needs to be refused outright.
Alberta Park is a piece of biosphere, it can’t defend itself. It needs concerned citizens — people, who depending on their own expertise, can do a little research, become informed. Then write some rational, polite letters to the Rio Grande National Forest decision-makers explaining why Mc- Combs’ proposal needs to be rejected. And just as important, why McCombs’ portion of Alberta Park should be returned to RGNF protection.
If all the folks who have “NO Pillage at the Village” bumper stickers, or who share the sentiment, would become engaged and take the time/trouble to express themselves over these next few crucial months... it would have an amazing impact.
For more information visit the Rio Grande National Forest’s web page on the “Village at Wolf Creek Land Exchange Proposal” at http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fsusda- pop.php/?project=35945. Comments to the draft EIS will be processed through: comments-rocky-mountain-rio-grande@ fs.fed.us.
Peter Miesler writes from near Durango and maintains an informational website at http://No- VillageAtWolfCreek.blogspot.com.