Watchdog groups say approval for the exchange was tainted by bias and political influence
FRISCO — Watchdog groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service to block a land exchange near Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado. The swap would enable a huge real estate development near Wolf Creek Ski Area in the midst of important wildlife habitat.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Colorado, alleges that the approval process was tainted by a lack of transparency and by an incomplete environmental analysis that was unduly influenced by the proponents of the exchange.
According to Rocky Mountain Wild attorney Matt Sandler, the lawsuit will show that the Forest Service review process was biased and conflicted.
“Regional Director Maribeth Gustafson, the Forest Service employee who reviewed and dismissed public objections to this land exchange, was directly involved in developing the land exchange decision – which is contrary to stated Forest Service policy. She came to the table with her mind made up,” Sandler said.
The lawsuit is the latest stage in a long-running controversy over the proposed development, going back to the 1980s, when the Forest Service first created an island of private land in the area with an earlier land exchange.
Since then the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture development group has been trying to find a way to develop the private parcel, claiming that the Forest Service must provide access to the inholding. Last month, Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas approved the latest deal, which would see 205 federal acres traded for 177 acres of private land and provide the access needed for the development.
“This land exchange was completed without the full and transparent analysis of the impacts that is required by law,” said Sandler. “These laws are in place to protect the public interest; this Forest Service decision protects the interests of big business and billionaires.”
The lawsuit asserts that the Forest Service unnecessarily limited the scope of its environmental analysis to avoid fully analyzing the impacts that the development would have on Forest Service land.
The lawsuit also alleges that the Forest Service manipulated the scope and structure of the environmental review, and that the developers pressured Forest Service officials at every stage, at times using their political connections to try and force approval of the exchange.
The conservation groups are also meeting with elected officials and federal agency leaders in Washington, D.C.
“Our goal is to convince the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, to take a hard look at this development, and to immediately stop any real estate transactions,” said Jimbo Buickerood, public land coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Buickerood said the groups are confident that an independent review will show that the trade is not in the public interest.
Opposition to the development has been growing, and includes local businesses, skiers, ranchers, local land owners, downstream water uses, hunters, anglers, and conservationists.
“The groundswell of support to save Wolf Creek is very heartening, “ says Christine Canaly, Executive Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “This area is so important to the health of our local environment and economy. Over 2000 people from around the state, and nation, have sent letters and messages just last week to the Forest Service in an attempt to save this special place.”
Wolf Creek Pass is an important wildlife corridor and a key watershed for the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers, which are a major water source for many downstream communities.
The lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service was brought by: Rocky Mountain Wild, San Juan Citizens Alliance, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and Wilderness Workshop.