Sloppy search for records related to proposed Colorado resort development put agency in the hot seat
By Bob Berwyn
Conservation advocates battling against plans for a massive resort development at Wolf Creek Pass, in southwestern Colorado, won a partial victory in federal court this week, as a judge ruled that the U.S. Forest Service violated the Freedom of Information Act and must release more documents related to the approval of a controversial land trade.
The land trade was approved earlier this year by Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas. It would give the developer, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, a way to access a parcel of private land that’s nearly surrounded by public national forest lands by swapping 205 federal acres for 177 acres of private land. If it stands, the trade would enable construction of a resort village for up to 8,000 people.
Conservation advocates oppose the project because of its potential impacts to wildlife habitat, including threatened lynx. They say that the area is not appropriate for a large resort development. Forest Service officials who won’t comment on issues under litigation, said previously that they are required by federal law to provide reasonable access to private property.
Rocky Mountain Wild, the conservation group that filed the lawsuit, says the documents may show that the exchange was tainted during the approval process. The group suspects that the development group exerted improper influence over the exchange by lobbying high level Forest Service officials, who then may have pressured the Rio Grande National Forest to approve the trade.
The 20-page ruling by Judge Wiley Y. Daniel says the Forest Service failed to justify its decision to withhold thousands of pages from public scrutiny, and that the agency didn’t do a thorough search for other pertinent documents related to the trade. The ruling sets an Oct. 30 deadline for the Forest Service to comply.
“The Court has verified what we have been saying throughout this decision making process,” said Matt Sandler, Staff Attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “The Forest Service has failed to be transparent, has withheld documents, and has committed resources to approving this irresponsible development while failing to keep the public informed.”
Government agencies have the right to withhold certain documents under a variety of FOIA exemptions, but Judge Daniel pointed out that, in general, courts have ordered that FOIA is to be “construed broadly in favor of disclosure, and that its exceptions are to be narrowly construed.”