Paper trail shows agency hid and likely destroyed records related to controversial development proposal in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains
Environmental and community activists opposed to a massive real estate development in southern Colorado say they have new evidence that the U.S. Forest Service tried to cover up how political influence tainted several steps of the approval process for the project.
A review of more than 60,000 pages documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and a subsequent court order shows that the Forest Service deliberately concealed and destroyed records related to the Village at Wolf Creek development project.
At issue is an environmental study by the agency that evaluates the effects of a land trade at Wolf Creek Pass, in the eastern San Juan Mountains. If built as proposed, the so-called Village at Wolf Creek would include hundreds of new residential units on a private parcel of land surrounded by national forest in and near an important wildlife habitat.
Activists have challenged the study based on part on objections that Texas developer Billy Joe “Red ” McCombs continually used his political influence to grease the rails for the project, and some of the new documents posted by the San Juan Citizens Alliance show that’s been the case right from the beginning.
In a 2014 briefing memo to agency colleagues, a high level regional Forest Service official wrote: “It is commonly understood that Mr. McCombs brought political pressure to bear to realize his dream to develop the ski area.”
Regional deputy forester for operations Maribeth Gustafson also wrote that McCombs was “predictably upset” when he was told that the agency was launching a new study, and that the developer would likely “use every political avenue open to him to encourage the Forest Service to finalize its decision now.”
In the most recent twists in the complex and long-running issue, activist groups went to court to force the Forest Service to comply with their FOIA requests, following up with a lawsuit when the agency balked at turning over records.
Attorneys for the coalition of conservation and community groups said the paper trail clearly shows that the Forest Service engaged in “unlawful practices” that resulted in the Forest Service approving a critical land exchange with the developer.
Among other things, the agency actively concealed and destroyed public information. Communications records appear to confirm that employees intentionally destroyed and concealed documents from FOIA requests. Practices included deleting emails, sending hard copies of documents and copying attorneys on documents so they would be covered under “attorney-client privilege and not subject to FOIA.”
For example, a former Forest Service district ranger wrote, “Remember we are swimming with sharks and need to keep emails from even the remote appearance of whatever, so make sure you burn this email once read!”
According to the conservation alliance, the agency still hasn’t fully complied with the FOIA request. Key documents that would shed more light on how much political pressure was exerted include communications with political level appointees.
“It’s disappointing to see that our fears have been confirmed and the Forest Service is in fact destroying documents and sanitizing the record in this case,” said Matt Sandler, attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “If documents from the higher levels of the Forest Service still exist, and we are able to obtain them, we will get a clearer picture of why the Forest Service chose the interests of a developer over the public interest,” Sandler said.
In a press release, citizen activists pointed out that an earlier approval for the project was withdrawn because of concerns about these issues. At that time, (in 2008), the agency started a new review process, but the documents suggest the Forest Service is still not willing to provide transparent and lawful analysis.
“Government transparency is the cornerstone of democracy,” said Dan Olson, Executive Director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Without it we have no power over the government that supposedly acts on our behalf, Olson said. “The Alliance and our partners refuse to settle for anything less than complete transparency. The public deserves it, and so does Wolf Creek.”