Guest Opinion: Response to the Village at Wolf Creek developers

It was interesting to read the “Village at Wolf Creek” (VWC) developers attempt to “clear up some of the misconceptions” in the August 7th issue of the Courier.  The muddled and often erroneous statements confirm why this project has been so controversial, for so long.

First off, there are good reasons why the Colorado public has been concerned about this potential development. Back in 1986, The Forest Service reversed its decision to deny the land exchange, after changes to the Record of Decision informed by an Environmental Assessment (EA) had based the analysis on 208 units. After the Forest Service decision was made, the developers changed its proposal and began pursuing water rights for over 2,000 units, almost 10 times what was originally analyzed in the EA. To the people of this region, who feel a strong connection to this place, it appears the creation of the private inholding was approved under false pretext; putting one proposal forward and then moving to implement something else entirely is commonly known as a bait and switch. The developer’s letter conveniently ignores the well-documented pre-switch history of the land exchange.

The post-switch development proposal simply does not fit into a parcel created to accommodate a 208-unit condo development and associated shops. Further frustrating those who cherish this headwaters region, is we understand that a potential 8,000 people will not just stay on 300 acres. The National Forests on Wolf Creek Pass contain the most concentrated core habitat area left in the Southern Rockies. The impacts of those who may actually visit or choose to live in the development, especially those that are not used to having access to public lands, will spread into the surrounding landscape.

The current users of the area will likely be displaced. The proposed description of the “reduced” 1,722 units alone has no choice but to conger up images of a city; light and noise, traffic jams, a power plant and a fire station. How about just focusing on water storage needs alone? It will require 10 million gallons for just Phase One (497 units). As a point of comparison, the huge water tanks hovering above Alamosa store 1/2 million gallons. Are we beginning to get the picture? Again, it feels like the development “proposal” is touting another bait and switch.

That’s not why most of us go into wilderness, to be with 8,000 people or “glamping” next to what amounts to a company town that diminishes our existing communities. Should the project fail, as did the Cuchera, Bitterroot Resort, and many others, the impacts are likely to remain for decades, leaving the Forest Service and locals to pick up the pieces.

It’s humorous to read about the VWC development team, who are presumably paid to promote the “Village” in the article, to have the audacity to comment about us using the “Village” for our “fundraising.” The reality is, SLV Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), its members and concerned Colorado citizens have spent thousands upon thousands of volunteer hours trying to redirect this bad, densely populated idea off the continental divide. We would all rather be doing something else, clearly, but our passion for protecting this critical habitat from ecological dismemberment keeps us vigilant. Would the development team be willing to dedicate themselves as we have for two decades?

The “Village” promoters provided many incorrect assertions. District Court Judge Richard Matsch specifically found that the Forest Service “based their decision on an analysis that is contrary to law.” That same analysis is being used to support this new decision. ANILCA does not force the Forest Service to provide unrestricted access to the developer’s parcel, only adequate access for a “reasonable use.” It’s clear that language is being cherry picked from federal laws that require analysis of whether the current access is adequate, and if not, how the Forest Service can grant access to minimize impacts on the National Forest. Judge Matsch ruled that the analysis did neither.

There is a major perception gap here when the only value that’s brought to the table is “jobs.” “Village at Wolf Creek” is promoting a private development, not the local economy. By contrast, SLVEC works to protect our air, water, establish responsible solar, and ensure a ten year plan for solid waste reduction and recycling, to name a few community benefits. SLVEC too, has created sustainability and jobs. We received congressional recognition from Congressman Scott McInnis for the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, which brought in a cumulative impact of over $36 million for the San Luis Valley region last year.

In the 20 years of my personal involvement with this issue, there has not been any acknowledgement from the developers regarding the intrinsic ecological value, life cycles, and unspoiled nature of the landscape surrounding the Rio Grande headwaters. This ecological integrity supports many functioning systems, rewarding all of us mightily downstream. It’s called Ecosystem Services.

That’s also why protecting lynx habitat is so important, because lynx and their territory protect many hundreds of other species and natural ecosystems. The developers claim there is “no evidence to support the statement that the Village will irreparably harm any wildlife corridor.” The truth is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed that “[t]he issue with the…development is that, it will push overall traffic volume on U.S. 160 above levels documented to reduce habitat effectiveness and use adjacent to the highway corridor…[and] increase the rate of lynx hit by vehicle[s] [and]… increase avoidance of the highway corridor.” The answer isn’t “if one gets killed, we’ll replace it.” You cannot replace a bioregion – this is offensive arrogance.

Excuse us for assuming back-room deals continue to infect this process. During the last legal process we discovered many instances of influence peddling. It would be absurd for us not to think a new Forest Service decision in VWC’s favor wasn’t also forced by financial power and political connections. Indeed, important issues identified by both Judge Kane in 2008 and Judge Matsch in 2017 have been undue influence and bias. 

In short, the Village at Wolf Creek, doesn’t make common or economic sense — 8,000 people at 10,000 ft, at the same time, in the same place? It’s a recipe for disaster. A real lasting legacy would be to invest in protecting the environment of this unique headwaters region. 

Christine Canaly is the director San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, Alamosa, a public lands advocacy organization since 1998 and proud partner of Friends of Wolf Creek