Are some strings being pulled at Wolf Creek?

Article by Allen Best

Development – May 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

BILLY JOE “RED” MCCOMBS, the billionaire from Texas intent on building a part-time city at Wolf Creek Pass, now has a permit to build a road across the national forest. Whether he’ll keep it is the question in what has become a major story of big bucks, thin air, and allegations of unethical meddling by Bush administration appointees in Washington D.C.

As had been expected, the Forest Service gave McCombs a permit in early April to build a 750-foot road connecting Highway 160 with his private land, which he obtained 20 years ago in a land exchange. The agency also gave him authority to extend a road from the Wolf Creek Ski Area for 250 feet, although this latter road could be used only for shuttles and emergency vehicles during ski season.

Peter Clark, the supervisor for the Rio Grande National Forest, told reporters that federal law left him no option but to allow access to the inholding. On that 237-acre parcel, McCombs, a one-time used car salesman who is now considered among the richest Americans, plans to build nearly 2,220 housing units, or theoretically enough housing for 10,000 people.

Wolf Creek currently has no overnight lodging, one of only a few ski areas in Colorado with that distinction. Others include Monarch, Ski Cooper, Arapahoe Basin and Ski Silverton. It also has no snowmaking, also a rarity, and only one high-speed chairlift, which has become the ski industry’s standard for expensive comfort.

Clark insisted that he, and he alone, had made the decision to grant a permit. “At no time during this process did I receive direction, influence or pressure from higher levels on how or what decision to make,” he said pointedly in a letter published in The Denver Post.

This insistence flew in the face of claims by critics, who for many months had been saying that McCombs had unethically gained influence over Bush appointees who oversee the Forest Service. In March, The Denver Post presented evidence that circumstantially supported them. McCombs had given generously to candidates for Congress, mostly Republicans from Texas. In turn, he had lobbied for the appointment of Mark Rey, a former timber industry representative, to the position of undersecretary of agriculture in charge of the Forest Service. The Post also found that McCombs representatives had met with Rey — although Rey, in a letter to the editor, curtly noted that he had also met with opponents.

Far more damning was an allegation by recently retired Forest Service employee Ed Ryberg. Ryberg, who had overseen ski areas in Colorado for many years, said that Dave Tenny, an assistant to Mark Rey, had intervened with regional officials, indicating he wanted “movement” on the road case at Wolf Creek. Ryberg told the Post that “it’s not often you get a deputy undersecretary involved in an easement issue.” In this case, a conference telephone call was held, and “we were basically told by Tenny to help these guys and address their issues,” said Ryberg. He added: “The ski area was being obstinate, and they needed to be able to demonstrate they already had access so the project could move along.” Ryberg also argued that the environmental impact statement was flawed, because of an implausible no-action alternative.

Ryberg’s statements were widely noted in the ski industry, partly because he was known as a “company man.” Fiercely devoted Forest Service employees are said to “wear green underwear,” and Ryberg’s underwear was as green as they come. Within the agency, he was known as someone who could be counted on to stand up for ski areas, although he also argued against ski areas he believed were not good uses of public land, such as Cuchara.

IN THIS CASE, however, McCombs is not the ski area operator. That is the role of the Pitcher family, descendents of Otto Mears, the pathfinder of the San Juans. And the Pitcher family has its own ideas about how to operate a ski area. The family’s patriarch, Kinsbury Pitcher, had been among the first to scope out Snowmass and he helped set up what is now Ski Apache, located at Ruidoso, N.M. He also had the ski area at Santa Fé. At one point he had agreed with McCombs on a joint venture real estate project, but they parted company — bitterly — over the size of the project. The Pitchers wanted a smaller project, and McCombs aimed for a Texas-sized project. The two are now tangled in federal court.

Two other lawsuits have been filed by Colorado Wild, a Durango and Denver-based watchdog group of the national forests and, in particular, ski areas. Colorado Wild may be the only player so far with a clear victory. Whether deserved or not, a few years ago the group was seen as somewhat wild-eyed opponents of everything. In this battle, though, Colorado Wild is gaining influential allies and credibility. U.S. Rep. John Salazar has been a sharp critic of Wolf Creek, basically echoing the concerns expressed much earlier by Colorado Wild. And, when Colorado Wild was pointedly not invited to an April 7 “informational” meeting in Creede, both Salazar, a Democrat, and Mark Larson, a Republican state representative from Cortez, refused to attend in a show of support for Colorado Wild.

But the safe money on this dispute is with McCombs. Opponents claim procedural problems with the approvals, but not substantive problems, such as violation of the Clean Water Act or another powerful federal law. Still, at one time Denver’s Two Forks Dam seemed inevitable. After all, when had Denver Water ever lost a case? But it did, and that veto was dealt by an appointee of President George Bush. George H.W. Bush, however, vowed to be the environmental president; whereas George W. has never claimed such a goal.

Allen Best free-lances along Interstate 70 from Arvada to Eagle.