The impasse at Wolf Creek

An old and bad dream refuses to die at Wolf Creek Pass

by Allen Best

In late May, Texas businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs got a land exchange with the U.S. government in southern Colorado, and it looks a lot like what he originally proposed 30 years ago. Whether it was a good thing then, or now, is another matter.

McCombs, who owned the Denver Nuggets from 1978 to 1985, has wanted to build a real estate development adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area. No private land existed next to the ski area. In 1986, with partners that included the owners of the ski area, the McCombs-Leavell Joint Partnership got an island of 300 acres of land in exchange for private lands elsewhere that were added to the national forest.

The Pitcher family, owners of the ski area, at the time thought lodging at the base would be good. Many ski areas do have base-area lodging, but not all.

But this land exchange 29 years ago was flawed at birth. It at 10,000 feet in elevation and gets an average 485 inches of snowfall per year. There were wetlands, never a good thing if you’re planning to build a real-estate complex of more than 2,011 units, as originally proposed.

That parcel was also isolated from U.S. Highway 160 except for a seasonal gravel road that goes through the ski area. In announcing his recent approval of a reconfigured parcel of 325 acres, Dan Dallas, supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest, said he believes he was mandated by federal law to provide a direct link to the highway. In a sense, he was fixing somebody’s past mistake.

McCombs, who was worth $1.85 billion as of December, according to Forbes magazine, is now 87. Even if he lives to be a much riper age, he still needs a permit from the state highway department, and depending upon his final development plans, a wetlands permit from the federal government and a revised development permit from Mineral County. The Forest Service assumed 500 units.

Environmental groups in Colorado have vowed to challenge the legality of the new land exchange.

Some might see McCombs’s 30-plus year odyssey as a sure sign of government red tape and environmental obstructionism. A more careful examination suggests that McCombs missed his chance when the U.S. government was lackadaisical about its stewardship of federal lands.

Other would-be developers have had the same bad timing. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Forest Service was open to development of new ski areas, even encouraging. For example, it produced a list of possible sites. A St. Louis-based developer, Fred Kummer, studied the agency’s list and seized upon Adam Mountain, south of Eagle. In 1972, he set out to create a four-season resort of skiing and golf called Adam’s Rib. The rib is a glacial moraine linking side-by-side Adam and Eve mountains.

Kummer has enjoyed great success in building hospitals and upscale hotels. Among them was Denver’s Adam’s Mark, located on the 16th Street Mall and rebranded several years ago as a Sheraton. But in Eagle County, at the namesake for the chain, he made a key mistake. When the real estate bust hit Colorado in the early 1980s, he stopped pursuing the ski area. When he picked up the reins again, it was a different world. The ski industry’s double-digit growth had ended. Eagle, the nearest town, had fully recovered from closing of a sawmill and was becoming a comfortable, even prosperous bedroom community of Vail.

The Forest Service had also changed. In 1997, a district ranger, Anne Huebner, more devoted to enforcing environmental laws than fostering real estate development, told Kummer that Adam’s Rib must comply with the Clean Water Act. Within days, he abandoned the ski area. There may have been a connection.

I had skied the mountain several weeks before. Skiing down the mountain, not sideways, takes you to a valley no wider than the 16th Street Mall. The valley already has a creek and a road. It was hard to imagine anything more. On another side of the mountain, near the proposed base area, was a giant wetlands area called Vassar Meadows. The best skiing would have been on catwalks.

Later, Kummer developed a golf course-focused real estate project several miles farther down the valley and on private land. It’s a lovely place and well done. The golf course struggled to gain members, however, despite being just 45 minutes from Vail. In March, Kummer finally sold his stake. The new owners renamed the project Frost Creek, dramatically lowered prices and have doubled membership. Prices matter – but so does location.

In Crested Butte, ski area owners Bo Calloway and Ralph Walton also missed their opportunity. Crested Butte has plenty of steeps and flats, but not much moderate terrain for people who ski just 5 or 10 days a year. In 1982, Calloway and Walton, who have both died in recent years, got permission from the Forest Service to create an essentially new ski area on adjacent Snodgrass Mountain.

Like Kummer, they bided their time. When they returned to the project, Crested Butte was a different place. Opponents were more sophisticated. The Forest Service had also become more wary of de facto new ski areas. The agency rejected the latest proposal for a Snodgrass expansion several years ago because of geological instability. Environmental laws had trumped economic development.

What happened in the U.S. Forest Service? Ed Ryberg, a retired Forest Service employee, says new requirements to conduct forest planning started changing the agency in the 1980s. Plans required management “prescriptions,” akin to municipal zoning, that give primary emphasis of forest tracts to timber production, skiing and so forth. Changing a forest plan, once adopted, is a major undertaking. There was less seat-of-the-pants decision making by forest managers.

Planning requirements also diversified staffing of the agency. Before, the agency was run by foresters and engineers, who managed timber cuts and designed roads. With forest planning, says Ryberg, the agency had to hire biologists, hydrologists and other ologists. They brought new outlooks rooted in the environmental movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Too, the environmental laws of that era had begun to stick. They were enforced. See Adam’s Rib.

And finally, a larger set of interests became involved in national forest decisions. It wasn’t just the local county commissioners and chambers of commerce, says Ryberg, who, when he retired, oversaw permitting for the 28 ski areas in Colorado that operate primarily on national forest land. Active skepticism became more common.

Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, an opponent, says she believes the Forest Service, in its latest decision, is simply trying to smooth over a previous mistake. “If this land exchange were presented today, it would not happen,” she says. “There are way too many people watching now.”

I tried to contact McComb’s development team but got no response.

Several questions linger about Wolf Creek. One is just how much it will cost to create a supposed high-end real estate project in a place with snow where snow sometimes lingers until July 4th. This isn’t like slicing up a cornfield into single-family lots. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that McCombs had to pay steep penalties related to more than $45 million he tried to shield from taxes. But he still has plenty of money—and conventional wisdom is that it will be needed.

But will he find buyers? The 10,000 feet elevation isn’t insurmountable. Breckenridge is nearly that high, and on the way to Hoosier Pass there are homes to nearly 11,000 feet. But Wolf Creek is more isolated. It’s 20 minutes from the nearest town, South Fork. People like to get away, but get away from it all? I’m dubious.

McCombs was also involved with another ski-related real estate project in Colorado that had a lousy location. The Cuchara ski area, located 90 miles to the east of Wolf Creek on the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Range, southwest of Walsenberg, seldom had adequate snow. Finally, in 2002, the plug was pulled.

Some dreams are worth chasing, but others are not. It’s hard to understand what has animated this dream borne in the boom-boom years of the ski industry well into the 21st century.

Earlier versions of this essay were published in Mountain Town News, an e-mail newsletter distributed to subscribers, and in The Denver Post. 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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