Wolf Creek Development and Corruption

This is what Wolf Creeks parking lot looks like, Photo Susan Etter | Mountain Weekly News

Two of my favorite things on earth are snow and snowboarding, especially at the Wolf Creek Ski Area. Because of a recent injury coupled with avalanche fatalities that have hit too close to home, I spend most of my time inbounds.

For six seasons, Vail Mountain was my home base, and I got several seasons of 100 plus days of riding. I’ve since moved to Durango, and my home mountain is now Purgatory with Telluride, Wolf Creek and Silverton each being close-by mountains that I ride several times a season. There are many pros and cons to both large and small resorts, and although I can see the appeal of heated sidewalks and gondolas with Wifi, I’ve come to prefer small privately-owned mountains with unobtrusive features and structures that have been there since the inception of the resort. Wolf Creek Ski Area is no exception to that developed appreciation.

Wolf Creek Development Plans

To the Colorado ski world, Wolf Creek is synonymous with big snow. There are very few cuts and groomed trails, and most of the terrain is tree skiing and hike-to bowls. Consistently reporting the highest snowfall in Colorado every year, I have had countless double-digit powder days at Wolf Creek and have had more 20+ inch powder days there than all other ski resorts I’ve ridden combined. Since there is not much traffic at the resort, fresh turns can be found four or five days inbounds after a storm. Am I giving a secret away? Not really.

This is the place powder snowboards were built for. Your regular board just won’t cut it, think heli skiing!

Towns near Wolf Creek

Tucked away in the southwest corner of the state, Wolf Creek is on a mountain pass on Highway 160 between the quaint towns of South Fork and Pagosa Springs. It’s a mountain so infrequently traveled that you will start recognizing the other skiers and riders by your third run. La Plata County airport outside of Durango is the nearest airport located 105 miles away. Denver and Albuquerque are the closest gateway airports and are 275 and 200 miles away, respectively. Given its accessibility, only locals, serious skiers/riders and powder hunters are the folks that generally ski Wolf Creek.

Susan Hiking at Wolf Creek, Photo | Mountain Weekly News

Susan Hiking at Wolf Creek, Photo | Mountain Weekly News

Wolf Creek Ski Area’s southern location makes for easy traveling for the tourist from Texas. I think this is how Red McCombs discovered Wolf Creek. I think. I’m getting ahead of myself, but I expected to find a passion for skiing, a story of childhood trips to Wolf Creek, a love for snow to be reasons for McCombs, a Texas billionaire who has owned the Minnesota Vikings, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs, to want to build an 8,000 person luxury resort on Wolf Creek Pass. Why else would someone want to build a resort in the middle of nowhere next to a ski mountain that the average skier would have no interest in going to? I have found nothing, however, not one article describing Red’s passion to ski. Then why?

Let me back up. This isn’t just a story of my love snowboarding and the outdoors or a rant against unnecessary development. This is a story of how a rich billionaire from out of state could reach his tentacles down to our local officials who were supposed to be protectors of our pristine and precious land.

Red McCombs Wolf Creek Plan

It’s a 30-year fight between the communities of the San Juan Mountains and Red McComb’s and his team that began in 1986. It started as a plan for Red McCombs to build an 8,000 person village (the Village) on Wolf Creek Pass. After the original in 1986, it was determined that there was no access to public roads to the original land space of the Village. After trying various ways of gaining site access, in 2014 the US Forest Service (USFS) did another land deal with the developer and as a result, public roads could access the new land. However, in 2014 environmentalists, lobbyists and locals questioned the impact on the precious wetlands surrounding the new land. Using laws surrounding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), community activists requested documentation of the processes determining that the construction of the village would comply with environmental laws. Ignoring the FOIA requests, the USFS and McCombs continued to obtain approval on the process of construction of the Village.

However, in 2015, a judge ruled that the US Forest Service inappropriately withheld documents from the public and ordered them to produce the documents. Finally, in November of 2015, 60,000+ pages of Forest Service documents were released. Some of the quotes from the documents and emails are as follows:

Thomas Malecek, who was a district ranger at the time of the email wrote on August 24, 2012 about Dan Dallas, who was the Rio Grande Forest Supervisor at the time, “Dan’s main concern wasn’t the letter, but the emails around the letter that might be a little damaging in the event they are not all deleted in case we get a foia … remember we are swimming with sharks and need to keep the emails from even the remote appearance of whatever, so make sure you burn this once read!”

It actualy snows in Colorado if you know wherre to look, Photo Susan Etter | Mountain Weekly News

It actually snows in Colorado if you know where to look, Photo Susan Etter | Mountain Weekly News

“I’ll have (our lawyer) send it electronically through an email … so it will remain attorney-client privilege and not subject to FOIA,” Randy Ghormley, a wildlife program manager, wrote. He also asked his employees to communicate via “hardcopy so it would not be subject to FOIA” in an email chain about environmental impacts the Village would have on endangered species and remote wilderness.

Although we cannot see exactly what was discussed because of the attorney-client privilege laws and because documents were intentionally concealed by legalities and document destruction, it is clear that the Forest Service was trying to hide something. It makes me sad that I cannot trust our local government officials who are paid (by us!) to protect our land and act on our best interest and the interest of the protected land.

And it still raises the question, why does Red McCombs, a man who has already owned several professional sports teams and is currently trying to buy the Oakland Raiders, is already a billionaire and ranked among the 1,000 richest people in the world, and is 88 years-old want so badly to build a village on Wolf Creek Pass?

If somehow this goes through you could always don a pair of snowboard skins and go skin up the backcountry near his property. Ski in ski out for everyone?

Our tiny mountain that is hard to access, has no nightlife, not very many easy runs, and arguably, for the fair-weather skier, has too much snow. Why? At this point, I think he just cannot be told “no”. It’s a pissing match, and he’ll fight it until he dies. I’ve got no doubt in my mind that this community will fight for as long as it takes.

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19 Comments on "Wolf Creek Development and Corruption"

  1. Colton Polczynski | January 25, 2016 at 2:45 PM | Reply

    I moved to Pagosa Springs when I was 5 years old, that was 14 years ago. Wolf Creek embodies the cornerstone of my youth. There is nowhere on earth that I find more pristine or beautiful. I absolutely agree with this article in that this massive development would cause nothing but corruption of our mountain. The construction of the village would inevitably cause massive environmental degradation to the surrounding forest that is already struggling to manage the bark beetle infestation. Then once its built the amount of waste produced will be very overwhelming and likely result in contamination and blowing litter.
    Another key point I’d like to address, and I speak specifically to all those crying over potential revenue loss in their town, is that Wolf Creek already attracts thousand of tourists! Once the village is built do you think they are going to stay in hotels in South Fork or Pagosa? No, they will just lodge there, eat there, drink there and fund McCombs. That is if the development can even support such a population. Suppose a big storm rolls in and the pass is closed just like on the 24 and 25 of last month. How many issues will this cause?
    Ultimately the Village will devastate the surrounding wilderness and ruin Wolf Creek. It will not generate an immense revenue for nearby towns and there is also the decent probability that the development will be so pricey that the entire project flops and then all that destruction was for nothing. NO PILLAGE AT WOLF CREEK!

  2. When that village opens up. I want the oxygen bar concession. I personally have trouble sleeping at 10,300 feet. I lay awake all night listening to my heart beat , trying to get enough O2 to my toes.

  3. This is an interesting situation. I lived in Pagosa Springs in the 70s and this idea was being batted back and forth back then . I like that Wolf Creek is small and fairly cheap. Bearly everyone you talk to who loves sking loves Wolf Creek. Most who don’t bemoan the lack of night life and beautiful people. I’m of the first persuasion and would hate to see that change but if it does I could live with that too.

  4. Great write up. I’m a Wolf pass holder and ski blogger:

    We should have a beer next powder day and talk about how we can work to stop the Pillage

  5. Unless you live in the immediate communities surrounding wolf creek, Pagosa springs, or the floundering and stagnant town of South fork, as I do, we’d appreciate if you kept your opinions to yourself. We are a little known resort on a infrequently traveled highway in southern colorado, we will not ever become vail. Our town wants and needs this spark to survive. In south fork we’ve had over 20 restaurants fail in the last 7 years in a town of 500. In a state where outdor activity, and recreation tourism is rapidly expanding why does the Durango population feel they have the duty to “protect”wolf creek? You are being ridiculous and selfish, I ask you to please worry about yourselves and your own forests. Your desire to continue to have wolf creek to yourself and to deny us the advancement that this region of colorado deserves is extremely frustrating. Wolf creek is already developed. Having some draw to the area being constructed in a place where anthropomorphic impact already exists does not harm our forests, it harms your selfish interests in regards to how you recreate. If you don’t want crowds take up backcountry skiing and allow our towns, counties, and communities to flourish as yours do. I appreciate your interest but am infinately tired of people who do not live in our communities having the final say of what happens in our backyard.

    • The spark to survive, you speak of, was voted-down not to long ago. South Fork is its own worst enemy. The proposed village has little to do with our current funk.

      • South Fork voted in ballooning commercial property taxes decades ago to discourage such development and/or put the burden of financing the county on such development. That is why Pagosa is so much more developed and economically robust. You folks want to advance your economy maybe you should consider that driving the hospitality industry directly in to the Pass and away from Pagosa and South Fork is not going to benefit the people in the community nearly as much as it does the people that own the buildings and rent the rooms. Changing local tax codes instead of greedily waiting for Big Daddy Red to pay for everything the county needs might be another way to stop putting those businesses under. I used to stay in South Fork instead of Pagosa, but there is one semi-nice hotel that is way overpriced and maybe one or two little spots with serviceable beds and decent rates that are obviously struggling. But if you want the glut of shitty minimum wage jobs and housing crises for year round locals and employees that most of Summit County and Vail are experiencing, this seems like a great idea. I’m sure your kids will make great maids and parking lot attendants.

    • I’ve got to double down on Cisco’s comments – if South Fork built a decent hotel / restaurant / coffee shop / brewery / weed store complex you’d have ski traffic coming for apres and staying in town spending money. But you don’t. Develop your own economy, not the mountain.

  6. Please, people! Yes the small towns needs jobs I agree. Slow down and read all the limited information presented.
    Then, PLEASE ask your selves: where will all that waste go? Which county will profit?

    Bottom line. There are few prestine locations unaffected by greed and need for power. Their name on the plaque while the rest clean up the sh#!. So how many will “ride to the top” and how many will clean up the mess for the rest of time. Will your name be on that plaque, will YOU benefit? Or will your children and grandchildren suffer the consequences???? For the rest of time…..

  7. 5th generation from South Fork, the town is dying. We need this and the jobs that will follow.

  8. charles balogh | January 23, 2016 at 1:53 PM | Reply

    the only thing I agree with in that promo video is the need for a bigass fire pit at WC…..

  9. So if this Materializes this Resort is in Mineral County and they would have to deal with or PAY the EMS , Fire and Law Enforcement. I know they don’t now but RED has said school, law , fire ,and all services would be included, HMMM…more jobs… Oh and by the way check back, way back .. and see who started all this land purchase ,swap and business venture, a vision to employ more local people, YEP DADDY Pitcher!!! !HMMM …. Oh and by the way Texas, Oklahoma, California, Louisiana, and many other great states allow their people to ski at Wolf Creek and bring their money to our local restaurants , motels and airports. Don’t knock RED until YOU have personally talked face to face with HIM not just the Nay sayers.

  10. If the land was bought by Red McCombs it evidently was up for sale? So, how can it be “our” land? I guess if you didn’t want Red to build at Wolf Creek then maybe you should have bought the land.

    • My understanding is that the property was never for sale. He traded land that he owned with the Forest Service for the land that he currently owns. Unfortunately for him, the land he currently owns has a lot of wetlands and easements that the Wolf Creek Ski Area owns (that he can’t build on). He is currently trying to trade the land that he currently owns for adjacent acreage that doesn’t have the wetlands or easement impediments which would allow him to build out the project on a much grander scale. So no, the author never had an opportunity to buy the land. Nobody without the connections that this billionaire has ever had the opportunity to purchase the land. Some call this crony capitalism.

      This project is controversial in Pagosa Springs not just for the environmental impact but because of the impact on our emergency services. The project is outside of our county so we would not receive any of the property taxes but it’s our ambulances and other emergency services which are often called to help out in emergencies in the area.

      • Was absolutely for sale. Listed for sale. Any one had the opportunity to purchase it. The environmental community chose to create a fight instead using those dollars to purchase the property. Here’s anther fact. The only person who has ever stood to make a profit in this deal from mineral county, was the bed partner of the vice chairman and co-founder of the San Luis valley eco-system council. The lead environmental group fighting the developer.
        Intersingly he was supportive of the deal when she as broker represented the developer.
        Another fact there have been 100,000 a developed in the San Luis valley during the time of this proposal. And look at the development between pagosa and Durango. Mineral county has been a negligible part of that. And most of the development in mineral county since the inception of this proposal has profited those in bed with literally, or associated with the San Luis valley eco-system council, our lead environmental group. Want to talk about corruption and crony capitalism with us.

        We have watched our national forest die before our eyes as the environmental community files law suits, as a business model, moving our jobs to law offices else where.

    • McCombs ‘acquired’ the original piece of property in a land swap by trading a piece of property he owned in a completely different state than Colorado. That deal had a ‘cloud’ over it as well.

    • The public land was not for sale. It was traded under shady conditions. The Red Mcoombs coercion began in 1986 with the original “land swap”, that was denied at first for good reason, and then reversed two weeks later for no apparent reason. He has been using his money to manipulate the systems that ensure our public land is well cared for.

      All the background details can be found here: http://friendsofwolfcreek.org/background/

  11. This story is interesting because the little guy has stymied the big guy for so long…30+ years. Red and his team are persistent, I’ll give them that. So far, there has been no corruption to the experience Wolf Creek offers…it still gets a lot of snow, it’s cheap, and the flats will get you one day.

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