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A rare win after nearly 40 years for Texas investors planning Wolf Creek Village

Texas investor Red McCombs swapped the Forest Service for 300 acres on Wolf Creek Pass in 1986. The late McCombs envisioned a resort village for 8,000 people on the parcel surrounded by Rio Grande National Forest and bordering the Wolf Creek ski area.
Courtesy The Village at Wolf Creek
Texas investor Red McCombs swapped the Forest Service for 300 acres on Wolf Creek Pass in 1986. The late McCombs envisioned a resort village for 8,000 people on the parcel surrounded by Rio Grande National Forest and bordering the Wolf Creek ski area.

The Colorado Sun originally published this story at 4:00 AM on May 6, 2024.

In the nearly 40 years that a legendary Texas investor spent trying to build a massive village atop Wolf Creek Pass, not a lot went his way.

Until last week.

After almost a quarter century of lawsuits challenging the late Red McCombs’ proposal for a 1,700-unit village on 300 remote acres next to Wolf Creek ski area — and three court decisions siding with environmental groups battling the plan — the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver last week threw out previous rulings and affirmed the Forest Service’s 2019 approval of an access road connecting U.S. 160 with the island of private land.

“We are obviously pleased and feel like this was the right decision,” said Clint Jones, who has worked for the McCombs family on the Wolf Creek Village project since 2008.

Lawsuits have stalked the Wolf Creek Village plan since its inception as McCombs reworked his project, abandoning a plan for a second land swap and focusing on an access road to the inholding of private acreage surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest. McCombs, who died in 2023, had argued that the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act — known as ANILCA — required the Forest Service to provide “adequate access” to islands of private land surrounded by public forest.

Environmental groups across the West have spent decades arguing that the clause in the act that requires the Forest Service to allow “adequate access” so private landowners can have “reasonable use and enjoyment” of inholdings does not apply outside of Alaska. The legislation protected 104 million acres in Alaska and left about 800,000 acres of private land surrounded by federally protected land. (Environmental groups most recently have sued the White River National Forest over its ANILCA-anchored approval of a 2.4-mile paved access road to a 680-acre inholding above the town of Edwards, where developers plan 19 luxury homes.)

The ANILCA fight over the access road is the latest in a decades-long battle. And the issues reach beyond ANILCA. The environmental organizations raise concerns about endangered species, like the Canada lynx, and potential missteps by the Forest Service as it conducted its review of the access road plan under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Mark Pearson with the San Juan Citizens Alliance said the environmental groups are studying the federal appeals court decision and have not made any decisions about appealing or seeking a rehearing.

Regardless of any legal action, the Wolf Creek Village plan will require many more years of planning, with the developer needing a permit from the Colorado Department of Transportation to access U.S. 160 and permits from Mineral County.

“There are a lot of opportunities for public participation on upcoming decisions that will probably stretch out for quite a long time,” Pearson said. “There are enormous physical and structural limitations for a village up there. Is there enough water to support the city they are proposing to build? How are they going to get power up there? All this will require some significant planning and public scrutiny.”

A lot has changed since 1986, when McCombs and other investors first proposed a village atop Wolf Creek Pass next to the Wolf Creek ski area. The investors proposed a land exchange with the Forest Service, swapping about 1,600 acres in the San Luis Valley for about 300 acres of Forest Service land adjacent to the Wolf Creek ski area in Mineral County.

The staff at the Forest Service who approved the land swap and even the 2019 road access are gone. Same for the elected officials in Mineral County who supported the village plan nearly 25 years ago.

The initial plans for the Wolf Creek Village called for more than 2,100 condos, hotel rooms and homes for 8,500 people and 225,000 square feet of commercial space. Revised plans scaled back that plan to about 1,700 units.

McCombs, a San Antonio investor, owned hundreds of companies in his lifetime — including radio stations, car dealerships and sports teams including the Denver Nuggets. He was 95 when he died in February 2023. His daughter, Marsha McCombs Shields, has been overseeing the McCombs empire for 20 years.

Jones said he plans to sit down with the McCombs family and discuss the recent ruling.

“I do not know what their position will be for moving forward, but they are very excited that this one impediment that has been there for years has finally been resolved,” Jones said. “The industry has changed. Circumstances have changed. I do not know what they want to do with the property. Now that we’ve got road access, it opens the door to start studying future possibilities.”

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