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The View from Colorado

The Fight to Save the Rocky Mountains

by JOSHUA FRANK

This year I find myself in Colorado attempting to put a few miles between my overburdened mind and the mechanized drone of Southern California. The allure of the Rocky Mountains has once again compelled an escape. A tempered abandonment from the rat race. This spot, just south of the summit town of Breckenridge, at an elevation of around 11,500 feet, is known as alpine country. Up here, while scraping the sky, one comes to appreciate that we truly are a product of the soil and not the other way around. It is just too bad that the gluttonous developers below the tree line don’t value this geomorphic wonder for the same reason.

Colorado is best known for its winter resorts. Vacationers from all over the world fly in to the sleek Denver International Airport so their well-heeled families can experience the fresh powder of these sloping ranges. Thus the contractors expand the ski runs, build condos, five star hotels, steak houses, shopping centers, and coma inducing day spas. All the luxuries of New York City right here in the heart of the Rockies. But I wouldn’t call these gracious comforts; I’d call these privileged communities monstrosities of the worst sort.

If there ever were a reason to resist the triumphs of capitalism, these little industrial vistas set in the Rocky Mountains would be it. The sheer destruction of biodiversity is not something that need be celebrated. Instead it must be challenged.

In 1998 misguided Earth Liberation Front (ELF) radicals allegedly torched some buildings and ski lifts in Vail, not all that far from here. As of last year a few of these activists, after being targeted by the feds and a FBI collaborator, began serving prison time for the arson. Others who still face indictments continue to remain at large. But sparking matches in the middle of the night isn’t a brave action, it was a reactionary one — not to mention shortsighted as Vail later rebuilt its resort with even grander and more damaging results. Insurance pays.

In order to halt the ruination of these untamed places, a concerted effort among the citizens of Colorado must lead the way for the effort to have any real, lasting impact. Colorado Wild, an environmental outfit that focuses its energies on fighting ski hill expansions, has taken the helm and has had more success than the Vail arsonists in fighting the purveyors of unbridled expansion.

Right now the group, along with Friends of Wolf Creek, are hoping to stop the construction of a 10,000 person village in the middle of the San Juan Mountains, one of the snowiest regions of Colorado. The investor for the project is Texas billionaire Billy Joe "Red" McCombs who owns the Minnesota Vikings and co-founded Clear Channel Communications. In 2005 Forbes rated McCombs one of the 400 richest Americans.

The "Village at Wolf Creek" is to be constructed just below the Continental Divide, where the mighty rivers of the West divide and race to their respective homes. McCombs’ vision, not unlike that of Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton who built the township near Vail, is sustained by greed and a rampant disregard for the wild. Like most capitalists, McCombs is in it for the money and status. Nothing more.

Right now the fight over the blueprints for Village at Wolf Creek still remain in the courts. For the moment at least, Colorado Wild and their allies seem to be fending off the moneyed interests of Red McCombs. In October 2005 Colorado 12th District Judge O. John Kuenhold threw out the Mineral County’s approval of the resort development on the grounds that it would not have suitable access to the highway. Colorado Wild had one small victory in its pocket and was hoping that more would come.

Most recently, on August 22, after a long awaited appeal by McCombs and company to Judge Kuenhold’s 2005 decision, and with a cross-suit by Colorado Wild and Wolf Creek Ski Area, the three members of the Colorado Court of Appeals finally heard the appeals and focused almost solely on the issue of road access. The district judge in the previous hearing had upheld the other portions of the county’s approval for development.

As of now the only road that accesses the McComb property, which accounts for 287 acres, is Forest Service Road 391. Like most skid roads and other rough Forest Service paths cut through these alpine regions, 391 is narrow, unpaved, and closed for most of the year. McCombs no doubt would like to expand 391 and make it available to intrepid tourists year-round.

McComb’s team argued that their client has legal access to his property. On the other hand, Andrew Shoemaker, the ski area’s lawyer who has sided with Colorado Wild, said the dirt road is not suited for grandiose development, which even includes a power plant.

"If one occupant of the 10,000 occupants is traveling out and you’re traveling in, you don’t have access. You’re obstructed," Shoemaker told the court. "It would be different if they had proposed a hunting lodge. But this is a Texas-sized development. They wanted the whole shebang."

Besides 391, the Forest Service has authorized two additional roads, to which Colorado Wild challenged in federal court and was victorious. For a while anyway. U.S. District Judge John Kane temporarily stopped McCombs from developing the proposed roads. The latest proceedings of the Colorado Court of Appeals may take months to finalize. In the meantime, Colorado Wild is keeping up the pressure.

"There’s no immediate threat [that construction will start]," Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, told the Durango Herald. "There’s roughly two months left of snow-free season, and then that window rapidly closes again."

So the battles rage on by a courageous few to protect the freedom of the wild in these desolate, iconic parts of the Rocky Mountains. If the courts don’t side with the legally-inclined environmentalists who want to preserve this wilderness for black bears and not for vacationers, Red McCombs and his investors can be certain that other radical activists will take to the Forest Service roads to confront the development of our untrammeled public lands.

JOSHUA FRANK is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be published by AK Press in March 2008.