Environmental groups claim that U.S. Forest Service officials felt politically pressured to aid a Texas billionaire's plans for a massive resort development on Wolf Creek Pass and made various attempts to conceal or destroy records in order to avoid public scrutiny of the decision process — including one e-mail from a district ranger to other planners urging them to read and then trash it.
The allegations come as groups opposing the development sift through nearly 70,000 pages of documents released by the USFS in response to Freedom of Information litigation. More than half of the pages represent items pulled from government servers that were not provided in response to previous FOIA requests, including an e-mail from District Ranger Tom Malacek that was supposed to be deleted after recipients read it.
In response to questions about the significance of one document, Malacek's missive explains that a supervisor's "main concern wasn't the letter, but the e-mails around the letter that might be a little damaging in the event that they are not all deleted in case we get a foia.... Remember we are swimming with sharks and need to keep e-mails from even the remote appearance of whatever, so make sure you burn this e-mail once read!"
Other documents made available online by the Friends of Wolf Creek coalition indicate that Forest Service employees engaged in several other strategies to keep records from being made public through FOIA requests, including sending a document "hardcopy so it would not be subject to FOIA" and cc'ing attorneys so the documents could be represented as protected by attorney-client privilege.
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The battle over the Village at Wolf Creek, a resort area that would house up to 8,000 people, dates back to 1986, when B.J. "Red" McCombs — a Clear Channel co-founder and owner at one time or another of the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Vikings — unveiled plans for the project. Environmental and community groups loudly opposed it, saying it was out of scale with the surrounding wilderness of the San Juans. Ironically, one environmental impact study had to be abandoned a decade ago after opponents sued, charging that the process was unduly influenced by McCombs; the Forest Service agreed to start over and be more "transparent" about the process. In 2014, a Forest Service supervisor okayed a land swap that would give the project needed highway access.
But attorneys for the Friends of Wolf Creek say the e-mails show that political pressure was still being applied to decision makers behind the scenes; there are references to McCombs "making calls to his friends in Washington" and using "every political avenue open to him." A spokesman for the Village at Wolf Creek project has denied any improper influence, and Forest Service officials have suggested that the most embarrassing of the e-mails have been taken out of context.
But it doesn't seem that way to Rocky Mountain Wild staff attorney Matt Sandler, who's still wondering if his group has obtained the complete record of the key decisions made in approving the land swap. "I was the lucky one who got to read through these documents," he says. "The government gets to put together the record that I have to use as my evidence. You have to put trust in that process, and this certainly puts the process into question."
Sandler says the judge in the FOIA litigation could order an investigation of whether the government employees involved in the process violated policy and the law by attempting to conceal or destroy documents. The battle could conceivably lead to starting over yet again — but would the agency's work be any more transparent this time around? Stay tuned.