The Durango Herald recently turned to
Attorney Debra D’Agostino for her insight into the long-standing legal battle over Colorado's
Wolf Creek. The national site has been targeted for an "Aspen-like"
resort development since the 1980s by Texas media and energy magnate Red
McCombs. Due to new emails released via FOIA, the Forest Service is now
suspected of colluding with the billionaire to finally further the project
and attempting to evade FOIA by violating the federal record keeping regulations.
"They could be sanctioned," Attorney D’Agostino told the
paper, referring to the Forest Service’s attempts to evade FOIA.
"It’s really an undeveloped issue given that it seems government
officials come up with endless new tactics to skirt around FOIA requests.
The question is, can anything be done about it, and does anybody care?"
At the center of the newest Wolf Creek debate is environmental testing
that was conducted by the Rio Grande Forest Service that opponents believe
was influenced by McCombs in order to approve the land swap. The emails
released by the FOIA request seemingly illustrate that the Forest Service
anticipated such an investigation and conspired to destroy documents related
to McCombs’ plans. The activist group Friends of Wolf Creek has
filed suit against the Rio Grande Forest Service and demanded new testing.
Skirting Around FOIA
According to the Friends of Wolf Creek, the emails demonstrate a specific
fear that the Forest Service's dealings with McCombs' representatives
could be exposed with a FIOA request. In several emails, Rio Grande Forest
Service staffers attempt to take evasive measures to protect their communications.
"Dan [Dallas’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," wrote Ranger Thomas
Malecek in 2012. "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!”
A year later, Wildlife Program Manager Randy Ghormley also urged caution
about communications with McCombs' people, insisting employees submit
hardcopy communications when possible. "I’ll have (our lawyer)
send it electronically through an email ... so it will remain attorney-client
privilege and not subject to FOIA,” Ghormley also wrote.
A Critical Land Swap
McCombs' decades-long effort to legally acquire the land to build "The
Village at Wolf Creek" hit a critical point in May 2014, when the
Forest Service granted approval of a land swap. The swap, which was only
approved due to the aforementioned environmental testing, gave McCombs
access to U.S. Highway 160—a critical feature in giving the public
access to the proposed resort.
The complaint against Rio Grande Forest Service is anticipated to be settled
in Federal District Court in Denver later this year. As both sides prepare,
the Friends of Wolf Creek insist that the emails are just the tip of the
iceberg. "The willingness to stonewall us is stunning," said
Attorney Travis Stills, who is representing the coalition. "The emails
are indicative of the fact they do have something to hide. We’re
still letting the sun shine in on what really happened."