Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Altitude Sickness

My work at the Ecosystem Council progressed.  I expanded the organization’s mailing list in fits and starts.  I composed the annual letters to the half-dozen or so foundations that provided the council with the bulk of its funds―$5,000 here, $8,000 there.  I learned how to compose a lengthy newsletter online, the bits, bytes, and pixels of which were then sent to a local business that created the hundreds of hardcopies, which were subsequently mailed.  Then, with the help (at no cost) of a retired tech wizard living in Crestone―the quirky, quiet little new age place was a surprising Zen garden of talent―I created the organization’s first website.  The wizard then explained to me how to get maximum exposure for the council via a relatively new “search engine” he recommended above all others―something with the goofy name of Google. 

Perhaps the issue of greatest concern during my employment at the council was a proposed resort―cozily if unimaginatively named “The Village at Wolf Creek”―capable of accommodating eight thousand people on some three hundred acres of private land adjacent to the family-owned, modest, and relatively remote Wolf Creek Ski Area.  Surrounded by national forest land and the ski area, which leased its acreage from the national forest, the private land was acquired in an 80’s land swap of shady nature between the United States Forest Service and a Texas land development company: three hundred acres of lush forest and wetlands just below the apex of storied Wolf Creek Pass for sixteen hundred acres of, in the words of one environmental advocacy organization, “degraded rangeland” in the San Luis Valley.  The council was opposed to the development, which was being bankrolled primarily by a Texas billionaire who made his fortune in automobile sales and communications. 

My job was to explain to the council’s supporters, via newsletters and fundraising letters, the primary threats this development at the headwaters of the Rio Grande posed, including water, air, and light pollution; traffic jams; and wildlife disturbance.  My job was also to attend and document townhall meetings arranged to discuss the proposed development and to participate in and document fields trips to the proposed development site to examine its potential environmental impacts.  The council was aided by various non-profits in southern Colorado, with the legal muscle provided by an organization based in the chic southwestern Colorado town of Durango. 

The billionaire―a former owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team and Denver Nuggets basketball team―never to my knowledge during my tenure at the council made an appearance either in the Valley or at the proposed development site.  His partner in the venture, an Austin, Texas, land developer and chief executive of the company that would build the project, represented him at “townhall meetings” in Del Norte, Creede, and South Fork, towns all nearby to the ski area.  In his fifties or sixties, this soft-spoken―disarmingly so, I thought―man made an obvious effort to affect a casual, down-home look.  His jeans were faded and his boots scuffed.  He wore a leather jacket.  Ralph Lauren?  Perhaps.  But it was sufficiently worn and faded to challenge any conclusions that might have been drawn from the brand name.  He had a thick, plump, and curvaceous crown of hair that never quite melded with the straight grain of hair on the sides and back of his head and thus, to me, whispered “hair piece.”  A perfect “mountain man” for the new millennium, he was rarin’ to seduce any skeptical local.    

Here was a clash that had all the makings of an environmental activist’s dream or a zesty plot of a John Nichols novel: a Texas billionaire who made a killing in automobiles, broadcasting, and sports franchises, wanted to couple with the modest owners of a ski area―small, but renowned for its prodigious snows and challenging runs―on the top of the United States in order to create a commercial hell.  

The battleground was effectively a combination of Mineral County, which contained the private parcel and the ski area, and, at the nearby lower elevations, Rio Grande and Alamosa counties.  These were the three counties to which the development team primarily pitched its project, not only because the project required the Mineral County commissioners’ approval, but also because the three counties, in the opinion of the team, were “economically depressed” and would thus benefit hugely from the jobs generated by the project.  Opponents of the project countered that the jobs in the completed development would mainly involve low-paying work waiting tables, making beds, and cleaning toilets.  

Another, somewhat peripheral, argument against the project was the possibility of widespread altitude sickness among the resort’s guests.  The planned resort would stand at roughly 10,400 feet.  Altitude sickness is possible above 8,000 feet.  Its milder symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, and vomiting―which prompted on my part frankly comical visions of Dallaseños lined up outside of The Village at Wolf Creek gift shop and convenience store for jumbo bottles of Tylenol or clutching stylish Village lampposts for dear life as they ralphed, on fourteen inches of new powder, the previous evening’s meal of margaritas and fish tacos.  More seriously, acute altitude sickness can lead to potentially fatal pulmonary or cerebral edema, both of which can only be arrested by immediate descent to a lower altitude or prompt oxygen administration on site.

And yet, despite its delicious possibilities, The Village at Wolf Creek controversy lacked the drama that I had anticipated―and, frankly, hoped for.  At the townhall discussions, no punches were thrown.  No obscenities were exchanged.  No accusations of “Tree hugger!” or “Rapaciousness!”.  No tires were slashed in parking lots.  No guns were drawn.  Try as I might, I could not bring myself to particularly dislike the developer and his frequent sidekick, the project’s “local project manager,” a grinning, chubby-cheeked young man from Del Norte who worked in sporting goods and real estate.  The townhall meetings were always calm, courteous affairs.  

Meanwhile, the technicalities and legal maneuvers of the battle, which I made little effort to understand―that was, after all, Chris’s job―ground on and on and on.  And on.  Much of this Jarndyce and Jarndyce tedium, which proved to be to the opposition’s benefit, was due to the fact that public land surrounded the land owned by the developers, and the opposition was fighting for every single one of the 750 public feet the developers needed to connect their proposed resort to nearby highway 160.  Why the architects of the original land swap didn’t anticipate this snag was beyond me.  Week after week, month after month, it was nothing but “environmental impact statements,” “public comments,” “higher court rulings,” “lower court rulings,” “judges,” “riders,” “NEPA” processes, “easements,” “collusions.”

Today, 2021, not a cubic yard of cement for The Village at Wolf Creek has been poured.  Meanwhile, the proposed development has an official website, which includes the motto “mountain solitude reimagined.”

Well, one element of the development, at least on the website, has been “reimagined.”  A long-distance photo, obviously depicting idyllic summertime on the development’s acreage, presents a dark-green, obviously robust conifer forest.  However, when I returned to Wolf Creek Pass in the summer of 2018, I witnessed this same acreage, although now rather different in appearance: an acreage―in fact, an entire pass―ashen with trees, thousands of them, dead from global warming.  Unless these trees are cut down―or preserved and painted?―this is what residents will see at The Village at Wolf Creek: a conifer graveyard.[1] 

Imagine! 


[1] As of 2021, the battle over “The Village at Wolf Creek” is still being waged in the courts. The Council’s website (slvec.org) lists as one of its 2021 goals: “Update the citizenry about the importance of protecting Wolf Creek Pass from unbridled development and keep the public informed about the Federal Court Case that will be decided sometime early this year. Then, respond in an appropriate manner to the Judge’s decision.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s