The Fight to Save the Rocky Mountains

A View From Colorado

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 as 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 split 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 Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lloyd Rowsey said on August 28th, 2007 at 5:56am #

    Dateline now: GOOD morning, America. Alberto Gonzalez is gone. (And the Dems have the biggest chance they’ve yet to have.) Given to them on a platter, of course by the likes of us, the left-radical con- tributors to Dissident Voice.

    Enormous!! congratulations!! all!!

    My apologies, Mr. Frank. I’ll try to become unemotional enough to read this piece. Today!


  2. Resie said on August 28th, 2007 at 6:24am #

    I grew up in Creede Colorado in Mineral County- I had no idea things had gotten so bad there. I knew that developers had moved in along with the rich & their 2 week a year million dollar vacation homes. The Forest Circus has been notorious for years for going against the residents- they’ve widened trails against residents wishes & have restricted access to public lands by locals as well. My family built one of the oldest ranches on the upper Rio Grande & most of that land is gone now. Thanks to shady deals and unscrupulous people, the land is being bought up at an alarming pace & sub divided. It’s been so heartbreaking that I haven’t been able to bring myself to go visit my former home in almost 10 years.

    Thanks Norman Schwarzkopf, for going on national tv in ’94 & saying that Creede was the most pristine & beautiful places in America- it no longer is that.

  3. Ron said on August 28th, 2007 at 11:37am #

    Can’t wait to be able to rent houses next to Wolf Creek ski resort. It sucks not being able to sleep near. Wolf Creek is an awesome ski resort !!!!

  4. Lloyd Rowsey said on August 28th, 2007 at 3:57pm #

    What I’m reminded of most by Mr. Frank’s very telling article is three things: (1) How truly incredibly, grotesquely wealthy is wealthy America – which no radical can ever forget; (2) how very, very beautiful was Colorado in the summer of 1960 — when I was a rich kid from south-central Texas attending summer school “for fun” at the University campus in Boulder, after my freshman year at Harvard, the same summer an almost ten-year cloud of depression descended; and (3) how I retired from a 23-year stint with the Forest Service, three weeks after turning 60 and becoming eligible to retire on October 26, 2001, in Vallejo, California, by which date I’d married the woman of my life.

    I ‘m still very proud to have been associated with the greatest wildfire fighters in the world, and for the short while the rag survived, editor-in-chief of the Forest Service Monitor in 1982, the national newspaper of the National Federation of Federal Employees, bargaining unit for Forest Service nationwide. And I’m likewise proud to have authored that year in the Monitor, “Avoiding Formal Negotiations in R5 — the 24-hour fireline workshift.” There was a union then, and there’s the same union now, good old NFFE. A tiny ring in the Circus.

    Thank you Joshua Frank for calling up these memories. And thank you, Resie. Certain memories of a passed Forest Service friend, an archaeologist who literally gave up his career trying to force the Agency to comply with the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, would have been much more on point. But those memories are still just too damn real.

    Maybe next time.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 4th, 2007 at 10:09pm #

    May I say Mr Rowsey that, in my opinion, it is typically Yankee self-aggrandising to claim your colleagues as ‘the finest wildfire fighters in the world’. All wildfire fighters are brave and resourceful, and such service to others is not a competition. Surely there is a universal fraternity amongst these brave men and women who enjoy the admiration of all people. As for the despoiling of Colorado, it was always going to happen. Capitalism is precisely analogous to cancer. It destroys everything it encounters, in order to turn it into the undifferentiated mass of Capital. The system attracts the very worst people, those without any scruples, those whose only Earthly purpose is to destroy all that exists and turn it into money. The excrement of this process, pollution of the air, soil, water and human soul, is simply dumped on the biosphere, the great ‘externality’. Truly the natural world is ‘external’ to these creatures, who use their wealth to harass and pillory all those who attempt to stand in their way.Under Capitalism the Bad always drives out the Good. Capitalism has finally reached its apotheosis. We ,the currently living, have the unprecedented misfortune to be extant as the process of destruction reaches its climax. Within one or two decades Climate Change, and general biosystem destruction, will usher in an era of mass death for most of humanity. Unless we utilise everything at our disposal, including, regrettably, violent resistance, the right of all occupied and bastardised peoples, we might as well cut our childrens’ throats, to spare them the horrors to come.

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 4th, 2007 at 7:07am #

    MM. I regret the fact that more than a month has passed since you posted this, and only a cursory Google-check into “lloyd rowsey” turned it up about ten minutes ago. I agree with virtually everything you write, although in that intervening month I’ve read one or two of your other postings which I thought were inappropriately vitriolic.

    I only take issue with your charge that my claim to have been associated with the finest wildfire fighters in the world is false. You are quite right that the Forest Service is an America-wide organization (“Yankee”), and I may even agree that your use of the term “self-aggrandizing” applies. And indeed what I knew as indisputably true when I was active in the labor union in the Forest Service in 1982 or so — that more USFS firefighters trained more non-US firefighters worldwide than anyone else — may have reflected merely the atrociously wealthy condition of this country, or may even be no longer true. That said (I love THAT EXPRESSION), my fondestm bravest, memories of the Forest Service are of those experiences, and no amount of personal radical conviction on my part can efface them.

    If you are interested. There follows the article I referred to in the same sentence I used the words “the greatest wildfire fighters in the world.” It has more to do with management than firefighting, but such was and is the world. I think we can agree.

    T H E F O R E S T S E R V I C E M O N I T O R

    Voice of a Nationwide Bargaining Unit of
    the National Federation of Federal Employees

    January, 1982

    From the Editor


    By memorandum dated August 10, 1981, the Washington Office approved Region 5’s request to experiment with 24-hour fireline workshifts during the 1981 and 1982 fire seasons. The closing paragraph of that memorandum read:

    “Project Proposal #7021 (the 24-Hour Workshift) has been reviewed by
    the W.O. Personnel Management staff. Their opinion is ‘the decision
    to establish a 24-hour work shift versus a 12-hour work shift would not
    require Union negotiation in and of itself.’ On the other hand, the Union
    probably would request to be involved in determining how the trial test
    would be carried out on the Forests with organized unions.”

    This opinion that establishing 24-hour fireline workshifts is a management right not subject to Union negotiation is doubtful (a challenge to management on the point, however, must await R-5’s decision to establish such shifts as policy, if it so decides, sometime after the 1982 fire season). That the experimental use of 24-hour shifts in R-5 is a matter of “impact and implementation” and subject to Union negotiation was obvious, even to the W.O. The only question the W.O. left R-5 to decide in this regard was whether the experiment would involve Regional Fire Teams, and hence be subject to regionwide negotiations, or involve only smaller fires suppressible at the Forest level, and hence be subject to negotiations only if involving a Forest with a union local.

    For good reasons, R-5 decided on the regionwide alternative. By Speed Memorandum dated September 4, 1981, R-5’s labor Relations Specialist officially notified R-5 NFFE Vice President Vela McBride of the proposed 24-hour Fireline Workshift Experiment, and said the experiment would be used only on large fires involving Regional Fire Teams. This Speed Memorandum, containing the first draft of R-5 Fire Management’s directive to the field on implementation of the experiment, ended with the following request for “Union input”:

    “UNION INPUT: We would of course like your input as soon as possible,
    recognizing that this is an experimental program and that we will again
    seek your involvement in the evaluation of the experiment and possible
    future revisions. Please contact (Fire Management) to discuss any
    questions, concerns and suggestions which you may have, and give us
    your final input by September 18 if at all possible (we’d like to give a
    try on the next big fire that comes up, so the sooner the better!)”

    Of note in this initial notification from management to R-5 NFFE were two things. First, as usual, management was in a big hurry to get the show on the road. And secondly, although management was following Article 9 of the Master Agreement (“Negotiations”) and notifying the Union above the Local level in writing of a proposed change in working conditions subject to negotiations, the memorandum contained no reference to the Master Agreement and no use of the word “negotiations” anywhere. Instead, NFFE was asked for “input” and “involvement in the evaluation.” “Discussion with NFFE” at the regional level was referred to.

    Of note in the first draft of Fire Management’s field direction on the experiment, accompanying this initial notification of the Union, was the complete absence of any provision for breaks during the 24-hour workshifts.

    By letter dated September 24, 1981, Vela McBride responded to management’s Speed Memorandum, beginning: “I must request the opportunity to impact bargain on the ’24 on 24 off’ proposed policy. The amount of input I have received is rather extensive.” This was a clear and simple request for formal negotiations following the procedures of Article 9 (“The Union at the appropriate level will advise management that they wish to negotiate a policy or the impact and implementation of that policy”).

    When management received Vela’s written request for negotiations, it was the last week in September and well into R-5’s 1981 fire season. At any moment a big fire appropriate for experimentation with 24-hour workshifts could have broken out. Management’s first priority, then, was to avoid formal negotiations, and further, to get R-5 NFFE to agree the experiment could proceed immediately. So instead of responding to Vela’s request, management simply ignored it and responded to her concerns, by telephone call on October 5, 1981. Management’s written summary of this telephone conversation records a classic in negotiation avoidance:

    “The Region recognizes that you have legitimate concerns and desires
    to include the Union’s input into the experimental guidance. We
    anticipate receiving your locals’ concerns, either typed or hand-
    written, from you ASAP, and will address as many of them as we can
    at this time in the current experimental guidance. Others, including
    any which may not be apparent now but which may surface after
    some experience with the system will be addressed when the
    experiment’s progress is examined before the start of the next fire
    season. The Region will furnish the Union with the results of any use
    of the 24-hour experiment during the remainder of the calendar year.
    Recognizing that the experiment will be evaluated both prior to and
    after the 1982 fire season, with Union involvement in the evaluation,
    the Union does not object to the Region’s experimental use of the
    24-hour system during the remainder of 1981, so long as the results
    of any such use are shared with the Union.”

    The request for written concerns from Vela in the second sentence of this summary would have been appropriate if made in preparation for formal negotiations. Instead, the request was made in the course of avoiding formal negotiations. Consider: the subject of negotiations is mentioned nowhere in the summary and was never discussed during the conversation (as Vela subsequently verified); mentioned again, however, were Union “input” and “involvement.” R-5’s Labor Relations Specialist was most accommodating in assuring Vela that the second draft of Fire Management’s field directives on the experiment (then in preparation) would address her concerns; and in return for those assurances, according to management’s written summary, Vela okayed going ahead with the experiment. Finally, by mailing Vela a written summary which recorded “. . .the Union does not object to the Region’s experimental use. . .etc.” (see italicized portion of the summary, above), the Union’s request for formal negotiations prior to experimentation was rendered completely inoperative, as far as management was concerned.

    Vela’s memory of the October 5 telephone conversation differed, however, from that of R-5’s Labor Relations Specialist. She heard management say that there would be no experimentation until further agreement was reached over her concerns, including rest period during the 24-hour workshifts. And by memorandum dated October 10, 1981, Vela recorded her summary of the October 5 telephone conversation as it related to immediate implementation:

    “Per our telephone conversation, the Union wants no experimental use
    UNTIL rest periods are agreed upon. Some of the concerns surfacing
    are the safety of the personnel: the fatigue factor is of great concern to
    most of those calling me. They feel the 24 on/off is just too much. Also
    great concern concerning what one individual called ‘security.” He felt
    the 24 hour off was too much. The employees would get restless and
    bring liquor, etc. Fights would erupt. Another thing not clear to me is
    the treatment of overtime. Also holiday.”

    Although she did not revive her demand for formal negotiations, by writing and mailing this memorandum, Vela put the ball back in management’s court in the event of a big fire in R-5. Instead of one written record (management’s) that NFFE had verbally authorized the experiment on October 5, there were two written
    records. And NFFE’s written record of not authorizing the experiment was the later one in time.

    (At some point between October 5 and October 14, 1981, R-5 Fire Management completed the second draft of its field direction for the 24-Hour Fireline Workshift Experiment. This draft more clearly addressed NFFE’s concerns – as management had verbally assured Vela that it would. . . .)

    Vela McBride’s October 10 memorandum to management also appointed me, Gentry Rowsey, to be R-5 NFFE’s representative for dealing with management on the 24-Hour Experiment. I saw the issue as getting good direction about rest periods into the third draft of Fire Management’s field direction. Specifically, I picked up the communication with management by writing R-5’s Labor Management Specialist: “I regret it if you have told Fire Management personnel that they have a green light from the Union on the experiment as long as they furnish us information. Our position is (still): no agreement on work periods, no experiment. . . .the current direction contains no minimum duration times for rest periods and no maximum duration times for work without rest breaks. To repeat Vela’s last statement, the Union wants no experimental use UNTIL rest periods are agreed upon. The sooner we can get such agreement, the sooner will we endorse the experiment.”

    This was dated October 21, 1981, six weeks after the original notification to R-5 NFFE of the proposed 24-Hour Fireline Workshift Experiment. Discussions followed between Fire Management and myself, one outcome of which was (the third revision) . . .of the field (rest period) directives. . . .There was also agreement reached in these discussions on the wording of the Regional Forester’s formal notification of all R-5 employees of the 24-Hour Experiment; . . .and there was agreement reached that the experiment would not precede receipt of the Regional Forester’s notification by the field. What there was not, then, before then, or after then, was formal negotiations over the 24-Hour Fireline Workshift Experiment in R-5.

    What are the lessons in all this? Certainly the first lesson is that management will go to great lengths to avoid formal negotiations, including being very accommodating informally while completely ignoring Union initiatives toward formal negotiations. Why? Obviously, because formal negotiations take time and money and elevate the status of the Union in the eyes of employees. The second lesson is also clear: NFFE representative must demand formal negotiations in writing every time we are notified of proposed substantial changes in working conditions. And we must not let management avoid formal negotiations by “settling the issues” informally. Why? The answer is the real lesson in all this: in the time frames management gives us to respond to their proposals informally, it is not possible to represent our membership adequately. Only by requiring formal
    negotiations can we gain the time and stature necessary to do our duty as NFFE
    representatives. We flatter ourselves to think we have good and representative
    ideas, and can do our representational duties informally. We flatter ourselves, fool ourselves, and behave like management.