A judge on Friday blocked a land deal that would have cleared the way for an extensive residential and commercial complex near a remote southwestern Colorado ski area, saying the federal government had not carefully considered the impact or listened to public concerns.
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch also said the U.S. Forest Service appeared to have a bias toward approving the land swap because the agency relied on the work of contractors paid by the developer to study the deal.
The exchange would have given the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture 204 acres (0.8 square kilometer) of Forest Service land so the company could build a road connecting the proposed complex to a nearby highway. Leavell-McCombs would have given the Forest Service a similar-size parcel elsewhere.
Leavell-McCombs has been trying for decades to build a complex called the Village at Wolf Creek that would include up to 1,711 residential units at the base of the Wolf Creek Ski Area.
The site is near Wolf Creek Pass, elevation 10,850 feet (3,300 meters), about 175 miles (280 kilometers) southwest of Denver.
It was not immediately clear what would happen next. Forest Service spokesman Lawrence Lujan said agency officials were still reviewing the ruling and had no comment. Jim Moriarity, an attorney for Leavell-McCombs, did not immediately respond to a phone message and email.
Opponents of the land swap and the development were jubilant.
"This ruling is an incredible victory for the flora and fauna that rely on Wolf Creek Pass for their survival," said Tehri Parker, executive director of Rocky Mountain Wild, one of the groups that challenged the land swap.
Opponents have long sought to block the development, arguing it could interfere with the migration of endangered lynx and damage wetlands and other habitat.
They have also questioned the ability of local governments and services to support a development of this size. Mineral County, which includes the proposed development, has only 730 residents.
The Forest Service had argued it had only limited authority to review the impacts of the land swap, but Matsch disagreed.
Matsch also noted that 900 people had submitted comments on the proposal, and the responses to them were prepared by the contractors paid by the developer to conduct the studies.
"They (the contractors) would not be expected to find that work to be flawed," Matsch wrote.