Vocal crowd challenges POWDR pledge around Holland Lake Lodge
(Missoula Current) Representatives of the Utah corporation trying to enlarge the Holland Lake Lodge claim they have the same values as Montanans. Montanans attending Tuesday night’s public meeting on the proposal didn’t agree.
On Tuesday evening at Seeley Lake Elementary School, representatives of the Flathead National Forest and the partners who own Holland Lake Lodge tried to justify their Holland Lake Lodge proposal to an agitated but mostly respectful crowd of more than 130 people, with another 90 watching online.
A few were holding “Save Holland Lake” signs, and based upon the crowd’s numerous shouted responses, few if any supported the expansion.
Flathead National Forest project lead Shelli Mavor started out explaining the proposal process, some of which has been recently changed by Flathead Supervisor Kurt Steele. She said once she received POWDR’s expansion plan, she had to ensure it was compliant with the Forest Plan before starting the scoping period.
Many people have questioned the months the Forest Service took between receiving and publishing the plan.
Once the scoping comment period ends on Oct. 7, she’ll have to read all the comments, which number more than 5,800 as of Tuesday night. Comments pertinent to the environmental review will be combined with data into an analysis that will go to Steele.
“Kurt has offered to put the analysis out for another 30-day comment period,” Mavor said. “Toward the end of that, we’ll come together as a team and find other issues. We’ll do more analysis. Then we provide Kurt a briefing, and he’ll eventually sign the decision approving the project to move forward.”
Several audience members immediately asked why it had to be approved. Mavor corrected herself to add “or deny.” Mavor said she expected a tentative decision by March 2023.
Stacey Hutchinson also detailed POWDR’s plans to tear down most of the existing Holland Lake Lodge structures and build a much larger “boutique” lodge and restaurant. Hutchinson started working as POWDR’s vice president for communications in March after being a lobbyist and congressional staffer in Washington, D.C.
Hutchinson said POWDR had created a website - HollandLakeFuture.com - to dispel misinformation and clarify what the corporation intends to do. POWDR will upgrade the facilities and provide different styles of lodging for people of all economic means and employees, Hutchinson said. It will facilitate non-motorized water sports and install “dark skies” lighting.
Hutchinson repeatedly said that the corporation could be trusted and she hoped locals would continue to visit the lodge once it’s upgraded.
“We’re not installing ski lifts or a ski hill. There will not be helicopter skiing, there will not be helicopters,” Hutchinson said. “We are from Utah. We very closely align with the values you have in Montana.”
Of the 18 people who spoke, none supported the proposal.
Tom Beards of Placid Lake pointed out that POWDR is all about “adventure,” according to its website. Beards pointed out that locals fought a similar “adventure” effort by Tom Maclay when he tried to build a ski resort using Lolo Peak in the mid-2000s.
“I don’t see the word ‘soulful’ in that,” said Tom Beards of Placid Lake. “This community is all about soulful. It’s because of the values of this land and the people we have. So how do we fit in the evaluation? I’ve heard a lot of things about biology and environmental impact. But how do the people fit into the decision-making process? On a scale of 1 to 10, are we a 5?”
Steele said he held the two public meetings on Tuesday - one at noon in Condon - because people matter.
“I’m listening to you. I’m here to hear what you have to say,” Steele said. “Can I tell you what percentage? No, because it’s all just a part of the decision process.”
Several asked Steele to extend the comment period and to conduct a full environmental impact statement because tripling the number of people staying at the lodge and extending the operations throughout the year will have a significant effect on the wildlife, people and resources of the valley.
Patty Ames said the Forest Service would be required to provide other alternatives in an EIS and she proposed having the Forest Service take ownership and rent it out as part of its cabin rental program, so everyone could enjoy it at a reasonable cost.
Several people asked why the Flathead Forest was considering the expansion when it has yet to consider how it might affect threatened species.
Flathead Forest biologist Mark Ruby said he’d be looking at possible effects on loons on the lake, which are highly sensitive to watercraft. He was still working on a biological assessment related to threatened species like grizzly bears and Canada lynx.
“We write a biological assessment and work with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the assessment. We submit that to them to discuss the impacts and come to a conclusion regarding that jeopardy question,” Ruby said. “We have not completed that assessment yet, and I imagine that’s frustrating for you guys that I didn’t show up here with the answers. But there have been times in my public service career where we’ve gotten enough public comment that we didn’t move forward with the proposal. So I’ve not moved on that analysis because it would be a waste of my time.”
When Leticia of Missoula asked the POWDR representatives how they could sleep at night knowing their “sole existence is to make big money, speak for corporations and destroy animals’ homes,” POWDR vice president Raj Basi suggested that growth is happening everywhere, and the “best we can do is respect all of those sentiments.”
An audience member interrupted him, saying that’s not the best a corporation can do. Some audience members had already mentioned several alternatives such as downsizing the proposal.
“We have a business,” Basi said. “And the best we can do as a business to help Christian create something that is more efficient, that is less of an impact per person, is to create something that helps our investment in all of those things.”
The audience member pointed out that all locals are being required to help Christian be successful, because the lodge is on public land and the public will pay a cost.
John Taft of Condon Emergency Services said all his people were volunteers who have undergone a lot more stress with more tourists coming through during the pandemic. Ambulances are gone for four hours or more if they have to go to Missoula or Kalispell. Adding more tourists at Holland Lake would add to that toll, he said.
Chuck Pyle said people of the valley have already paid a cost. Most moved in when it was still quiet and unpopulated, and they’ve seen their dreams degrade as development took off.
If POWDR takes over, they don’t need helicopters or boats at the lodge - they can just shuttle people to airstrips and whitewater that already exist nearby, creating more traffic.
“You talk about jobs. My friends and I have often talked about what can we do to bring in some small industry with a small footprint to keep our young people here,” Pyle said. “But you’re talking about a handful of jobs and bringing in thousands of tourists every year.”
Mark O’Keefe holds recreation permits at Holland Lake, Glacier National Park and a few popular rivers. Whenever O’Keefe has proposed a project, he said the first question the Forest Service asks is, “Can it be done on private land?” but he doesn’t know if that happened with POWDR.
He added that his employees often live in campgrounds in the summer because “that’s how you do it in Montana.”
O’Keefe said transparency and public participation are both Montana values because they’re guaranteed in our constitution.
“The claimed urgency of this proposed development really bothers me. I don’t know how it can be described as urgent,” O’Keefe said. “My advice is to open the door on the information process or somebody is bound to come in through the window. I think that’s what you’re seeing here tonight.”
The meeting attracted not only many members of the public but also representatives of Montana’s Congressional delegation and candidates and some state legislators.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.