Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Two years’ worth of emails indicate the Flathead National Forest has collaborated since late 2020 with the buyers of Holland Lake Lodge in a manner that breeds mistrust for some members of the public.

On Thursday, Save Holland Lake, a recently formed organization, released several emails they received from the Flathead National Forest that detail events that led to the recently proposed expansion of the Holland Lake Lodge. The emails were obtained at the beginning of February through Freedom of Information Act requests, and then Save Holland Lake members scoured the documents to discover what the Flathead National Forest had done prior to releasing the controversial proposal to allow POWDR, a skiing and adventure corporation, to modify the permitted property.

“These emails show what we’ve said all along – the Forest Service was making lots of efforts to work with POWDR and not being transparent with the public,” said Grace Siloti, Condon business owner and Save Holland Lake member, in a release. “This leaves us in an unfortunate situation and with trust factors with the Forest Service. The emails show some Forest Service employees were trying to do the right thing, but leaders pushed to quickly approve a destination resort with little public scrutiny. This massive expansion isn’t in the public interest.”

In early September 2022, the Swan Lake Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest announced that it was taking public comment on the proposal, but the public had just 21 days, a fairly short window, to comment on the management plan that had been finalized five months earlier.

The emails show POWDR Parks President Brian Stewart had wanted a short comment period, crossing out “30” days and inserting “14?” in a draft project agreement the Flathead Forest developed in early March 2022 stipulating 30 days for public comment during scoping. The Flathead Forest settled on 21 days.

But the emails show that the Flathead Forest was working with POWDR long before March 2022.

Stewart appears to have made his first pitch to Swan Lake District Ranger Chris Dowling on Dec. 9, 2020. Stewart said POWDR was working with lodge owner Christian Wohlfeil “on an offer for Holland Lake Lodge,” and wanted to know the constraints on transferring the Forest Service permit and approving a new Master Development plan.

Five months earlier, Wohlfeil had written to Dowling saying he had potential buyers and needed the Flathead Forest to modify their letter to prospective buyers of the lodge to say that “expansion and development is possible.” Dowling complied.

In October 2020, an interested buyer called Flathead Forest Special Uses Assistant Royelynn Warren, asking if he could “expand or change services if he bought the resort.” Warren told the man he had to buy the resort as is and any further changes or expansion would have to go through a Forest Service analysis before it was approved.

Chris Prew, FNF Special Uses Program manager, approved of Warren’s answer in his email.

“Please reiterate that the FS is not making any promises with a sale. They need to be focused on what is the current operation and know that they can propose things and go through (the) process but it’s not a guarantee,” Prew wrote.

But Stewart’s December 2020 email had similar questions. His plan was to build enough lodging for 120-140 people and to expand the restaurant. He said they wanted to install a dock for non-motorized water sports and were considering an “activities center for excursions into the backcountry” and maybe operating the campground.

A month later, Stewart pressed the Flathead Forest to help him and Wohlfeil “complete the change of control package properly with minimal delays” while the State Historic Preservation Office was reviewing the property’s historical assessment.

That prompted an exchange between Ryan Powell, FNF Heritage Program manager, and Darlene Bridges, FNF Recreation Program manager, where they agreed that the changes being proposed by POWDR would permanently degrade the historic nature of the lodge. Bridges said Dowling “seems to really like the idea,” but she had reservations.

“The way the historical assessment seems to be done is that part of the historical characteristics is in the feel of the place, the open spaces, the small charm... Their expansion idea is kinda HUGE in my opinion, and I fail to see what’s even left at the end that was original,” Bridges wrote. “The other concern, which was brought up by Royelynn, was that the lodge hasn’t been filled to capacity, if ever, so showing that need for an expansion like that would be difficult…”

An email from Stewart to Dowling and Flathead Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele shows that Bridges resigned from the Flathead National Forest at the end of 2021.

In February 2021, Steele notified the FS Region 1 leadership of the changes being discussed for Holland Lake Lodge.

“If this works out, this could be one of, if not “the” premier place in the region. I am biased of course. Figured I would share. Nothing is official yet, but it’s a pretty cool idea

that would be a great addition to our forest in providing an expanded opportunity for the public,” Steele wrote.

After that, emails show that Dowling signed approval letters that Stewart had written, and Flathead Forest staff worked often with POWDR and their designers, WGM Group, to provide information and answers.

A year later, in April 2022, the final POWDR plan was even bigger than Stewart proposed in his 2020 email, tripling the rooming capacity of the area to 156 people by adding more cabins, a larger lodge, a visitor center and new restaurant.

The plan also said the permit area was 15 acres, but members of the public quickly discovered Wohlfeil’s permit was for 10.53 acres. When people pointed that out during public meetings with the Flathead Forest on Oct. 4, Steele said only that a mistake had been made and POWDR communications vice president Stacy Hutchinson said she knew nothing about it.

However, the emails show that Stewart discussed the area change with Dowling and other FS employees in March 2o22, before the plan was finalized. Stewart said POWDR assumed Wohlfeil’s fence lines plus 50 feet defined the permit area and that Stewart wanted to add another 5 acres around the septic ponds to the permit area.

“Here are Powdr’s thoughts - We certainly need all of the fenced area outlined in the draft site plan to fulfill the (master development plan), more would be better,” Stewart wrote.

In September 2022, Steele was considering approving the permit using a “categorical exclusion,” which would bypass a lot of public involvement. He said he expected construction to begin in 2023.

Montanans pushed back. After being flooded with 1,500 comments, Steele agreed to add two more weeks to the comment period. By the end, more than 6,500 comments were submitted, with the vast majority opposed to the proposal.

As a result, in November, Steele put the project on hold, saying POWDR’s development plan was rejected because of “anomalies” in the application submission and “inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the (plan) and proposed use.” POWDR has said it would not compromise and plans to resubmit a similar proposal of the same size and scope.

In January, Save Holland Lake asked Steele to notify the public when he receives the next proposal to expand Holland Lake Lodge and to share that proposal with the public without requiring written FOIA requests. Steele hasn’t responded.

There’s also still a question about whether the Flathead Forest should have terminated the special-use permit once POWDR became the owner. The permit issued to Wohlfeil was renewed at the end of 2016. Charlotte Durham Real Estate announced the property was sold to POWDR in November 2021. Six weeks ago, the Forest Service said its attorneys were reviewing the permit’s validity and  there's still no change, said Save Holland Lake spokesman Bill Lombardi.

Phone calls were made and emails were sent Monday requesting comment to Flathead National Forest Deputy Supervisor Tamara MacKenzie and Executive Assistant Ivy Gehling but no response was received by press time.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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