Groups threaten to sue Flathead Forest over new Holland Lake permit
(Missoula Current) After discovering that the Flathead National Forest has allowed an out-of-state corporation to make some changes to the Holland Lake Lodge property, three watchdog groups have warned the Forest Service that it’s breaking federal law.
In a letter sent Friday to the Flathead National Forest, three groups - Save Holland Lake, Center for Biological Diversity and Alliance for the Wild Rockies - warned Flathead Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele that he’s ignoring the law and the will of the people by allowing POWDR, a Utah ski corporation, to take over the special-use permit and make changes at Holland Lake Lodge without a public process.
“The Center and its partners will pursue litigation in federal court should the Forest Service fail to adequately and completely comply with its duties…” the letter said.
Holland Lake Lodge sits on land owned by the Forest Service, which allows the lodge to do business through a federal special-use permit. Christian Wohlfeil has owned the lodge and held the permit since 2002. He renewed the 10-year permit in May 2017 and listed the lodge for sale that same year. But he didn’t get any serious nibbles until the pandemic hit.
Save Holland Lake and the Center for Biological Diversity have made multiple Freedom of Information Act requests regarding Holland Lake Lodge. Some tried to uncover the extent to which the Flathead Forest collaborated with POWDR between when the corporation first expressed interest in Holland Lake Lodge in late 2020 and Sept. 1, 2022, when POWDR’s Master Development Plan was released to the public. Others seek to learn what is happening now. Each email dump has revealed that more went on during those two years than what Forest Service employees admitted to during public meetings.
Most recently, the Center for Biological Diversity learned that POWDR had formally announced to the Forest Service that it was taking over control of the property and had submitted an application for a new special-use permit.
The law, including the National Environmental Policy Act, requires the Forest Service to take public interest into account when deciding whether a new permit is warranted and the public is to be notified and allowed to comment on the new permit proposal.
The letter asserts that the 6,500 public comments prompted by POWDR’s proposed Master Development Plan clearly show that the public opposes the corporation’s expansion of Holland Lake Lodge, since only 74 were in favor of the plan. So there is little favorable public interest.
But at this point, it appears the Flathead Forest won’t allow public input on its approval of the new special-use permit. A Flathead Forest email appears to sidestep the National Environmental Policy Act, saying “as long as the new applicant is deemed financially and technically capable and is planning to meet the intent of the special-use permit,” the permit would be issued.
Some have pointed out that POWDR should have had to apply for a new special-use permit prior to submitting its Master Development Plan, because the law says a change of ownership requires a new permit and public notice of the change. For example, the Flathead Forest made public announcements in December about permit changes regarding the management of Holland Lake, Swan Lake and Lindberg Lake campgrounds.
But during public meetings in October, POWDR executives insisted that Wohlfeil was a majority owner of the lodge so the permit was still his.
Bill Lombardi of Save Holland Lake said several members have asked the Flathead Forest about why it didn’t announce the need for a new permit when POWDR joined with Wohlfeil, but they get no answer.
“They keep saying ‘we’re still analyzing the ownership issue.’ This thing is so confusing that I don’t think the Forest Service knows,’” Lombardi said. “We can’t get a straight answer because POWDR is calling the shots. It’s not transparent. The Forest Service bends over backwards for the corporations. The bottom line is we can’t trust them.”
Tamara MacKenzie was the Flathead Forest public affairs officer until she was promoted to deputy supervisor early this year. The Flathead Forest still has no one to answer inquiries from the press.
The letter said two recent changes to the Holland Lake property are evidence that Steele has already made a decision to favor POWDR’s takeover of the property, ignoring public comment.
Forest Service emails obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity revealed that, on Aug. 22, 2022, Steele authorized an amendment to Wohlfeil’s special-use permit to allow POWDR to drill two new wells fairly close together on the property for “pump testing.” However, the documents indicate the wells would not be limited to testing but would later be used to provide more water for POWDR’s expansion of the lodge.
The proposed Master Development Plan would have added several new buildings, including a large separate restaurant and larger lodge along with several larger cabins to triple the housing capacity of the property.
The emails showed a Forest Service hydrologist said the term “test well” was perhaps disingenuous because it “seems like a connected action to expansion of the lodge and should require some level of (public process).”
But Steele made no public announcement of his decision to approve the amendment so no public input was possible.
Steele also allowed POWDR to move a four-unit modular home onto the Holland Lake Lodge property before the Flathead Forest released POWDR’s Master Development Plan to the public. At a subsequent public meeting, Steele said he was allowing POWDR to store the trailer there and that it would be used to house future employees for the expansion. The current 2017 Holland Lake Lodge permit does not authorize the presence of modular homes on the permit area.
After strong public opposition, Steele put POWDR’s development plan on hold in November, saying it had “inaccuracies and inconsistencies.” POWDR has stated that it won’t compromise and plans to resubmit a plan of similar size and scope.
The emails mentioned in Friday’s letter show that POWDR is moving ahead with pursuing a new special-use permit. So the three organizations are asking the Flathead Forest to notify them if and when the Forest Service accepts POWDR’s application for a special-use permit.
“Rather than working almost exclusively for a huge ski corporation that wants to commercialize America’s public lands, the Forest Service should listen to the people, follow our laws and their regulations and deny this corporation’s request to build a destination resort at Holland Lake, because it’s simply not in the public interest,” Lombardi said. “Listen to the American people – your bosses.”
Contact Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.