Keila Szpaller 

(Daily Montanan) Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele will leave his post to work at the regional U.S. Forest Service office in Missoula.

The Forest Service’s Dan Hottle said the agency is still determining the timing of the transition and whether it will appoint an interim supervisor for the Flathead or leave the position unfilled while it recruits a permanent leader.

The Flathead Beacon, which first reported the news, said Steele had served in the position for three-and-a-half years.

Steele, who will take the deputy director, ecosystem planning post at the regional office, had come under fire over a proposal to expand Holland Lake Lodge. The resort operates on public land with a special-use permit.

Last month, a couple of lawyers who have been investigating the proposal alleged Steele had violated federal ethics standards and should be removed as the “authorized officer” making decisions about the lodge given his expressed support for the expansion.

Save Holland Lake, a group that formed to oppose the project, agreed with the lawyers.

The Forest Service has not responded to that allegation, but in a phone call Tuesday, Hottle said the change was not related to controversy over the Holland Lake Lodge proposal.

“There’s no correlation with this (personnel change) and Holland Lake,” Hottle said.

However, he said he did not know whether Steele had initiated applying for the position or if the Forest Service offered it to him first. Hottle characterized the change in position as a “lateral move” with a salary that should stay the same.

He told the Flathead Beacon the details of the new job are still being determined.

Last fall, after public outcry, the Forest Service rejected the expansion proposal from the lodge and POWDR, an adventure life company based in Utah and one of the largest ski resort operators in North America. POWDR purchased shares and is in control of the lodge, according to records earlier reviewed by the Hamilton lawyers.

However, POWDR has said it intends to resubmit a similar proposal to the Forest Service, and it is trying to secure the permit, although expansion opponents have raised questions about its validity. Tuesday, a spokesperson said POWDR does not have a timeline to resubmit a development plan at this point.

In the meantime, Save Holland Lake requested that Flathead National Forest and POWDR release to the public any new proposal as soon as it is submitted, although the public agency has not responded to that request.

When the Forest Service first received the development plan, it worked on the project behind the scenes for 19 months before it released the proposal to the public, information that came to light from scrutiny of public records by the Hamilton lawyers.

Tuesday, Hottle said public trust will always be part of the hiring process at the Forest Service, regardless of the way the Holland Lake Lodge proposal unfolded.

“It’s not that we don’t see the need to work on any trust issues,” Hottle said. “We’ll continue to work on the permit situation with Holland Lake Lodge regardless of who we have in that (supervisor position).”

Currently, Deputy Forest Supervisor Tami Mackenzie is the second-in-command at the Flathead National Forest.

If a qualified person can fill the supervisor post temporarily, the Forest Service may opt to tap an employee as interim supervisor, Hottle said. He said it can take a few weeks or even a few months to make a permanent hire.

The next supervisor will walk into the job under a high degree of scrutiny given the high profile of the project in the works and intense opposition to it.

Save Holland Lake’s Bill Lombardi, who has said POWDR’s proposal is not in the public interest, called for transparency from “agency staff, whose salaries we pay.”

He also called on them to rebuild trust.

“We hope the U.S. Forest Service will listen to American taxpayers who own this public land and protect it for generations to come,” Lombardi said in an email.

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