Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Decisions involving public land should include public input, so a grassroots group has come together to get the Flathead National Forest to consider the public’s rights regarding Holland Lake Lodge.

Last Friday, the public scoping comment period closed on the proposed Holland Lake Lodge expansion after more than 6,500 comments were submitted online. More were likely submitted through the mail. Now, Flathead National Forest project lead Shelli Mavor has to read all the comments, make note of the various objections and decide if each can be addressed.

However, a grassroots group dubbed “Save Holland Lake” has already gone through all of the online comments to make their own tally and to ensure the Flathead Forest accurately represents the public input. They’ve also preserved recordings of the public meetings with the Flathead Forest in Condon and Seeley Lake on Oct. 4.

Their assessment shows that 99% of the 6,500 comments oppose the expansion proposal for a myriad of reasons.

“The results of the prolific comments from people across Montana and the country show that Americans are opposed to destroying the rural setting of Holland Lake and the Seeley-Swan Valley,” said Save Holland Lake member Lucy Dayton in a release.

“It was both heartening and heart-breaking to read the comments of people who truly love Holland Lake and our public land. They simply don’t want this project and know it will hurt the lake’s natural setting and endangered wildlife. The Forest Service and public officials should listen to their employers – Montanans and the American people.”

Save Holland Lake spokesman Bill Lombardi said a core group of Save Holland Lake members from around the state divvied up the comments, with each person reading about a thousand comments each over the weekend.

“You can get a sense right away of where people stand. I haven’t clicked on one that said they support, it but a few people did. There were very few,” Lombardi said.

About 10% of the commenters said they were opposed because of concerns with the Flathead Forest’s mishandling of the rollout of the project and attempt to use a categorical exclusion to approve the project rather than a more rigorous environmental analysis or environmental impact statement.

“This is really a grassroots effort. Out of the past six or seven weeks, it mobilized thousands of people that care about Holland Lake. I’ve never seen anything like it. 6,500 comments since Sept. 1? People are riled up about not being told about it and being left out of the process,” Lombardi said.

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About 100 commenters said they would support upgrades to the historic lodge and buildings within the lodge’s existing footprint. But that’s where the Save Holland Lake group found another discrepancy in the Flathead Forest proposal.

The current lodge and buildings are operating under a Forest Service special-use permit that limits the property to 10.53 acres. The proposal submitted by POWDR, a Utah-based ski resort corporation, and accepted by Flathead Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele lists the acreage as 15. When people pointed that out during public meetings 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.

Missoula realtor Jack Wade said an additional 5 acres seemed hard to overlook.

“The five extra acres are almost exclusively lakefront property that they want for the appeal of their place. There’s a little bay on the other side of the lodge where they want to have docks and make it feel private,” Wade said. “Here you have the two parties who ought to be responsible for getting it right, neither of which is claiming to know that it was wrong. You can’t blame it on nobody. But the mistake is caught - correct it.”

Lombardi said he talked to Mavor on Tuesday but she couldn’t say which acreage would be used.

“She said they’re trying to figure out what the problem is because they essentially don’t know the scope and size of the project and what the special-use permit allows. So they asked people to comment on an incorrect project and they don’t know how to fix it. It’s so murky. It’s unprecedented,” Lombardi said.

On Thursday, Flathead Forest spokeswoman Tami MacKenzie said in an email that there was a discrepancy between the current and proposed size of the property. The Flathead Forest is going with what is proposed.

“If the proposal submitted is to move into the next phase of planning, we will be analyzing for the use of requested acres, which now stand at 15. In other words, we would be analyzing it as if an additional 4.47 acres are being requested to add to the permit and what the impacts to that would be,” MacKenzie wrote.

The Save Holland Lake group also questions whether the current permit is valid. Christian Wohlfeil has owned the lodge and permit since 2002 but started listing the lodge for sale in 2017. By law, the holder's permit “terminates upon consummation of a change of ownership of or controlling interest in the business entity.”

Backed by POWDR and Steele, Wohlfeil appeared at the Oct. 4 public meetings saying he partnered with POWDR in 2020 but that he still holds a majority of shares and the controlling interest in Holland Lake Lodge, Inc. That would mean the 10-acre permit is still valid.

But the hundreds of people contributing to the Save Holland Lake group have unearthed some details that cast a shadow on that claim.

They found a business entity report filed with the Montana Secretary of state in June 2021 that lists POWDR CEO Justin Sibley as the president of Holland Lake Lodge Inc. and Wohlfeil as the registered agent. Out of 5,000 shares, 100 were issued, and Wohlfeil is listed as the only shareholder.

Wade saw the real estate Multiple Listing Service entry for the sale of Holland Lake Lodge in October 2021.

“(Wohlfeil) said he holds a majority share. But Oct. 27, it was listed at $3.5 million in the MLS, and it closed on Oct. 27 for $3.5 million cash. Who pays full price for something and gets a minority share? So how can you not conclude that it’s just a smokescreen to dance through the whole ‘who owns it when the permit is being applied for’ situation?” Wade said.

POWDR has said this would be its first property in Montana. But it already has Montana connections.

In 2014, after losing ownership of the Park City Mountain Resort to Vail Resorts, POWDR entered into a “strategic brand partnership” with Boyne Resorts, which owns Big Sky.

According to Ski Area Management Magazine, “the combined offering of Powdr and Boyne's 19 resorts (managed by Powdr Enterprises) enables brand partners to engage with the mountain sports and active lifestyle consumers on the mountain as well as through integrated marketing and communications programs, events, and content/media.”

Save Holland Lake has several unanswered questions, and its diverse members are working on getting the answers. Lombardi said the next step is to get more organized before the next round of public comment that should be open by the end of the year.

Mavor said Steele could issue a tentative decision by March, a turn-around of six months. Save Holland Lake wants the Flathead Forest to do a more in-depth analysis or preferably something completely different like designating a Holland Lake Historic District.

“This is likely to be a long-term fight, so we’re going to get a little more formally organized. Then we’ll build our strategic long-term plan to defeat this. I didn’t know some of these people a month ago and now we’re working closely together,” Lombardi said. “One person said she has never seen the valley so united. It doesn’t matter your politics, we have Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, they’re all opposed to this. Because they love this place. It’s not spoiled. And it’s not just Holland - it’s what could happen to the Seeley-Swan valley.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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