Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The Flathead National Forest will consider issuing a new special-use permit for a Utah ski corporation to take over the Holland Lake Lodge. But for now, the permit includes none of the changes the corporation previously proposed.

In a letter dated April 12, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele responded to various questions and assertions that Save Holland Lake, Center for Biological Diversity and Alliance for the Wild Rockies included in their March 24 letter that said they would sue the Forest Service if it didn’t follow the law.

“We sent that original letter to hold them accountable because they weren’t following their laws and regulations,” said Save Holland Lake spokesman Bill Lombardi.

Steele settled the question of who owns Holland Lake Lodge, saying the Holland Lake Lodge, Inc., is controlled and managed by E3 Destinations, a subsidiary of POWDR. POWDR registered E3 Destinations LLC as a business in September 2019 and activated it on Jan. 23, 2023, according to the Utah Department of Commerce.

During the time Steele was considering POWDR’s proposed development plan for the property, he and his staff insisted they’d been told there had been no change of ownership, because the previous owner, Christian Wohlfield, still owned a majority of the business.

Hamilton attorneys George Corn and Dan Browder challenged that, insisting that the law required the Flathead National Forest to issue a new permit and re-evaluate the new owners when ownership changed. The addition of POWDR constituted that change. Then, emails acquired in early January from a Freedom of Information Act request appear to show that the Forest Service knew in October 2021 that POWDR was in charge.

Now, Steele says in his April 12 letter that the “Forest Service is currently reviewing an application for a new permit because of this transfer of control.” Lombardi said the Flathead National Forest should have done that long ago.

“George Corn and Dan Browder, they really led the charge on that. They’ve questioned the special-use transfer authority. But we’re still reviewing that,” Lombardi said. “And we have questions about the categorical exclusion.”

Steele emphasized in his letter that the area and facilities authorized by a new permit won’t differ from that of the existing permit. However, the public might not be allowed to comment on who should get the permit, because Steele said he may use a categorical exclusion to approve it. He said the law allows him to use a categorical exclusion as long as there are no changes to the permit other than ownership.

If E3 Destinations is awarded the special-use permit, it will have to submit a master development plan. But such a plan is “aspirational” and Steele's acceptance of a plan “does not authorize any construction or change in use,” Steele wrote. The company would have to apply for a new proposed use for Steele to authorize any changes, and the application would have to go through environmental analysis and a public process.

POWDR already submitted such a plan to the Flathead National Forest a year ago, which would have expanded the permitted area to 15 acres from 10.5, tripled the guest capacity to 156 and added several buildings. That significant expansion of the lodge and the tourist traffic it would bring prompted strong opposition from locals, who sent in thousands of comments.

That prompted Steele to reject the master development plan on Nov. 21 due to “inaccuracies and deficiencies” in the plan and “anomalies in the submission for this application.” But he left the door open for POWDR to submit a revised plan.

Finally, the three citizens’ groups pointed out in their March 24 letter that the Flathead National Forest had approved an amendment to the existing special-use permit that allowed POWDR to drill two wells and move a four-unit modular home onto the lodge property, an action not allowed by the existing special-use permit.

In his letter, Steele said he is removing the amendment and told POWDR to promptly remove any temporary buildings or storage facilities that are not authorized by the permit. Lombardi said that’s good news.

“At least they’re going to follow the law,” Lombardi said. “But we’re still asking them for a copy of the (next) master development plan, even though they say it’s an internal process. But nothing precludes them from releasing it to the public so the public can stay involved. And we still haven’t seen the lodge operating plan for 2023, even though we’ve asked for it.”