Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After receiving more than 1,500 comments, the Flathead National Forest has decided to extend the public comment period on the proposed Holland Lake Lodge expansion.

On Wednesday, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurtis Steele announced that he has extended the Holland Lake Lodge public comment period until Oct. 7 after receiving so many public comments.

He also added another public meeting on Oct. 4 at the Seeley Lake Elementary School from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“It is important for the public to understand that this process isn’t a vote but that your voice does matter. I would like to be completely transparent through this entire process, and the public input is important for me to hear before determining if this proposal is in the best interest of the American People,” Steele said in a release.

Allowing more time for people to comment fixed one of the issues that several project opponents have flagged in the short time since learning of the pending expansion. But that’s the least of their concerns, as evidenced by all the comments.

Missoula commenter Vicki Honzel summed it up in her comment asking the Forest Service to slow down:

“This new resort significantly expands the footprint/land usage of the current lodge and buildings. It most definitely will impact the area, wildlife habitat, and the lake more than the existing resort does. There will be more sewer and water use. There will be more traffic on area roads. There will be more foot traffic on trails and in the permitted area. There will be fewer trees. There will be more noise. There will be disruption to wildlife
corridors and habitat. There will be more conflict between humans and wildlife.”

On Sept. 1, the Flathead National Forest announced the project and said it would accept scoping comments until Sept. 21. People immediately posted about the proposal on social media and complained that it was announced right before the Labor Day holiday, when people would be gone enjoying the three-day weekend. That essentially left only about two weeks to get comments in.

The Swan View Coalition posted the proposal information on its website and said that the scoping period should last 60 days.

“This mega-expansion was announced September 1, right before Labor Day weekend, but the Forest Service wants public comments by September 21! Please insist on adequate time for public review and on adequate environmental review,” the website said.

Little has changed at Holland Lake Lodge since it was rebuilt in 1947 after a fire. But recently, Christian Wohlfeil, the Holland Lake Lodge owner for the past 20 years, partnered with POWDR - an “adventure lifestyle” corporation based in Park City, Utah, that owns 11 ski resorts across the nation, among other ventures.

POWDR submitted a plan to the Flathead Forest in April to develop the 15-acre property leased from the Forest Service under a special-use permit. That’s what Flathead Forest revealed to the public two weeks ago.

The proposal would keep the historic 4,600-square-foot lodge but would demolish most of the rest of the existing buildings. In their place, they’d construct a lodge almost three times as big with 28 rooms, a 3,000-square-foot restaurant, a 2,000-square-foot welcome center for check-in, 10,650-square-foot cabins, 16 smaller studio cabins and new support buildings for maintenance and employee housing.

That would more than triple the 45 guests that can currently stay in the lodge and cabins. In addition, all buildings would be winterized so the lodge could stay open year-round instead of only in the summer.

Opposition is mounting quickly. As of Wednesday, two weeks into the public comment period, more than 1,500 people have submitted comments on the proposal. More than 600 were added just since Tuesday when Will Friedner of MontanaLife Realty posted a YouTube video about the expansion titled “Destroying Montana?” It has received more than 1,700 views in two days.

In the meantime, a movement called “Save Holland Lake” has built a website and started a Facebook page that has 200 followers.

A vast majority of those posted on the Forest Service project webpage are opposed to the expansion, saying they stand to lose something special. Given more time, that number is likely to increase, because most locals appear to like Holland Lake the way it has been for decades: rustic, secluded, quiet and somewhat affordable.

Polson resident Jeffrey Smith commented that the Forest Service should be loyal to the public, not “the ‘adventure lifestyle company’ POWDR, an out-of-state development firm.”

“This is a major development in a public forest enjoyed by generations of Montanans like me and my family. I've begun trips into the Bob (Marshall Wilderness) from Holland Lake. I've canoed just as the ice broke. I've caught trout with my wife when we were the only ones on the lake. I've camped with my family and taken visitors to the lake. At a time when Montana is changing and private individuals and wealthy corporations are buying up lands and restricting access and crowding out John Q. Public, you need to pay attention to the purpose of our national forests,” Smith wrote.

The few in support of the project include Patrick and Joanne Tabor, who are involved with Swan Mountain Outfitters, a company that would benefit from having more tourists wanting an adventure. Joanne said she fully supported the project because “the project founders have an excellent record for improving areas.”

Major concerns

Of the many concerns raised by the public, three are mentioned often in the comments: the perception that the Forest Service is unwilling to do an environmental assessment, concerns about wilderness and wildlife, and the potential future plans of the resort corporation.

Even though the proposed changes to the site are significant, Steele said in his scoping package letter that his intent was to “categorically exclude” the project from environmental analysis because Forest Service regulations allow exclusions for construction or disposal of buildings or improvements on an existing recreation site. Tentative implementation is scheduled to start in 2023, Steele said.

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Several people who attended a Sept. 8 public information meeting at the lodge were disappointed that there was no presentation and people weren’t given opportunity to comment. Forest Service employees were there just to answer questions.

“That’s what the Forest Service does these days with this open-house format,” said Keith Hammer, Swan View Coalition chairman. “There’s no record of what goes on. They’re often fairly worthless, because even if you do have a conversation with the Forest Service, there’s no record of it. So we make sure we submit comments.”

Many of the public comments argued that such a big change should be analyzed carefully because the effects will extend beyond the 15-acre property.

Helena resident John Gatchell said the proposal shouldn’t qualify for fast-tracking due to all the special circumstances “including protected species, a recommended wilderness, historic features, wetlands and a delicate natural lake whose very nature has been to provide experiences that include large healthy doses of quiet forest solitude-in all seasons.”

“Holland Lake is not at all suitable for thrill-based corporate “lifestyles” recreation for rich people. As public landowners, we have no responsibility to sacrifice the quality natural lake experience of all for rich thrill seekers,” Gatchell wrote. “I found it alarming that your press release lacks any sense that this will be rigorously analyzed, no sense that you are stewards of something precious and rare. It reads instead like a regurgitation of corporate catch phrases that hold no meaning to public land owners.”

On Wednesday, Steele responded to the question of a categorical exclusion.

““The comments so far have made it clear to me that there is a lot of confusion surrounding the process and potential use of a categorical exclusion,” Steele said in a release. “I would like to make it clear that the use of a categorical exclusion does not mean there will not be an environmental analysis. The timeline for this project is to have a decision in late winter/spring 2023, with analysis and consultation ongoing until then. No decision has been made yet on this project or if a categorical exclusion, environmental assessment, or environmental impact statement would be used.”

Flathead Forest spokesperson Tami MacKenzie said Tuesday Steele could choose to do an environmental assessment or more rigorous environmental impact statement if the public comments and environmental review identifies an “extraordinary circumstance.” But MacKenzie pointed out that the existence of a circumstance still doesn’t preclude the use of a categorical exclusion.

“It is too early in the process to clearly state which level of analysis would be necessary, so it is safe to say all options are still on the table,” MacKenzie said.

The Swan Valley was saved from rampant development in 2007 when the Montana Legacy Project enabled the transfer of 67,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber land to the U.S. Forest Service. That preserved the region’s wild nature and native wildlife including threatened lynx and grizzly bears. Meanwhile, the region’s Southwestern Crown Collaborative has been trying to get the Swan Crest above Holland Lake set aside as wilderness through the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act.

But plunking a large resort down on Holland Lake could damage that because the negative effects won’t be limited the 15-acre property, said Chris Servheen, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator. It would also bring in a lot of people who aren’t used to being in bear country.

“I’m sure this organization is going to be promoting recreation beyond the 15-acre site, and all these things can displace bears, lynx and other wildlife and can increase the number of confrontations. It can even increase the mortality risk for bears because of the increasing number of people in the area and the fact that some bears may be displaced from more secure places into places where there are people and the mortality risk is higher,” Servheen said. “I think it’s important to realize this impact goes way beyond the 15 acres. I think it requires a very detailed environmental analysis – it can’t be just tossed aside as ‘no big deal.’ It is a big deal. They’re making the site ready for three times as many visitors and a longer visitor season.”

Studies around Yellowstone National Park have shown that large recreational developments on the edge of public land, such as ski areas, have ancillary effects that extend far into the surrounding public land.

They bring in more people who then use the neaby trails and spread into areas that used to be secluded, displacing wildlife. The data showed that human recreational activity displaces bears from habitat where they would otherwise want to be. The heavier the use, the more wildlife tries to avoid the area.

Although MacKenzie said the Flathead Forest would consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Servheen couldn’t say what the outcome would be.

“I would expect the USFWS would raise the same issues I raised: the displacement, increased mortality risk and habitat alienation that will come from thousands of user days that will be increasing around Holland Lake,” Servheen said.

Finally, many commenters point to all of POWDR’s properties and question the corporation’s intent. In addition to its ski resorts, POWDR advertises heli-skiing as one of its “adventure experiences.” The current proposal doesn’t mention heli-skiing in the Swan Range. But some say that could be the corporation’s next proposal, if this expansion is approved and POWDR “gets its foot in the door.”

That’s how Whitefish Mountain, Lost Trail, Snowbowl and several other ski areas have expanded their areas under their Forest Service Special Use permits: They submit proposals based upon the existing facilities and then justify how it would be the best use for the areas.

Servheen said nothing POWDR invests in is small or modest.

“It’s unlikely that they’ll be satisfied with just putting in three times as many rooms and a big restaurant on Holland Lake. They don’t make their money from that. There are other things that could go on, and that worries me and a lot of other people. That’s what they’re going to bring to the Swan Valley, because if they don’t, that would be an exception to the way they do business,” Servheen said. “It’s scary to think of what could come and the foot-in-the-door analogy is a good one.”

Hammer said the one difference between the ski area expansions and the Holland Lake proposal is the ski area proposals had to have environmental impact statements.

“Just a few years ago, (Whitefish Mountain Resort) wanted to just add a chairlift and relocate a chairlift in Hellroaring Basin. They at least did an environmental assessment,” Hammer said. “Now they want to do this major build-out at Holland Lake, and they don’t think they have to do an EA. They’re basically telling the public, ’No, we pretty much already decided this.’”

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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