Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After discussing the details earlier this week, Missoula County on Thursday made official its letter to the Flathead National Forest, lending its voice to the agency's scoping process around a proposal to expand Holland Lake lodge.

The three-page letter lists a number of concerns local officials would like to be addressed.

“There's been a lot of publicity, meetings and public engagement in the proposal to expand the lodge,” said county planner Chet Crowser. “This is a letter form the county that's going to go into the scoping phase of the Forest Service process. We've highlighted a number of concerns.”

Among them, the county touches on resource values, impacts to the community, public safety, recreational opportunities and experience, grizzly bear habitat and other threatened species, including the Canada lynx, wolverine and bull trout.

Above it all, however, the county's primary concern lies on the Forest Service's choice to approach the project through a categorical exclusion.

“We're encouraging that maybe a more thorough assessment be done in terms of assessing the impacts associated with this proposal,” Crowser said. “Right now, the Forest Service is approaching this as a categorical exclusion, which we feel is probably not the adequate level of analysis.”

According to the county, the project could have impacts on a number of surrounding resources, including “at least four threatened and endangered species,” wetlands, wilderness and historic properties.

The expansion, proposed by POWDR – a Utah firm specializing in outdoor recreation – would increase the capacity of overnight guests from 50 to 156, and it would expand the facility's use year-round.

According to the county, that represents an increase from around 11,300 user days to nearly 47,000, and that doesn't include day use and special events.

“This dramatic increase in visitation, especially with use extending farther into the fall, would inevitably impact and create conflicts with grizzly bears during a time when the species is consuming more food as it nears denning,” the county's letter states.

As they did on Tuesday, commissioners also reiterated concerns over the displacement of local users that have long used the lodge and Holland Lake as a popular and often affordable getaway.

“The proposal to expand the Holland Lake Lodge will lead to a very substantial increase in visitors and an increase in the cost to use the various lodge facilities,” the county wrote. “Such changes will create an exclusive resort atmosphere wholly different from the low-impact facilities that have been in place for many decades, and which will likely out-price locals from enjoyment.”

attachment-Holland Lake Plans

On Thursday, Crowser said it was his understanding, based upon recent public meetings with the Forest Service, that another round of public comments would be forthcoming once the Forest Service determines its next step.

That could be months down the road, but it could provide another opportunity to weigh in on more specific data.

“What I heard in that meeting is that the Forest Service will be taking a look at those public comments and making a determination to better assess the concerns that have been raised by the public, and more definition around some of the decision-making process,” he said.

The county itself may have an outlying role in permitting some of the activities around POWDR's expansion. But it's not yet known what that may be, Crowser said.

“In a general sense, there will be some involvement from the county,” Crowser told the Missoula Current. “I think the specifics of the proposal, when it gets to a permitting level, will help decide what exactly the county's role is in that. We're not exactly sure what we'd have a role in, so we'll need to see the final proposal to really know.”

County commissioners haven't outright opposed the project but are instead taking steps to ensure the Forest Service analyzes and addresses the list of concerns.

For now, the county is waiting on the Forest Service to determine if it will move forward with a categorical exclusion or elevate its review to something that requires a more thorough analysis.

“It seems like a decision needs to be made on the part of the Forest Service whether they're going to go with a categorical exclusion or take the next step to an environmental analysis or environmental impact statement, which would also include a public process, said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Hopefully the Flathead National Forest and POWDR take our comments to heart.”