Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana grilled the chief of the U.S. Forest Service last week about its initial decision — since reversed — to give an expansion plan at Holland Lake Lodge an exemption from a thorough environmental review.

Tester said Congress meant that type of exemption — called a “categorical exclusion” — to be used for projects that protect communities from wildfires.

At least he wouldn’t have supported it for “making some corporation rich off our public lands,” Tester said.

In the fall, the Flathead National Forest said it would grant the exemption for a proposed expansion at the lodge, which operates on public land through a special-use permit.

“If the people wouldn’t have stood up and said, ‘Foul. This is baloney,’ this project would have been built using a categorical exclusion, by the way, that was meant for cutting trees, not for recreational purposes,” Tester said.

The agency since changed course and pledged to do at least an environmental assessment on the proposal.

However, Tester noted the importance of the outdoor recreation economy, a $7 billion industry and big employer in Montana.

The resort expansion has been mired in controversy after missteps by the Forest Service.

The agency provided incorrect information to the public about the number of acres allowed by the permit and offered only three weeks of public comment after working with private developers behind the scenes for a year and a half.

After the public identified the correct acreage in the permit and pushed back on the limited public comment period, the Forest Service acknowledged the acres the permit allows — 10.53 acres, not 15 acres — and extended the public comment period.

This week at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore acknowledged the agency was using those exemptions “quite extensively.”

In a letter submitted earlier as public comment on the project, Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests,  said granting exceptions to some projects “is both reasonable and necessary,” but the Forest Service is using the NEPA exclusion “to an alarming degree,” some 84 percent of the time.

Nie also said federal regulations prohibit the exemption where “extraordinary circumstances” exist, such as in places threatened or endangered species might be affected. He noted the Flathead National Forest’s own plan identifies unique characteristics of the area.

At the hearing, Moore did not have an immediate response to Tester’s question about the criteria the Forest Service tried to use to grant the exemption in this case.

But Moore said categorical exclusions are used for more than just cutting trees. He said he would have to look into the matter to know the reason the Forest Service initially granted one for the Holland Lake Lodge project.

Thursday in an email, the U.S. Forest Service said the senator’s questions were important, and it was working on responses to provide to the committee.

In the exchange between Tester and Moore, Tester said he does not believe the Forest Service was properly using the exemption, and someone “found a loophole here and they cut a deal.”

“This has been something that has given government a bad name,” Tester said.

The exchange was posted on Tester’s social media channels.

On the other hand, in a time of intense political division in the country, Tester, a Democrat, said the Forest Service “did a great job of uniting” Democrats, Republicans and independents in their protests. (“But this isn’t how we should be doing it,” he said.)

In November, the Forest Service rejected Holland Lake Lodge’s expansion proposal. However, POWDR, the company that quietly took control of the lodge in October 2021, has said it plans to resubmit a similar proposal.

In a letter sent Friday, Save Holland Lake, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said the Forest Service greased the wheels for the expansion in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The groups also said the Forest Service is legally obligated to review whether a new permit application by POWDR is in the public interest and conduct an environmental review, and it said the agency must follow federal law or face a court challenge.

The Forest Service said it is reviewing the letter and will provide more information as it becomes available.