Mike Bader

No one should be fooled by the Flathead National Forest’s recent decision to end analysis of POWDR Corporation’s plans to develop the Holland Lake Lodge area. The decision letter says POWDR can submit another Master Development Plan (MDP).

As shown by POWDR’s response, they consider this as merely a speed bump. They will re-submit essentially the same plan rejected by more than 6,500 public commenters only this time they’ll unleash an advertising blitz.

The fact they are able to re-submit an MDP at all may be premised on a faulty foundation. Legal experts George Corn and Daniel Browder say the provisions of the Special Use Permit (SUP) have been violated and thus, by Forest Service regulations, terminated.

Analyzing and issuing SUPs using the “categorical exclusion” is standard operating procedure on the Flathead. They tried this when they proposed constructing modern cabins with electricity and running water in the Spotted Bear area on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness under a categorical exclusion. Tried again at Holland Lake.

The best outcome for the Holland Lake area and its scenic beauty, wildlife and ecology is for the Forest Service to terminate the permit and through use of Land and Water Conservation Fund money or other funding sources, buy out the financial interest in the Lodge and associated buildings. Then the Forest Service should prepare an Environmental Assessment that asks the public for comment on what should be done with the historic buildings on site at Holland Lake and provide a range of alternatives.

Ideally, opponents of the POWDR plan will congeal around a common vision for the future of the Holland Lake area. This is a rare opportunity to reduce our footprint on wild areas while maintaining quality recreation opportunities for ordinary people in a rustic setting.

The Lodge and other buildings should be protected under the National Historic Preservation Act and the 15 acres designated as a National Historic District. The Lodge could cease operating as a commercial lodge and instead be available through the Forest Service Cabin Rental program. It would not be open during the Winter which would save hundreds of thousands of dollars in winterizing upgrades.

Part of the Lodge or other buildings could be a visitor center with interpretive programs for the public. The adjacent Forest Service campground could have 5-8 sites added to increase outdoor overnight use to partially compensate for the loss of commercial lodging. This management plan would allow for the existing recreation uses and the dock facilities would be fully open to the public.

The Spotted Bear and Holland Lake debacles have shown that the administration of the SUP program on the Flathead National Forest must be described, mapped and analyzed through an Environmental Assessment including a cumulative effects analysis of environmental impact. The Forest’s SUP program is poorly managed and out of control and the Flathead has shown a pattern of promoting commercial recreation on the Forest.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should also revisit the NCDE Conservation Strategy for Grizzly Bears, which has a provision that allows major facility expansions like the one proposed for Holland Lake. In fact, one new facility or expansion of existing facilities is allowed every ten years in each Bear Management Unit. Converting some of the best grizzly bear habitat in the NCDE into a recreational and commercial playground is ill-advised and certainly illegal. Just because that’s what the Forest Service wants doesn’t mean the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should allow it.

In the end, an independent audit may be needed to get to the bottom of all this.

Mike Bader is an independent natural resources consultant in Missoula.