Bill Lombardi

In autumn, that mournful season that stifles the lighthearted sounds of summer, larch turn golden-yellow and, against the dark-green shade of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine, light up the Seeley-Swan Valley like a votive-filled cathedral in Rome.

It’s something to behold in October as you stand in awe of the magic wand of nature, whose invisible hand has crafted an infrastructure that rapacious men and women want to harness, market and sell to a public hungry for natural experiences touted on television and Instagram and by Hollywood.

In the Seeley-Swan, and at Holland Lake in particular, we’re seeing a docudrama (yes, like that TV show Yellowstone) play out with the U.S. Forest Service and Utah-based ski giant POWDR (where’s the E?; it’s all marketing), proposing to triple the size of the quaint Holland Lake Lodge – on public land – and turn it into a “soulful” experience for visitors to a lake that is the crown jewel of the largely undeveloped valley.

To stand at Holland Falls, in any season, is to witness and imagine what Montana and this landscape once was: wild, undeveloped and nestled in between the Swan Mountains and a vast Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east and the craggy peaks of the Mission Mountains to the west.

For those who live in the valley, it’s where the sun crests one mountain range and sets behind another. The valley includes a wildlife corridor that is largely untrammeled by humans – except in high summer – and allows visitors to drive between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.

It’s also the land of the Pend d’Oreille, Salish, Kootenai and Blackfeet, who lived and hunted here before interlopers descended into the valley.

But what’s occurring in this place is emblematic of what is happening these days to Montana, where hucksters see a raw diamond like Holland Lake and want to cut facets in it to sell to visitors who crave a real natural experience.

Yes, Montana’s being discovered – again. But in this instance the Forest Service’s Flathead representatives stumbled out of the gate in announcing this huge development, which needs a special-use permit to operate on public land.

The Forest Service quickly lost the trust of the public because of an obscure and confusing public scoping process and a failure to be totally transparent when this project was initially hatched.

After quietly mulling POWDR’s massive development proposal since April, Flathead Forest officials released details of the project on September 1 (just before Labor Day weekend), quoted the developers of the project, and said they would accept public comments until September 21. Forest Service officials held a meeting on September 8 in Condon, where attendees heartily panned the process.

Thousands of howls of protest from people across Montana and the country prompted Flathead Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele to extend the comment period until October 7 and schedule a meeting on the proposal in Seeley Lake on October 4.

In a press release, Steele took no responsibility for the “lot of confusion” about the Forest Service's intention to use a “categorical exclusion” for the project (CEs are used for minor projects), condescendingly insinuating, to some, at least, that the public doesn’t understand the arcana of Forest Service bureaucracy.

All that locals, Montanans and people across the country who own the public land are asking is that the Forest Service be open and transparent so that we know the rules of the game and can comment on substantive issues, such as what a large project and extensive human impact will have on the character of the area, threatened and endangered species, water and air quality, traffic, and so on.

It’s not that difficult.

I’ll leave the substantive issues to policy experts, who'll point out the flaws with this proposal for a lake that doesn’t need a giant ski developer – an “adventure lifestyle company that inspires every human being with cool experiences in awesome places” – to create a “soulful experience” for us.

If I want such an experience, I’ll hike to Holland Falls or walk among the grove of giant larch that soar like cathedral spires near Seeley Lake. Those places are free, open to all and shared by us.

This vanishing Montana – it’s worth fighting for.

Bill Lombardi lives in Seeley Lake

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