Spotted Bear Cabins Proposal Waylaid by Opposition

A plan to build rental cabins in Bunker Park, near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, was placed on temporary hold following concern over grizzly bear habitat, increased use

By Tristan Scott
Charred trees are seen on June 25, 2016 after the Bear Creek fire burned through the Bob Marshall Wilderness along the South Fork Flathead River in August 2015. Beacon File Photo

A proposal to develop rental cabins on the Spotted Bear Ranger District is on hiatus after Flathead National Forest officials encountered a high volume of opposition over the potential impacts that added visitation would have on sensitive wildlife species, including grizzly bears and bull trout, underscoring the management challenge of balancing a renewed demand for outdoor recreation with conservation priorities.

Last month, Spotted Bear District Ranger Scott Snelson submitted for public comment a proposal to build four rental cabins at the Bunker Park Campground, a lightly used but developed overnight recreation site located about eight miles southeast of the Spotted Bear Ranger Station. The cabins would be located on roads open year round to public motorized use, with primarily snowmobile access occurring in winter months. 

The cabins were proposed as accommodations suitable to six people, ranging in size from 300 to 600 square feet, with a 20-by-30-foot parking pad adjacent to each building. Other installations would include a new groundwater well for stock and visitor use, an additional vault toilet, and an information kiosk.

But Snelson’s determination that the cabins were exempt from the highest standards of environmental review prompted immediate and intense scrutiny from conservation organizations and individuals alike, eliciting more than 250 comments.

“I have made a preliminary determination that this proposal falls within a category of actions listed in the Forest Service National Environmental Policy Handbook that are excluded from documentation in an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement,” Snelson wrote in a March 9 scoping letter, which presented an immediate red flag to opponents who wondered why the project was being spared from a more rigorous environmental analysis.

The groups include the National Parks Conservation Association, the Swan View Coalition, the Montana Wilderness Association, and the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, along with numerous individuals.

Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, said the development on land adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area deserved “the full and public environmental analysis required by law.”

“If you think you can build rental cabins at Bunker Park without increasing the human use capacity of the area, then you must also think you can do so at other developed and undeveloped campgrounds in the Spotted Bear area — such as Beaver Creek, South Creek Trailhead, and other Wilderness trailheads that already have pit toilets, fire rings, and food storage lockers,” Hammer wrote to Snelson. “You need to conduct a full and public environmental review of such a program and explain to the public how this is in keeping with the Flathead’s promise to keep grizzly bear habitat conditions and security at 2011 levels and to not arbitrarily increase human use capacity via developed recreation sites.”

Tamara MacKenzie, a spokesperson for the Flathead National Forest, said officials decided to put the proposal on a temporary hold following a deluge of comments in order to “take the time to thoroughly review all input before determining how best to proceed with the project.”

MacKenzie said the cabin-rental proposal was born of the agency’s recognition that its current cabin rental program is growing in popularity, along with nearly every other corner of the 2.4 million-acre Flathead National Forest.

“This agency is looking at how we can increase recreation to include a range of preferences,” MacKenzie said, emphasizing that Bunker Park is already an established front-country recreation site, even if it sees little use.

“That is one location where, even last summer when there was so much pressure on campgrounds, we really didn’t see a lot of activity,” MacKenzie said, noting that the Bear Creek Fire burned through the area in 2015.

Still, opponents say enhanced development would increase visitation, and it would do so in the middle of some of the Flathead National Forest’s most dense grizzly bear and carnivore habitat.

“You are creating a destination resort in the most inappropriate place and it is sure to be used by commercial operations, snowmobile clubs, mountain biking organizations,” wrote Chris Servheen, a retired grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Similarly, the National Parks Conservation Association objected to the proposal, both out of concern for wildlife species like grizzlies and Canada lynx, as well as with the use of a categorical exclusion, which the organization’s Glacier Program Manager Sarah Lundstrum was at odds with the Biden administration’s pledge to hem in the sweeping regulatory rollbacks governing the National Environmental Policy Act, which were enacted by Donald Trump.

“The Forest needs to produce the supporting records that clearly show that replacing an existing lightly used tent/trailer camping area with four rental cabins does not have an impact on wildlife, wilderness and forest resources through a proper EA or EIS,” Lundstrum wrote.

According to MacKenzie, just because the project calls for a categorical exclusion does not mean it is exempt from environmental analysis, including the potential impacts to wildlife; instead, it is a shorter and less rigorous review, she said.

“I think there’s a misconception that by using a categorical exclusion we are side-stepping the environmental review process,” she said. “We still conduct an analysis of wildlife resources. It is a shortened process, but it does still require us to take a hard look at everything.”