Bill Lombardi, spokesman for the citizens’ coalition Save Holland Lake, called the Nov. 23 announcement “good Thanksgiving news.” But Lombardi’s outlook could change in the coming months as an out-of-state resort company with an unpopular vision for the historic Holland Lake Lodge finesses its strategy and recasts its proposal to expand.
The latest turn in the development saga unfolding down the Swan Valley occurred Nov. 23, when the Flathead National Forest announced it would “cease evaluation” of a contentious expansion proposal, marking a setback for Utah-based ski resort company POWDR after months of escalating tensions surrounding the lodge’s future.
In recent months, Lombardi and Save Holland Lake have pitched an iron-willed resistance to POWDR’s expansion plans, framing the proposal as an ecological threat to Holland Lake and the Swan Valley and a detriment to its sleepy character. Meanwhile, the Flathead National Forest parsed more than 6,500 comments on the expansion, the vast majority in opposition, and endured its own onslaught of criticism before basing its rejection on “anomalies in the submission” as well as “inaccuracies and inconsistencies” in POWDR’s master development plan.
As POWDR returns to the drawing board to craft a new proposal, the future of the site remains in limbo.
“I want to drive the point home that this is not a denial or a rejection – but an opportunity to reset and resubmit to address inaccuracies and inconsistencies,” according to POWDR Vice President of Communications and Government Affairs Stacey Hutchinson.
Currently, Holland Lake Lodge is a collection of small, rustic cabins at the base of the Swan Mountains, southeast of Condon. The proposed remodel, a joint venture between POWDR and longtime lodge owner Christian Wohlfeil, would involve the construction of 32 new buildings, including 10 new cabins to replace five preexisting cabins, as well as a new 13,000-square-foot, 28-room lodge. With the expansion, capacity at the lodge would increase from 50 guests to around 150, and the site would feature upgraded water and wastewater systems, electrical utilities and fiberoptic internet, as well as winterized buildings.
Throughout the planning process, POWDR and Wohlfeil, as well as the Forest Service, have faced mounting public opposition to the project, which locals characterize as environmentally untenable and a risk to the remote Swan Valley. Those tensions came to a head during the course of public meetings in Condon and Seeley Lake on Sept. 8 and Oct. 4, as well as in an online forum.
Locals raised concerns over what expanded operations could mean for wildlife, particularly as the lodge aims to remain open throughout the winter; currently, it is only open during the summer. Residents also criticized the possibility of increased traffic in the remote area, which many said will fundamentally reshape the serene corner of the valley, and condemned the purchase of the lodge by an out-of-state corporation, a theme that has resounded throughout Montana in recent years as developers flocked to the state to capitalize on its booming housing market and tourism economy.
Save Holland Lake, Lombardi’s advocacy group, formed as a direct response to the proposed expansion, mounting a widespread campaign that involved newspaper op-eds, billboards and grassroots fundraising efforts.
The rejection of the development plan was outlined in a Nov. 21 letter, in which Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele summarized the Forest Service’s decision to “cease evaluation” due to “inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the [Master Development Plan] and proposed use.”
Though the letter did not outline specific inaccuracies, Flathead National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Tami MacKenzie told the Beacon that the proposal included a discrepancy in the acreage of the expansion proposal. POWDR and Wohlfeil’s application also misstated that there are no grizzly bears in the Holland Lake area, which is, in fact, part of the Northern Continental Divide Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone.
Lombardi said a lack of transparency and the use of incorrect information by POWDR loomed over the project from the beginning.
“How do you trust POWDR? How do you trust the Forest Service when they fumbled this from the beginning?” Lombardi said.
In addition to discrepancies in the expansion plan, an initial decision by the Forest Service to bypass a comprehensive environmental review, which was supported by the developers, became a rallying cry for those concerned about the Holland Lake ecosystem. Both the National Forest and POWDR have since walked back their position and now say they support a more comprehensive environmental review.
The Forest Service in a Sept. 1 letter outlined a request for a categorical exclusion for Holland Lake Lodge, a provision that allows actions on federal lands to be excluded from a comprehensive environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), if they are determined to not have a significant impact on the local ecosystem.
Throughout various public meetings, POWDR representatives maintained that a comprehensive environmental review was unnecessary and supported a categorical exclusion. The company also repeatedly emphasized its commitment to environmental sustainability, pledging to include eco-friendly features at the new lodge such as a shoreline protection zone, nesting boxes for birds and bats and the avoidance of plastic bags, Styrofoam and pesticides at the site.
Despite initially pursuing a categorical exclusion, Forest Service officials at an Oct. 4 public meeting implied they would ultimately require a more rigorous environmental review, saying they had “missed the mark.”
MacKenzie on Dec. 2 told the Beacon that if Flathead National Forest moves forward with the expansion plan, they will conduct, at minimum, an Environmental Assessment (EA), a form of environmental review outlined in NEPA. A more stringent Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), another form of NEPA review, which would involve analyzing the cumulative impacts of the proposal, also remains on the table as an option.
In a statement released in response to the Forest Service’s decision to reject the initial proposal, POWDR officials wrote that the company will “support the Forest Service’s recommendation to conduct an Environmental Assessment,” though they maintained that “there will not be adverse impact to the environment” and “are confident that any analysis, driven by data, science, and the experts at the Flathead Forest, will support our Master Development Plan going forward.”
When asked more specifically about the company’s decision to support a higher level of environmental scrutiny, Hutchinson, of POWDR, referred the Beacon back to the Nov. 23 statement.
Opponents have also raised questions around the legitimacy of Holland Lake Lodge’s special use permit, which allows private individuals and corporations to provide concessions on public land, which activists allege should be void given the transition from Wohlfeil’s sole ownership of the lodge to a joint venture with POWDR. The lodge has operated under various special use permits, granted by the Forest Service, since 1924.
Attorneys George Corn and Daniel Browder in a Nov. 15 memo wrote that a review of public documents led them to believe that Holland Lake Lodge had violated the terms of its special use permit, which was granted to Wohlfeil by the Forest Service. Specifically, the attorneys raised concerns over the formation of a joint venture between Wohlfeil and POWDR, which they said should have legally voided the document and forced the parties to apply for a new permit.
Corn and Browder stated that legal provisions that govern special use permits “are clearly intended to prevent a permittee from using corporate shenanigans to allow a third party to take over the Permit without going through the full vetting required of a new permit application.”
MacKenzie said that while the information provided to the Flathead National Forest indicated Wohlfeil remained the majority shareholder, the Forest Service’s legal counsel is investigating the issue to ensure all parties involved are in compliance with permitting rules.
Although project opponents celebrated the decision to reject the original development plan, the lodge’s future remains unclear, and various bureaucratic checkpoints lie ahead for both POWDR and the national forest.
MacKenzie told the Beacon that Holland Lake Lodge will need to submit a revised master development plan to the Forest Service.
If the new development plan is accepted, the lodge will then have to submit proposals for individual actions, which the Forest Service will approve or deny. MacKenzie specified that the master development plan is not an action document, but rather a plan, and that the approval of action items will come later if the master development plan passes.
The Forest Service, then, will carry out another scoping process, an environmental review and a public comment period with an objection window, before reaching a final decision.
“We understand this is the first battle in what likely will be a long war over the expansion of the Holland Lake Lodge with POWDR,” Lombardi said. “We have our work cut out for us.”
In its Nov. 23 statement, POWDR emphasized a commitment to carrying out the expansion, saying it will not compromise on scale, as a smaller facility would make lodging prices more expensive and “would not align with our mission of making the outdoors more accessible to a broader spectrum of customer.”
POWDR will release details on planned modifications in the coming weeks as the company continues to navigate the Forest Service’s processes. The company has directed those who want to provide feedback and ask questions to visit their planning website at www.hollandlakefuture.com.
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