Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele has accepted a new position at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region headquarters in Missoula, capping a three-and-a-half-year stint overseeing 2.4 million forested acres in northwest Montana that in the past year had become beset in controversy.
According to an agency spokesperson, Steele “was offered and accepted” a new post as deputy director at the regional office that involves “environmental planning,” although the details of the position are still being worked out.
“I think it’s just a lateral move to a position at the regional office level,” Dan Hottle, the federal agency’s northern region public information officer, said Friday afternoon, when details about the transition were still scant. “It’s a new role and he will work closely with the regional leadership team on a number of different projects across the region as deputy director. His start date is still being negotiated right now.”
A phone call placed to Steele’s mobile work phone was answered by Deputy Flathead Forest Supervisor Tami Mackenzie, who said she was “still learning all the details” and directed press inquiries to the regional spokesman.
The vacant supervisor’s position will likely be filled by detail or interim appointment until a permanent supervisor can be hired, Hottle said. The interim position will likely be filled immediately, he said, although a permanent replacement could take weeks or more.
Since last year, Steele has come beneath an avalanche of criticism over his handling of an out-of-state resort company’s plans to expand the historic Holland Lake Lodge in the Swan Valley near Condon. Although the Flathead National Forest ultimately rejected the resort company POWDR’s master development plan, a series of mistakes and procedural missteps during the public scoping process, which Steele maintains were oversights, invited a degree of backlash the forest supervisor said he did not anticipate.
“Holland Lake Lodge has been eating our lunch,” Steele told the Beacon earlier this year. “It really is the perfect case study of this tension between a surging demand for expanded recreational uses on public lands and a faction of the public that is losing its patience.”
Hottle declined to say whether that controversy influenced Steele’s decision to accept the new position.
“It’s just a job offer that he was offered and he accepted it,” Hottle said. “Some of the personnel matters we just don’t comment on because it’s a human resource issue. But with Kurt, this shouldn’t be classified as a reassignment. It was an opportunity for him to take and he took it.”
Hired as the Flathead National Forest’s supervisor three years ago, Steele left a position as second-in-command of Idaho’s timber-rich Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forests and arrived here in January 2020, taking the reins overseeing 2.4 million forested acres in northwest Montana. He did so just as the pandemic upended the status quo of forest management by uncorking an unprecedented volume of demand for recreation on public lands.
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