As Forest Administrators Seek to Renew Outfitter Permits in Bob Marshall Wilderness, Enforcement Lapses Come to Light

One longtime district ranger says he tried for years to suspend an outfitter’s special-use permit in the Bob after repeat offenses. Instead, his efforts were undermined and he was reassigned to an administrative office.

By Tristan Scott
The Chinese Wall from Cliff Mountain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness on Aug. 1, 2017. Beacon file photo

With a deadline looming to reauthorize the permits allowing 62 commercial outfitters and guides to lead floating and hunting trips on the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which includes all three designated wilderness areas spanning 1.6 million acres, U.S. Forest Service administrators are hearing a common refrain: “To allow for informed public participation, additional information about the proposal needs to be available.”

That comment was submitted by Greg Warren, a former Recreation Program Leader on the Flathead National Forest who also served as the Spotted Bear District Ranger from 1990 to 1994, a period during which he helped oversee the special use permits administered to outfitters and guides doing business in the heart of the Bob. It echoes a growing chorus of public land stakeholders calling on the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to rebuild the public’s trust and be more transparent about how it approves special uses occurring in a wilderness setting, as well as how it monitors and enforces the rules.

As appeals intensify for the federal agency to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the permit reauthorization process, the USFS is prepared to reauthorize the special uses for another 10-year period under a Categorical Exclusion (CE) rule of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is a less intensive category of analysis preceding agency action than an EIS. As an example of the agency’s lack of transparency surrounding reauthorization, some commenters noted that, in issuing its scoping notice on Jan. 1, the USFS omitted information about the assigned sites, the identity of the permit holders and the types of uses they offer to paying customers.

When members of the public expressed concerns about the scarcity of detail, land managers extended the scoping period by two weeks while providing some additional information. As of Feb. 15, the scoping had garnered more than 1,350 comments. For additional information about the reauthorization as well as to read or submit public comments before the Feb. 16 deadline expires, visit this website.

“In addition to extending the comment period, we are also providing more information on relevant permit holders, assigned sites, and types of use,” said Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Muñoz in his letter soliciting public input. “We are interested in your feedback and thank you in advance for your investment in preserving the Wilderness character of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.”

The Wilderness Act of Sept. 3, 1964 allows outfitting as a “special use,” which is also authorized by the management documents of the three national forests comprising the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Each outfitter has a forest contract that ensures activities taking place on the public resource minimize impact to these remote areas and help convey stewardship ethics. If the current slate of permits is reauthorized, their term would extend from 2025 to 2035. A decision is expected in June 2024.

With the extended public comment period closing on Feb. 16, however, some former land mangers and conservationists say the scoping notice is still insufficient.

“The proposed action description in the scoping notice is incomplete,” Warren said, adding that he is “primarily concerned about the effects of approving commercial activities that may substantially degrade Wilderness, Wild and Scenic River and National Trails qualities and values.

“The proposed action should clearly describe the full nature of activities authorized in the permits, including the use of system trails, base and spike camp locations and facilities, and the location of outfitter created routes that are routinely used,” according to Warren. “The proposed action should include discernible maps that show camp locations and the extent of the areas often used by the permittee.”

Bob Marshall Wilderness on Oct. 13, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Another comment from the Swan View Coalition’s Keith Hammer, a longtime environmental watchdog who has spent decades urging Forest officials to adhere to the terms and conditions required by a special use authorization on public land, said the agency has structured the scoping period in such a way that it “will bias comments in favor of clients that have been contacted by their outfitter with a request that they put in a good word for their performance and permit reauthorization.”

But Hammer spends even more time in his scoping submission articulating his concerns over issues of noncompliance with permitted outfitters, detailing instances in which outfitters’ performance “do not meet Forest Service specifications,” including citations against outfitters for numerous violations of state and federal regulations.

In questioning why the agency would reauthorize operations for a permittee in violation of its own regulations, especially using a Categorical Exclusion, Hammer’s comment underscores the remonstrances from another former district ranger at Spotted Bear, Scott Snelson, who until last year was tasked with enforcing the permits for outfitters and guides operating in that resource management zone. However, Snelson says his efforts to enforce the rules were rebuffed by supervisors and ultimately led to his reassignment to an administrative office, prompting an early retirement.

“My staff and I did everything we could to be fair, and hold all outfitters and guides working on the District accountable to their contracts with the American people through the special use permit system,” Snelson wrote in an emailed statement to the Beacon. “When it came time to gain compliance from a particular politically connected outfitter, who had committed repeated and increasingly notorious violations of law and terms of his permit, the former Forest Supervisor and his superiors and Regional support staff consistently knee-capped our efforts over a several year period.”

The Beacon has corroborated the outfitter’s violations by reviewing court documents, public records, and by conducting interviews, including with forest employees who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

Muñoz, the Rocky Mountain District Ranger who oversees much of the eastern portion of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and helps administer the special-use permits as part of a team of specialists from the Flathead, Helena-Lewis and Clark and Lolo national forests, said the outfitter to whom Snelson is referring has had his permit administratively suspended.

Although Muñoz declined to elaborate on the reason for the permit suspension or its terms, he confirmed that the outfitter is among the 62 outfitters and guides whose permits the agency is poised to reauthorize for the next decade. However, Muñoz took care to draw a distinction between the permit reauthorization process, which evaluates the full roster of permittees operating on the landscape holistically, and the permit administration process, which includes monitoring and enforcement actions such as permit suspension or revocation, as well as performance evaluations.

“The reauthorization process looks at all the permits to help us determine whether those activities as a whole are suitable across all three designated wilderness areas,” Muñoz said. “But then we also monitor and assess each permit on an individual basis, and we conduct performance evaluations over the course of the 10-year authorization period. The reason we do that is because, if we get one bad apple out of the 62 permits, he could hold up the entire process, and we don’t want to punish the other outfitters and guides who are doing a good job.”

Bob Marshall Wilderness. Beacon file photo

The outfitter whose permit the agency suspended is Richard McAtee, whose outfitting and guiding business Montana Wilderness Lodge operates out of the Spotted Bear Ranger District. McAtee is among the 62 outfitters and guides whose permits the agency is poised to reauthorize for the next decade, and while he said there’s more to the story than what’s available in the public court docket, he declined to comment for this article as the administrative process is still underway.

According to records in U.S. District Court, McAtee, who purchased Montana Wilderness Lodge in 2017, has incurred numerous citations and petty offenses for allegedly violating the terms and conditions of his special use authorization dating back to 2019, including operating commercially on National Forest System lands where he’s not authorized to do so (an allegation to which McAtee has pleaded not guilty and is disputing); storing equipment, personal property or supplies where he’s not authorized to do so; violating the 16-day stay limit by leaving a flatbed trailer on National Forest System lands; and for possessing more than 35 head of stock.

The Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA), which represents more than 500 of Montana’s professional licensed outfitters and guides operating across the state, said in a prepared statement that “allegations of noncompliance should be taken seriously and any violation of permitting regulations addressed.”

“Licensed outfitters in the Bob Marshall Complex must adhere strictly to Montana Board of Outfitters regulations, ensuring visitor safety and environmental protection,” said Will Israel, executive director of MOGA. “These regulations are in place to ensure the safety of visitors, maintain the integrity of the wilderness experience and support responsible outdoor recreation opportunities.”

He continued: “Outfitters have provided an important service to the public for more than 100 years, providing opportunities for individuals to gain access to areas that they otherwise would never experience. While it’s rare, isolated incidents from a few businesses can impact the reputation of all just like every industry. The 60-plus outfitters operating in that region consistently demonstrate exceptional work, setting a high standard for professionalism and environmental stewardship. We give our full support to the U.S. Forest Service as they continue to care for this amazing public resource and provide oversight of the wilderness outfitters who operate in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We also support a transparent process and recognize the value of having access to details, including the nature of activities authorized in the permits, camp locations, and performance evaluations of permit holders.”

According to Hammer, the USFS reauthorization process should include details about a permit holder’s track record, including past and pending citations or violations of noncompliance, as well as performance evaluations, a “report card” and, especially, whether the permit is under suspension or being considered for revocation or cancellation.

“Those are the kinds of details that the public needs to know,” Hammer said. “Otherwise, what are they supposed to comment on? We should have access to a report card or evaluation of these outfitters and guides or else we’re totally in the dark.”

With six assigned resource areas and numerous jurisdictional boundaries straddling the Continental Divide as part of the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness areas, and with five ranger districts spanning the Flathead and Helena-Lewis and Clark national forests, Muñoz explained that the agency can’t conduct performance evaluations on every permit holder every year, which is part of why it’s seeking public comment.

“There are things that we can easily miss, so we look at how permit holders are treating other members of the public and how they are treating their own clients,” Muñoz said. “We had to cancel one permit because the outfitter was charging for services but was not performing those services. They were not taking people on the trips that they booked. So, what I want to point out is for a permit to come out on the other end of this reauthorization analysis, it has to be in good standing to be reauthorized again. And that is what the Flathead National Forest is dealing with as part of this process.”

For example, for a permit to be revoked or canceled, the agency must be able to document reoccurring problems. But even if a permittee under suspension gets reauthorized along with the block of 62 other outfitters and guides, Muñoz said the agency can still take administrative action.

“We can take action against a permit holder at any point during the life of the permit,” he said. “Reauthorizing a permit does not rule out our ability to administer the permit.”

A mule train descends the trail from Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park on August 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As demand for outdoor recreation continues to surge nationally and in western Montana, the Flathead National Forest in particular has been inundated with a flood of commercial requests for recreational activities, or special use permits (SUP), which are required for commercial outfitters operating on public land, with the number of approved SUPs more than doubling between 2010 and 2020. In 2022, the Flathead National Forest retained more than $1.45 million in revenue generated from special-use permit fees, with nearly a half-million dollars coming from outfitter and guide services.

“As a part of our existing program of work, we administer numerous recreation special use permits including outfitting and guiding permits. We administer these permits based on a comprehensive set of terms and conditions,” according to a statement the Flathead National Forest leadership team provided to the Beacon. “We work in partnership with the permit holder using these Terms and Conditions to guide the public service the outfitter delivers to the visitor. The Flathead National Forest takes any and all violations of permit terms and conditions seriously and works through our permit administration process to reconcile those violations.”

According to Snelson, the Spotted Bear District Ranger since 2017 who was reassigned from his post last year, and retired soon after under what he calls professional duress, said his supervisors undercut his efforts to enforce those terms and conditions to gain compliance from the Montana Wilderness Lodge, and ultimately punished him.

“My unwillingness to condone this behavior by an outfitter and guide operating under a special use permit I administered, was followed by the beginning of professional retribution I began to experience. This persistent and purposeful retribution led to my decision to retire from a successful career in progressively more complex leadership roles over 25 years in four regions,” Snelson wrote in his statement to the Beacon. “The Wilderness Act is clear that no commercial activities shall take place in the Wilderness. Special use permits for outfitting in the Wilderness are granted at the express invitation of the American public to facilitate access to the Wilderness. The vast majority of Bob Marshall outfitters and guides take this privilege seriously and deliver terrific service to their clients, follow their permit requirements and deliver services completely compatible and complementary to the intent of the Act. We had great and mutually beneficial relationships with these folks.”

Specifically, Snelson says his enforcement efforts were undermined by former Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele, who in June 2023 accepted a new position at the USFS’ Northern Region headquarters in Missoula, ending his 3.5-year stint as the forest supervisor overseeing northwest Montana. Although his departure coincided with Snelson’s, Flathead National Forest officials have declined to say whether the administrative shake-up was related.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA).

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