The Flathead National Forest has rejected a controversial proposal from Utah-based ski corporation POWDR to significantly expand Holland Lake Lodge.
"We will be ceasing evaluation on the master development plan and proposal for expansion," Flathead National Forest Public Information Officer Tami MacKenzie told the Missoulian on Wednesday. That message was conveyed to Holland Lake Lodge Inc. in an internal letter from the Forest Service to the lodge's owners on Monday evening.
MacKenzie said it explained that the justification for the denial was "due to anomalies in the submission ... including inaccuracies in the master development and proposed (development)."
The agency said earlier this week that it was working toward a decision on how or whether to proceed with the proposal. Flathead Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele noted in the letter that his "decision to cease consideration of this proposed use and return the (Master Development Plan) to you is not subject to administrative appeal(.)"
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The proposal came from Holland Lake Lodge Inc., a joint venture between two executives of Park City-based POWDR and the lodge's former sole owner, Christian Wohlfeil. It envisioned 32 new buildings — including a 28-room lodge, a restaurant and 26 cabins — and the removal of 10 structures around the historic lakeside lodge in the Swan Valley.
As proposed, the expansion would increase the size of the lodge's special-use permit from 10.53 acres to about 15 acres. The special-use permit allows the privately owned Holland Lake Lodge Inc. to operate as a commercial business on the public Flathead National Forest ground. Such arrangements are common, including widespread use for ski areas and similar guest lodges in Montana and across the West.
The rejection of the company's proposal to expand the lodge means that, for now, the proposal is dead. But POWDR could submit another proposal for consideration, even one that is generally the same as the rejected proposal. POWDR Vice President of Communications Stacey Hutchinson confirmed in a call Wednesday that POWDR plans to resubmit.
"However, that will have to go through the whole process again," MacKenzie said. "It's kind of a reset."
In a phone call and text messages with the Missoulian Wednesday, Hutchinson strongly disagreed with the characterization of the letter as a rejection of POWDR's proposal: "This is not a rejection. It is an opportunity to revise the MDP, as the letter states."
However, MacKenzie confirmed to the Missoulian that the Forest Service is no longer evaluating POWDR's proposed master development plan or proposed expansion. If the company chooses to submit another proposal, the agency would start the new proposal back at the beginning of the scoping and public comment process.
"We didn't use the word 'denial' but we are not moving forward with the MDP or the proposed use," MacKenzie said. "Basically we are stopping and resetting."
In a phone call, Hutchinson acknowledged that POWDR would have to submit a new proposal, rather than continuing with the existing one, because the Forest Service said it was no longer considering the existing proposal.
POWDR released an online statement Wednesday characterizing the rejection of the company's proposal as "a request from the U.S. Forest Service to provide more detail on our Master Development Plan." The company said it would submit a new plan that is very similar to the initial proposal.
"We plan to resubmit our plan for future investment and infrastructure improvements at Holland Lake Lodge that is very much in line with our previously submitted Master Development Plan," the company stated.
"Our plan will also incorporate several modifications that came from the previous public comment period — constructive ideas from those who want the best for the Lodge and the land," the statement continued. "We will share more of those details in the coming weeks. Our plan will not, however, compromise on scale as a smaller lodge with fewer, more expensive lodging options would not align with our mission of making the outdoors more accessible to a broader spectrum of customer."
The Forest Service received 6,507 public comments during the public comment period that followed the agency's initial internal scoping process on the proposal. Almost all of the comments expressed opposition to POWDR's proposal.
Wohlfeil has maintained that the proposal has more support than is reflected in those comments, and has suggested that some supporters may refrain from publicly showing support out of fear of retaliation. In a Nov. 7 statement to the Missoulian and Helena Independent Record, Wohlfeil, who has owned the lodge for more than 20 years, said he "would argue that there are more supporters of our project, yet they don't speak up publicly."
In its statement Wednesday, POWDR wrote that "we remain steadfast and optimistic to fulfill the vision for Holland Lake Lodge that many Montana residents, and other Americans support."
Thousands of people have submitted public comments, spoken at meetings, written to newspapers and taken to social media to oppose the expansion. They cited increased traffic and tourism burden on the Swan Valley, impacts to wildlife, increased wastewater and garbage, limited wildfire evacuation, impacts to freshwater, and fears of a corporate, profit-driven facility too expensive for many Montanans to enjoy.
Bill Lombardi, an organizer of Save Holland Lake, which quickly formed late this summer in response to the public comment period, learned of the letter in a call with the Missoulian. The group has pushed the Forest Service to conduct more in-depth analysis on the proposal than initially announced. The group also called on the agency to ultimately reject the proposal. He said Wednesday the rejection of the proposal is "what we were asking for all along."
"This is good Thanksgiving news," Lombardi said, noting that he hadn't seen the letter himself. "Finally the Forest Service is listening to the public, the 6,500 people who commented on this and the 99% who were opposed. The Forest Service is listening to the public and that is a good thing."
Originally, the agency intended to shepherd the project through analysis and public comment via a categorical exclusion, often called a "CATEX." A categorical exclusion is the fastest and least rigorous of three levels of analysis under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, generally reserved for minor projects with negligible impacts on their surroundings. An environmental assessment (EA) is the middle level of analysis, far more rigorous than a categorical exclusion and with greater opportunity for public involvement.
Opponents of the proposal have petitioned the Forest Service to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS), the most rigorous of three levels of analysis under NEPA.
On Wednesday afternoon, Save Holland Lake released a statement saying, "We believe the public is entitled to see the 11/21/22 letter from the Flathead National Forest to POWDR explaining why they have denied POWDR’s proposal and ask the Forest Service release it to the public."
Separate from the proposed expansion, the Forest Service is examining whether the joint venture has violated the terms of the lodge company's current special-use permit. Holland Lake Lodge Inc.'s permit states that a change in ownership or control of the business, including a joint venture, shall result in termination of the permit.
POWDR President Justin Sibley and POWDR CEO Tim Brennwald own a minority stake in Wohlfeil's Holland Lake Lodge Inc. The lodge company's primary business address was changed to POWDR's corporate headquarters in Park City, and a POWDR executive now owns the lodge's liquor license. Wohlfeil has stated that POWDR's Hutchinson represents and speaks for Holland Lake Lodge.
However, Wohlfeil issued a statement Wednesday evening thanking the public for their feedback and confirming intentions to reapply.
"We appreciate the countless comments and letters of support, from locals and Americans from afar, of our improvement plans for the Lodge," Wohlfeil said. "We respect and trust the USFS process and are excited to resubmit in the near future. As mentioned before, I love the Lodge and only want it to be healthy, viable, and able to be enjoyed by all Americans for future generations."
MacKenzie said Wednesday that the Forest Service's assessment of the special-use permit will continue.