A request for public comment on building Forest Service rental cabins in the remote Bunker Creek area was barely hours old when the first “no” arrived.
Spotted Bear District Ranger Scott Snelson sent the proposal out on Wednesday, suggesting construction of four cabins at an existing primitive campsite on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The project could include parking pads, vault toilets, a livestock corral, stock trailer parking, a groundwater well and “creating a nature playscape.”
“We are excited to meet the public's need for a road-accessible cabin rental that will allow a variety of users to experience the Spotted Bear Ranger District,” Snelson wrote in his public comment request.
He noted that demand for cabin rentals across the Flathead National Forest is high and expected to grow. And he predicted the project would qualify for a categorical exclusion from the usual extensive environmental review and documentation required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition replied two hours later with an objection “in the strongest of terms.”
“Your proposal will replace historic primitive tent and trailer camping with cabin rentals and will discriminate against the less advantaged,” Hammer wrote. “Your proposal reeks of empire building at the expense of public resources.”
Bunker Creek flows into the South Fork of the Flathead River, and is accessible by forest road from the southern tip of Hungry Horse Reservoir. Its river confluence sits at a busy point for rafters and anglers recreating on the South Fork Flathead. The road is open to motorized vehicles year-round, although it is not plowed and only accessible by snowmobile in winter.
Some local private organizations had offered to help pay for the cabin construction, estimated at about $75,000 per building, Snelson said. The cabins would range from 300 to 600 square feet in size.
The Flathead Forest’s cabin rental program generates about $80,000 a year. Its cabins are occupied 87% of their available dates. The existing Bunker Creek campground has seen diminished use since a 2015 fire burned much of its cover. But burgeoning recreation activity elsewhere in the forest has spurred a search for new options, Snelson said.
“This amenity would spread out that use,” Snelson said. “It’s a way to provide greater opportunity for folks who are not used to using the backcountry. It would be accommodating for families. We’re hoping to provide that mid-level adventure.”
In his objection, Hammer predicted much more intensive use could damage the qualities people already value in the area. He warned that adding cabins would make what’s now a popular backpacking area into a day-hike zone, as well as encourage illegal trespass by snowmobiles, motorcycles and bikes from nearby access points. All of that risks compromising the area’s potential as a wilderness area as designated in the Flathead Forest Plan.
“Simply put, your proposal is an unwarranted development in a far backcountry area that is as important to fish and wildlife as the adjoining Wilderness,” Hammer wrote. “It will increase human use in the area and very likely be utilized by outfitters and their clients as an outpost. Your proposal stands to have significant impacts on the recreating public, which has in the past been able to camp at Bunker Park without cabin rental fees, as well as significant impacts on fish and wildlife that include threatened grizzly bear, threatened bull trout, threatened lynx, wolverine, elk and many other species sensitive to human intrusion and most vulnerable during winter.”
Snelson said he had also heard from commenters on Wednesday in favor of the project. He did not identify the potential financial contributors.
The deadline to make comments is April 6.