CONDON — Officials from the Flathead National Forest and a Utah ski corporation vying to expand Holland Lake Lodge admitted on Tuesday that each had erred in how the expansion has been presented.
But, at a tense two-hour public meeting in Condon, the officials defended the overall public process through which the proposal is being considered. Flathead Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele told the more than 100 people gathered in the Swan Valley Community Hall that meetings such as this one were evidence of a transparent process that features public engagement.
And the company, POWDR, promised that its plans do not include a ski resort or motorized recreation at Holland Lake Lodge, which is a privately owned business operated on public land through a Special Use Permit with the Forest Service.
“There’s no ski hill, there’s no ski lift, there’s no snowmobiling, there’s no helicopters, there’s no helicopter skiing,” said Stacey Hutchinson, POWDR’s vice president of communications. She added that motorboats are also off the list. “Those things will never be part of our plan.”
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The company does plan for winter operations — a change for the currently seasonal lodge on the shore of the scenic lake at the foot of the Swan Mountains, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Missoula. POWDR would winterize buildings on the site and offer year-round employment for some workers, Hutchinson said. She didn’t specify what winter operations might look like, but noted that “there are non-motorized recreational activities” around the lake.
POWDR, a Park City-based resort corporation whose properties include 11 ski resorts, has partnered with longtime Holland Lake Lodge owner Christian Wohlfeil to propose 32 new buildings — including a 28-room lodge, a restaurant and 26 cabins — and the removal of 10 structures around the historic lodge. Wohlfeil is under contract to sell to POWDR.
Thousands of people have submitted public comments, written to newspapers and taken to social media to oppose the expansion. Members of the public in Condon Tuesday reiterated those concerns, citing 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.
They also grilled Hutchinson and Steele over what nearly all commenters described as an opaque, underhanded process that seemed to them to already be decided.
Steele defended the process: “We are listening. This is the process and we’re purposefully listening.
“Transparency is hugely important,” he added, “which is why we’re standing up here today.”
Steele and Shelli Mavor, the forest’s project lead for shepherding the proposal through the public process, said that it was normal for the public to be engaged well after a proprietor has proposed a master plan for such an expansion. The proposal must first be vetted internally by the Forest Service, they said, to determine if it even qualifies to be considered, and then brought to the public.
POWDR's proposal was submitted in October 2021 and accepted for public review in April, they said.
“We have to go through a master development plan,” Steele said. “That’s an internal process and we either accept or deny that. (Once accepted,) then we go through the public process … The public, right now, you all sitting here, this is our process.”
But Steele also admitted mistakes in handling the project. The current proposal covers about 15 acres under a Special Use Permit. Steele said he originally thought that was the same size as the lodge’s existing permit and wouldn’t be an expansion. He later realized that the lodge’s current permit is for 10.53 acres, not 15. And with the inclusion of a wastewater facility POWDR would take over, the proposal balloons to about 19 acres — nearly twice the current permit acreage.
“We made a mistake and I’m here to own it,” he said. “Come to find out it’s only 10.53 acres.”
He continued: “We will analyze that in the Categorical Exclusion — or EA or EIS, I’m sorry.”
The remark highlighted critics’ marquee demand: greater scrutiny of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act via an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Many accused the Forest Service of underhandedly pushing the proposal through with the less rigorous, more expedient categorical exclusion.
Critics of the proposal painted the so-called “CATEX” as a foregone conclusion. Steele stressed that he hadn’t decided for sure which level of analysis he would employ.
Hutchinson, too, admitted flaws in how POWDR has — or hasn’t — engaged the Swan Valley community. In hindsight, she said, company leadership should have communicated with locals from the outset. John Cumming, the founder of POWDR who now serves as its board chair, stepped down as CEO in 2018, she said in response to commenters demanding his attendance.
“We made some missteps early in this process,” she said, stressing that now “our whole leadership team has been here.”