HOLLAND LAKE — Residents of Condon in the Swan Valley are pushing back against a plan to phase out their discounted passes to use Holland Lake.
For the people of Condon, population 343, the day-use area serves as the town pool, gathering hall, and pride of the community. And the townspeople aren’t too happy about needing to pay to use the lake that anchors their small town to the landscape.
Marcia Tapp, a retired school teacher and Condon resident, doesn’t plan to give up the fight to protect the longstanding arrangement for passes any time soon and hopes an agreement with the new site manager, contracted by the U.S. Forest Service, can be reached well before next season.
“This is federal land. It’s owned by the American people,” Tapp said. “We already pay taxes for these public lands, and there shouldn’t be a physical gate or a financial gate in the form of a fee to be able to use what is ours.”
But the arrangement is unusual. Since the Holland Lake day-use and campground managers instituted day-use fees in 2015, the Swan Valley Community Foundation has negotiated a deal to obtain steeply discounted season passes for the locals. The new site managers, who took over in 2017, are unsure why the people of Condon think they should be treated differently than other Montanans who pay to use recreation areas near their own hometowns, and they plan to phase out the community passes in 2020.
Holland Lake, nestled at the base of the Swan Mountain Range on the western edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, is a favorite hiking and camping spot for Missoulians looking to get out of town and trade in the river raft for a canoe, as well as others from western Montana drawn to the turquoise lake. Tourists from Vermont and Minnesota milled about the swimming area the first week of September, on what was likely one of the last 80-degree days of the summer, in awe of the mountains rising out of the far end of the lake.
Since 2015, the Swan Valley Community Foundation worked with the former site managers, Barta Enterprises, to buy 300 day-use season passes for a total $600, which were then distributed to community members. At $35 each for the retail price, the lot of passes came at nearly a $10,000 discount.
Foundation board member and 30-year Condon resident Ken Donovan said it worked really well and built goodwill with the community, whose members were eager to help with keeping the day-use area litter free and in good condition. However, the agreement was not part of the contract with the Forest Service, and rather was more of a handshake deal.
The new contractors, Parting Waters Adventures Inc., also known as Flathead Valley Campgrounds, bought out the management contract from Barta Enterprises in 2017. After one year of sticking to the handshake agreement, Parting Waters moved to reduce the number of passes to 200 in 2019 and to provide no discounted passes in 2020.
Donovan said he understood the new manager’s desire to run a successful business, but he hoped there was still a way to come up with an agreement that would meet everyone’s needs.
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“It’s a business for them, and I hope they can make a good living doing it,” Donovan said. “But having a partner like our community behind them is a resource they don’t want to lose.”
Swan Valley District Ranger Chris Dowling came into the job in April 2018, after Parting Waters took over the Holland Lake site. Since the access pass issue bubbled to the surface, Dowling has been working as a middleman between the Swan Valley residents and Parting Waters to find a solution.
Dowling said he saw three options for dealing with this conflict: Let the passes go away as planned and charge the fee; raise the money in the community to pay for site maintenance without a fee; or have the site managers raise fees on the campground to cover the costs of the day-use swimming area. As for the locals’ concerns of paying fees to access the federally owned site, in addition to the taxes that fund the Forest Service, he said that was just the reality of meeting the financial needs of sites with improvements like restrooms and boat launches, and that the system was approved by Congress.
The owner of Parting Waters Adventures Inc., Cheryl DeLonge of Kalispell, said she saw her business as being “one with the Forest Service,” and she would do whatever Dowling decided was best to handle the spat with community members.
DeLonge said she thought having a local site manager, like herself, who was responsible for collecting fees and doing maintenance, was better than leaving sole oversight to the Forest Service, where any money would be funneled to Washington, D.C., rather than staying in the community.
“Chris tossed around the idea of having the community take care of the site, and if that’s what he wants to do, we support him 100%,” DeLonge said. “That’s totally up to the Forest Service, but I can tell you other places have tried out that model, and it just doesn’t work.”
DeLonge said she had heard concerns about the boat launch needing work, in addition to the standard maintenance she was responsible for, like painting picnic tables and keeping restrooms in working order. She said if the community isn’t willing to pay their fair share, then it is harder for her to do things like fix the boat launch.
She also stressed that no other recreation sites with usage fees in the Flathead have special concessions for locals. She said she didn’t see why the Swan Lake community felt they had a special right to Holland Lake.
But still, locals like Tapp hope that an agreement can be reached by November, which is when Dowling said he was working to have it settled.
“They have to understand, we’re not just a bunch of yokels up here,” Tapp said. “We’re a community of educated people who live in this place for a reason, and we’re not afraid to make our voices heard. It’s our right to use this land as we have for generations.”