Missoulian: Tester grills Forest Service chief over Holland Lake Lodge

by Joshua Murdock

Senator Jon Tester on Wednesday grilled the head of the U.S. Forest Service over the agency’s handling of a proposed expansion of Holland Lake Lodge. 

Tester, D-Mont., zeroed in on the Flathead National Forest’s intent to shepherd a massive expansion to the historic Condon-area lodge via a categorical exclusion — the least rigorous, most expedient form of environmental analysis, generally reserved for small projects such as building a vault toilet at a trailhead. Further, he said, the Forest Service ignored public comment expressing nearly universal opposition to the proposal, which was proposed by Utah-based ski resort corporation POWDR. The Forest Service rejected the proposal after massive public outcry and what the agency described as “inconsistencies” in the proposal. 

In a hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment, and related agencies, Tester asked USFS Chief Randy Moore how his agency used categorical exclusions, sometimes referred to as a “CatEx.” Moore replied that they’re used “primarily in the timber arena,” particularly in high-priority areas prone to wildfire. Tester responded that such use aligned with congressional intent, but that “unfortunately — and I do say unfortunately with the strongest of terms — a categorical exclusion was used not to cut trees or not to prevent forest fires, but to allow a corporation to set up in our forest lands, in our national forest, a facility that would include a lot of potential devastating impacts. And it was done using a categorical exclusion.” 

“What criteria did they use on that to allow a corporation to come into Montana to set up a — this was in the Seeley area — to set up a huge recreation resort?” Tester said. “And I can tell you unequivocally, the people were not heard, and decisions were made by the Forest Service, by folks on the ground, without taking public input. And if the people wouldn’t have stood up and said foul, this is baloney, this project would’ve been built — using a categorical exclusion, by the way, that was meant for cutting trees, not for recreational purposes.”

Shortly before rejecting the proposal outright, the Forest Service announced in mid-November that it would move the proposal through the public process via an environmental assessment (EA), if it continued at all. An EA is the middle level of analysis, far more rigorous than a categorical exclusion and with greater opportunity for public involvement. At Wednesday’s hearing, Moore told Tester that “I will look into this and get back to you. But you can use categorical exclusions for more than just cutting trees.”

The expansion involved 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 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 Forest Service rejected POWDR’s proposal in late November, but the company is free to submit another proposal similar to its first. Shortly after the rejection — which the company vehemently denied was a rejection — POWDR posted on a website for the proposal that “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.” 

On Wednesday, Wohlfeil said in a statement to the Missoulian that “I appreciate Sen. Tester’s commitment to providing outdoor recreation opportunities in Montana. Like him, I want to protect our public lands and also ensure the lodge remains accessible. Our future plans for the lodge prioritize renewable energy, with precautions to prevent negative water, air, or soil impacts. We intend to build employee housing, create more than two dozen new jobs, and have a visitor/history center. As we’ve previously stated, we support the Forest Service’s recommendation to conduct an Environmental Assessment. We are confident that any analysis, driven by data, science, and the experts at the Flathead Forest, will support our Master Development Plan going forward.” 

Tester did, in fact, tout outdoor recreation in the hearing, calling the industry “critically important” to communities and largely reliant on Forest Service lands. But he had a different take on how the Forest Service initially handled POWDR’s proposal. 

“I would never, ever, ever have voted for a categorical exclusion for the purpose of making some corporation rich off our public lands — never happen, never gonna happen,” he said. “I think somebody said they found a loophole here and they cut a deal. And the government should never be cutting a deal.” 

Tester also lauded public engagement over the proposal as instrumental to halting it: “It would never have happened without incredible public input, letters to the editor, town hall public meetings — where, by the way, Democrats, independents, Republicans, you did a great job, I mean the Forest Service did a great job uniting these folks. Which is good, we’ve got too much division in this country, but this isn’t how we should be doing it, OK?”

Tester grills Forest Service chief over Holland Lake Lodge (missoulian.com)