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Controversy brews over Holland Lake Lodge expansion

| September 28, 2022 12:30 PM

By Keely Larson

Montana Free Press

The proposed expansion of Holland Lake Lodge by an out-of-state company is being met with opposition from locals concerned about the size of the project and what it could mean for the community. 

About 120 people gathered recently for an informal public meeting regarding the expansion of the historic lodge in Condon between the Swan and Mission mountain ranges. They were joined by officials with the Flathead National Forest, the lodge’s current operator and representatives from POWDR, the prospective buyer. There was no official presentation, and locals circulated among the various representatives to ask questions.

The lodge can currently accommodate up to 50 guests, 12 employees and a general manager. With the expansion, the lodge could serve as many as 156 guests. Changes would include removing old structures like the gift shop, repairing the old lodge and the manager’s cabin, and adding a new lodge, restaurant and 26 cabins. 

To accommodate the growth, two new wells would be dug, larger sewage holding tanks would be installed and a new wastewater line would be established. An underground internet line would be installed, and a 1.7-acre driveway would be constructed.

Christian Wohlfeil has owned the 15-acre special-use permit that encompasses Holland Lake Lodge since 2002. He said he is the longest holder of the permit since the lodge was established in 1924. Wohlfeil said a lot of ski resorts use special-use permits, which allow them to operate privately owned businesses on public land with a requirement that they provide recreational opportunities to the public. 

Wohlfeil has partnered with Utah-based POWDR, owner of several ski resorts, and has already sold the company shares of the permit, anticipating a complete buyout. Wohlfeil said the permit had been for sale and two previous deals fell through before POWDR reached out to his real estate agent. Wohlfeil and the company have been collaborating since 2020.

“It needs enough income structure here to be a viable, healthy business,” Wohlfeil said. “And their [POWDR’s] plan to spread out on this permit area would give them, or whomever else is here, that income structure.”

People who attended Thursday’s meeting were concerned about the size of the expansion, the effect it would have on the local community and whether Montanans would be able to afford to stay at the new and improved lodge. The biggest source of concern, however, was a process they see as obscure. 

Mark O’Keefe, who drove from Helena to attend the meeting and owns a cabin on Holland Lake, said the notices the Forest Service issues for projects or public comment are confusing.

“It’s a bureaucratic document, and it’s a bureaucratic document that’s been put out there to a general public … It’s hard to understand,” O’Keefe said. 

O’Keefe served as state auditor from 1993 to 2001 and ran for governor in 2000. He said the Forest Service’s website should be more straightforward and describe projects in a way that is easier to understand. 

The Forest Service document explaining the expansion says, “Based on a preliminary assessment, intentions are to categorically exclude the proposed project from documentation in an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment.” Categorical exclusions are the fastest version of an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act and are not as rigorous as an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. 

Tami MacKenzie, public affairs officer with the Flathead National Forest, said that while categorical exclusions may result in quicker action, an environmental review of the proposed project would still be required. MacKenzie explained that once the Forest Service thinks a categorical exclusion may be an option, it’s added to the scoping document to draw comments from the public.

“It causes an inflammatory reaction, but the reason we do that is to get that reaction and to get those comments,” MacKenzie said. 

MacKenzie encouraged people to make specific notes when submitting comments about the proposal. Detailed responses, she said, are more helpful than one-liners about not liking what’s happening.

After the public meeting, Wohlfeil and POWDR can take what they learned and modify their proposal to the Forest Service and consider further opportunities for the public to participate. So far, the Forest Service has only approved the plan for the project, said Kurt Steele, Flathead National Forest supervisor. After an environmental analysis that looks at impacts to wildlife and aquatic habitats, the Forest Service will determine whether to approve the project. 

“It’s super helpful for me because I’m getting a feel for what the locals and the folks that showed up have to say,” Steele said of Thursday’s meeting. He said he hopes attendees came away with a better idea of the process.

Some attendees were upset that the public meeting wasn’t more structured. After Steele told the crowd that the public meeting would be informal, more a meet-and-greet than a presentation, a woman from the crowd said that to get all her questions answered, she’d have to talk to Steele for two hours. 

Stacey Hutchinson, vice president of communications for POWDR, said the company doesn’t currently own any property in Montana. 

“People have questions and they care. They live here,” Hutchinson said. “This is their playground and they care about the area, and so do we, and that’s why I’m grateful that everyone’s come with their questions and given us an opportunity to respond and have conversations with folks. I think that’s super important, and this is the start of many.”

Prior to the meeting, the Forest Service sent out letters and mailers, posted on the agency’s social media and website, and published press releases about the proposal, MacKenzie said. Public comments can be submitted on the project website or by emailing michele.mavor@usda.gov.

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