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Citizen Groundswell Rises Up To Keep A Montana Lake Quaint
October 7, 2022
Citizen Groundswell Rises Up To Keep A Montana Lake Quaint
Utah outdoor adventure company, known for running ski resorts, seeks Forest Service permission to dramatically expand human footprint on Holland Lake
Holland Lake and environs, located west of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, represents an important wild extension of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Photo courtesy Charlie McLaughlin
An Op-Ed by Gus O'Keefe
A few nights ago, my mom and dad attended a couple of packed public meetings. Hundreds of people turned out to send the US Forest Service a resolute message: don’t make a bad decision that would bring industrial-strength commercial eco-tourism to the shores of one of their favorite lakes in the region.
Afterward, they drove back to our cabin on that lake and, sitting on the end of the dock in dimming twilight, my mother listened to a pair of loons yodeling from an October mist that had settled upon the clear surface reflecting the mountains. On the slopes, bull elk were bugling and if you wandered up one of the draws after a rain, there’s a decent chance you’d find a grizzly track.
My mom, who is in her 70s, and has had the good fortune of savoring the peace of many quiet places, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area in her birth state, Minnesota, related that the solitude on Holland Lake ranks among the best she's known.
Choked up in thinking about it as a place of healing, and worried about what it might become, she spoke of the kindredness she felt with other people from a variety of backgrounds who came together at the meetings and spoke in defense of the lake.
It’s been said that if no one rises up to defend the places we love—i.e. parts of the West we hold deep in our hearts—then through our silence we are complicit in the negative transformation now sweeping across mountain valleys in the Rockies. In many communities, from Taos, New Mexico northward to Whitefish, Montana near the Canadian border, many of us have viewed the head-spinning development trends with a mixture of grief and feelings of being gobsmacked.
Many examples exist of public land management agencies demonstrating how utterly unprepared they’ve been to deal with developers seeking to commercially profit off public lands or lands astride of them.
Throughout the West, in the more rural mountain hideaways where I spent much of my youth, sometimes even seemingly small individual changes can bring disproportionately large negative impacts. One example of that is what’s proposed for a glacial valley that holds Holland Lake, the crown jewel of the Seeley-Swan corridor in northwestern Montana.
Tucked between the Swan Mountain Range to the east and the Mission Mountains to the west, Holland Lake is the rare example of a pristine mountain lake that still provides easy access to locals and visitors alike. Unlike many mountain lakes, there is no difficult climb to reach its shores, no rugged road to take you there on ATV. Despite this, due to the entirety of the land surrounding it managed by the Forest Service, it has as-of-yet been generally undisturbed by industrial strength recreation.
My mom and dad have led by example in teaching me that nature needs strong advocates. I am a native Montanan. I also happen to be the associate editor for content here at Mountain Journal. I started working with MoJo on day one, long before our first story was published. As Mountain Journal has always been run by a small team of dedicated, informed people, the hats I have worn in the past have been numerous: graphic creator, newsletter sender, t-shirt designer, photo sourcer, social media manager, copy editor… the list encompasses nearly all aspects of what we have done as a non profit organization that champions science and tries to give a voice to the animals that do not speak a human language.
There is one role, though, that I always refused to assume when asked: writer. Daunted, I never felt that I had the expertise or experience to justify my name appearing behind a byline in front of you, the readers, whom I respect so much. Sometimes though, when you have access to an influential platform like this, it is too important to pass up the opportunity to advocate for something you believe in. Because of this, I felt it necessary to pen this op-ed.
For my entire life, I have had the absolute privilege of spending time at Holland Lake. My parents stumbled upon a cabin for sale there, on leased Forest Service land, over 35 years ago. They were splitting time then between Helena, Montana, where my mother was a veterinarian, and Glacier National Park, where my father ran a backcountry guide service. Much to my future benefit, Holland happened to be located nearly equidistant from the two. It is where I learned to swim, learned to canoe, learned to love the tranquility of being in nature and above all, tune myself into a way of wondering how might I give back.
An across the lake glimpse at quaint and rustic Holland Lake Lodge today. Below, the schematic proposed by Utah-based outdoor resort company POWDR which seeks to double the acreage of its footprint on Forest Service land, triple the lodging capacity and add a lot more infrastructure. Top photo by Charlie McLaughlin
Now, that tranquility could come under siege. A mega resort company, POWDR, based in Park City, Utah, wants to convert what has been the quaint Holland Lake Guest Lodge, operating on Forest Service land under a special use permit, into an industrial multi-season outdoor recreation destination. POWDR’s plan, if approved by the Flathead National Forest, would result in the expansion of facilities that were originally designed to accommodate groups of 50 people in total, and replace it with this:
A new 28-room, 13,000-square foot lodge, plus 10 lakeshore cabins, plus 16 more “Bunkie” cabins, plus an expanded restaurant with seating for more than 100, plus a welcome center, plus employee housing, plus a watersports building, plus multiple RV sites, plus the destruction of nine historic buildings, the removal of 100 trees or more, and reconstruction of a public water treatment plan that POWDR Corp would control in perpetuity.
The battle brewing over the potential transformation of Holland Lake Lodge is a symbol of how the Forest Service is allowing increased commercialization of public lands for private gain, at the expense of some of the wildest parts of the West that remain.
In Teton Valley, Idaho, the Caribou Targhee National Forest is deciding whether it will allow expansion of Grand Targhee Resort on lands it manages. And in Jackson Hole, the Bridger-Teton National Forest caused a split in the community when it granted approval for Snow King Resort to expand its trails and ski terrain in sensitive wildlife habitat above the town of Jackson, Wyoming. I could go on.
On its website listing their 11 mountain resorts, POWDR claims that one of its virtues is advancing “preservation and enhancement of our unique mountain ecosystems.”
You may join me in wondering how POWDR would accomplish those goals, particularly “enhancing a unique mountain ecosystem” by adding, and I repeat, a 28-room, 13,000-square foot lodge, plus 10 lakeshore cabins, plus 16 more “Bunkie” cabins, plus an expanded restaurant with seating for more than 100, plus a welcome center, plus employee housing, plus a watersports building, plus multiple RV sites, plus the removal of 100 trees or more. What other “enhancements” might it seek in the future?
On its website listing their 11 mountain resorts, POWDR claims that one of its virtues is advancing “preservation and enhancement of our unique mountain ecosystems.” The paradox is that if POWDR really cared about doing what’s best for Holland Lake and wild Montana, it would never present such an atrocious proposal on Holland’s shores.
The paradox is that if POWDR really cared about doing what’s best for Holland Lake and wild Montana, it would never present such an atrocious proposal on Holland’s shores. Holland Lake sits in Montana’s Swan Valley, connecting the Flathead Reservation and Mission Mountains with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and Glacier National Park.
According to the bear conservation organization, Vital Ground Foundation, “the Swan Valley falls within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. This large wildland complex is home to national species of concern including Canada lynx, wolverine, bull trout and the lower 48 states’ largest grizzly population at roughly 1,100 bears.” In fact, one of the nation’s first collaborative conservation plans to protect grizzly bears was the Swan Valley Grizzly Bear Conservation Agreement, and Holland Lake still falls within the Grizzly Demographic Monitoring Area of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Click here to read what Dr. Chris Servheen wrote recently about POWDR's desires at Holland Lake. For three decades, Servheen, who lives in Missoula, oversaw national grizzly recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and is now, in retirement from civil service, president and board chair of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Industrializing Holland Lake Lodge will not improve the natural resources. It will not result in more secure habitat for wildlife. It will not enhance or sustain the quiet rustic character. It will not better the conservation outcome, as POWDR laughingly claimed in a letter to a Montana newspaper. In fact, what the company callously proposes will diminish the sense of place. So what is the Forest Service’s motivation to approve it over huge local opposition? That’s what people from across Montana are asking.
Ski resort companies are not often known for operating with a light human footprint. POWDR describes itself as an Adventure Lifestyle Company® and is “one of the largest ski resort operators in North America.” Its holdings include Snowbird in Utah and Copper Mountain in Colorado.
Industrializing Holland Lake Lodge will not improve the natural resources. It will not result in more secure habitat for wildlife. It will not enhance or sustain the quiet rustic character. In fact, what the company callously proposes will diminish the sense of place. So what is the Forest Service’s motivation to approve it over huge local opposition?
Corporations like POWDR are motivated to continuously grow their profits. That's what they do. What that means for Holland Lake, in order to reap higher returns on its investment, is each year maximizing its pillow count and likely seeking to expand its offerings of monetizable adventure recreation opportunities. In fact, the current plan proposed by POWDR increases use of Holland Lake Lodge from 11,340 user days annually to 46,980 per year, and that accounts for overnight guests only. This is before factoring in their plans to remain open year-long, something that has never been the case before.
Tripling the amount of visitors daily for months on end represents no small or benign change at Holland Lake Lodge, and that level of intensity will have its own negative cumulative effects. While a spokesperson for POWDR vowed not to pursue helicopter skiing and snowmobiling in winter, its plans in the three other seasons are alarming enough.
Few citizens, until recently, knew about POWDR’s Holland Lake Lodge ambitions. When the Forest Service revealed details about POWDR’s plan on Sept. 1, 2022, the agency intimated that it might be approved. It acknowledged that Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele was thinking of invoking his “categorical exclusion” powers to allow for less rigorous environmental review so approval could be fast- tracked. Many were shocked when they felt Steele flippantly dismissed their concerns.
Shocking to him perhaps is that thousands of comments opposing the plan quickly poured in. After citizens felt they were still getting the run-around from the Forest Service and worried that the agency may have front-end loaded approval, they appealed to US Sen. Jon Tester, who sent a letter reminding Forest Supervisor Steele that he needed to give citizens and planners in Missoula County, who would need to approve parts of the proposed expanded resort, more time to respond. The Missoula County Board of Commissioners recently weighed in with their significant concerns as well and said that a mere environmental assessment, allowed when a forest supervisor invokes categorial exclusion, is insufficient given the scope of POWDR’s plan.
The owner of Holland Lake Lodge, who sold significant ownership shares of the facility to POWDR, told the Montana Free Press that POWDR needs to be able to expand the facilities in order to turn a profit. “It needs enough income structure here to be a viable, healthy business. And their [POWDR’s] plan to spread out on this permit area would give them, or whomever else is here, that income structure,” said Christian Wohlfeil, who has been Holland Lake Lodge LLC’s special-use permit holder since 2002.
In a letter that Wohlfeil sent to a few different newspapers, he wrote, "This permit allows a privately owned, for-profit business, whose purpose is to sell recreation-style products to the public, to operate on federal land. It has allowed me to make a living, just as similar permits have enabled thousands of small recreational businesses to do the same. We preserve the natural environment for public benefit rather than a multimillionaire seeking to use it as a second home and exclude it from others."
Another line of misguided rhetoric being used is the claim that if POWDR's request isn't approved the public might lose access to the lake. In truth, the Forest Service already has a 40-site public campground at Holland that provides public access to the lake and Holland Falls National Scenic Trail. The lake and area around it don't need a lot more public pressure.
At present, Holland Lake Lodge has a permit area of 10.53 acres on the Flathead National Forest and does not appear overstuffed into its setting. But POWDR’s plan is to have the Forest Service expand the permit area to 19 acres—roughly twice as much acreage as present and then cover it with many more structures and a wastewater facility. There is also confusion, due to a lack of transparency, over who exactly controls Holland Lake Lodge LLC now—is it still Mr. Wohlfeil, POWDR or mixed ownership? In the regulations pertaining to special use permits, there are rules that govern how a special use permit can be transferred, approved and how much development is authorized.
“This is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” said Bill Lombardi, a member of the grassroots Save Holland Lake. He lives in nearby Seeley Lake and, like many, opposes the project. “The Forest Service has wrongly stated the size of the public land the developer needs for this massive project,” he said. "They should start over and be honest and factually correct with the public, because so far the process has been confusing, hidden from public view and murky, at best.”
In the case of Lombardi, he has worked for decades as a well-known public policy expert in Montana who has worked in the US House and Senate and is no slouch when it comes to knowing what the Forest Service is obligated to do when assessing the impacts of a development proposal.
Before I end, let me direct you to an irony. The Forest Service is the steward of this watery crown jewel. Over 30 years ago, when my older sister was five, the agency came to my parents and informed them that she must give up her 5 x 5-ft wooden kiddie playhouse that sat 50 yards from our cabin. Why? Because it was “an unapproved structure” that did not align with the goals and vision of preservation and wildlife protection at Holland Lake. My sister was naturally devastated, but ultimately all of my family - like so many who love this state and believe deeply in our shared duty to protect it—came to appreciate the fact that the Forest Service helped us understand why limits on human footprint are important.
Back then, we were grateful for the attention and dedication shown by the Forest Service. Sadly, somewhere along the way, it seems that the Forest Service has abdicated that responsibility in embracing POWDR’s plan to forever alter one of Montana’s last, best places. We don't need POWDR to preach at us, telling us what real wildlife conservation is and isn't; in Montana we've lived it for a long time and we're not going to give it away.
We've already given up too much. On the Save Holland Lake webpage, it features a quote from legendary Montana conservationist Bob Marshall, who loved the area in the vicinity of Holland Lake and has a famous federal Wilderness Area named after him. "There is just one hope for repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every inch on the whole earth," Marshall said. "That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom and preservation of the wilderness."
More than 300 people packed the Seeley Lake High School gym on Oct. 5 and another 100 at a separate meeting in Condon. Not a single citizen spoke in favor of POWDR’s plan. For an agency like the Forest Service which claims it is sympathetic in listening to local voices, what message does that send? Forest Supervisor Steele is accepting comments through Friday, Oct. 7. He said a second comment period will follow environmental review in the months ahead. A final decision is not expected until late winter 2023 at the very earliest.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The opinions expressed by Gus O'Keefe in the piece above are his own and do not necessarily reflect the perspective of Mountain Journal. If you would like to offer a comment of agreement or rebuttal, please send it to us by clicking here. Keep it short, simple and pertaining to the issue at hand. We may publish it in the space below.