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Op-Ed: Citizens Reject POWDR's Holland Lake Lodge Expansion

Members of Save Holland Lake praise the Forest Service for denying Utah developer's plan to bring industrial tourism to shores of lake set in important wildlife habitat

Holland Lake dons her fall colors. Photo by Amy Keinath
Holland Lake dons her fall colors. Photo by Amy Keinath
EDITOR'S NOTE:  Following more than 6,500 public comments, the U.S. Forest Service in late November announced that it was no longer considering a proposal by Utah-based ski area developer POWDR, at least in its current form. POWDR now plans to go back to the drawing board to revisit what Flathead National Forest representatives called "inaccuracies and inconsistencies" in the proposal.

Also, as background, read this op-ed by MoJo's Gus O'Keefe, published in October, for a closer look at the expansion and what it means for locals and fans of this pristine lake and its surroundings. If you have comments you'd like to share about this piece, please send them to us and we may republish them at the end of the essay below. Be civil, respectful and base them on fact. - Mountain Journal

by Members of Save Holland Lake

The rollout of a proposal by one of North America’s biggest ski developers to triple the size of Holland Lake Lodge and bring industrial tourism and commercial recreation to the rural, wildlife-rich Swan Valley in western Montana was a complete and utter disaster.

After two months of vehement public opposition, the expansion proposal by POWDR, the Utah-based ski developer that promotes “soulful” experiences through high-impact recreation, fell to earth in flames – like the 1937 Hindenburg dirigible disaster in New Jersey.

The airship caught fire and was destroyed when it attempted to dock, and resulted in iconic photographs that echo today. As Wikipedia says, “The publicity shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the abrupt end of the airship era.”

The same can be said of POWDR. Its complete mishandling of the expansion proposal, which was years in the making and secret, has shattered any public trust and confidence in the ski giant as well as lodge owner Christian Wohlfeil. POWDR’s ham handedness splattered mud on the U.S. Forest Service’s Flathead National Forest, which, after promoting the project, quickly dumped the application because of inaccuracies, obfuscations and misrepresentations pointed out by the watchdog public.

Sixty-four hundred of 6,500 commenters to the Forest Service – Americans – can’t be wrong when they opposed the project for the pristine lake and ecosystem that sits in a valley between two wilderness areas and harbors threatened grizzly bears, lynx and bull trout, provides postcard-worthy photographs, and is home to nesting loons and a natural solace hard to find in this evermore crowded, tech-hungry world.
Unbridled recreation and tourism – designed to commodify and monetize our unique natural, cultural and social heritage and public lands – could ultimately destroy the beauty, wildlife, and sanctity of this special place – our home – that we all share and want to hand down to future generations. 
Yes, POWDR showed they certainly didn’t do their homework and ignored Forest Service advice to meet with locally affected communities long ago. Sporting flannel shirts at community meetings in October in Condon and Seeley, POWDR representatives blithely promoted their plan to develop “boutique” accommodations that feature “bunkies” and Adirondack architecture – a style native to New York where rustic “camps” were built with local materials for the wealthy.

Talk about out of touch and not knowing your market and community. True, all Americans own the public land on which the lodge sits. But 99 percent of 6,500 comments were opposed to the project because of its potential deleterious effects on the environment and huge footprint in a rural valley that does not want to be another Big Sky or Yellowstone Club.

Yet, the ineptitude of POWDR and Wohlfiel, and the Forest Service’s lack of due diligence and inability to appropriately engage the public, created a unity in the Seeley-Swan communities that transcends politics and prompted an understanding that residents need to stand together to help to protect the integrity of the long, narrow Swan valley, as has been done in the Blackfoot Valley through the Blackfoot Challenge. (The Challenge’s community members work together to keep the Blackfoot watershed a working rural landscape.)

It’s a passion for place.

The POWDR debacle spawned a massive movement to oppose this boondoggle and a commitment to continue to determine the future of the valley that includes real public involvement and isn’t just controlled by self-interested private businesses and a giant federal bureaucracy. Our voice matters, no matter what others say.

So, thank you, POWDR, Holland Lake Lodge and Forest Service – you’ve made the public understand they control their public lands and certainly have a voice in the future of their communities.

Astute community members also note that policymakers now must figure out a way to throttle the push on the gas to peddle industrial tourism and commercial recreation on or near our public lands. Unbridled recreation and tourism – designed to commodify and monetize our unique natural, cultural and social heritage and public lands – could ultimately destroy the beauty, wildlife, and sanctity of this special place – our home – that we all share and want to hand down to future generations.

Let’s not foul our nest and destroy our natural infrastructure.

As one influential area leader sagely told Save Holland Lake members, “They’re not making any more Swan Valleys.”

So let’s not make any more stupid mistakes: Listen to us – the American public.

A Reader Responds.  Read His Comment Below

—From Dr. Jerry Johnson. Johnson is a professor of political science at Montana State University, an avid outdoor recreationist, conservationist and respected commentator on "the New West."

The Holland Lake issue is indicative of two “movements” that will hopefully sweep across Montana and the Rockies. First is the NIMBY attitude of locals. The Not in My Back Yard attitude is usually seen as a pejorative term suggesting selfishness. An alternative view is locals watching out for their own interests when no one else will. In this case it was a corporate developer that sought to radically change the backyard of local residents. As a friend once told me – if we all look out for our own backyard we end up taking care of everything. I hope NIMBYism spreads like wildfire across our state where mostly out of state developers continue to exploit Montana’s resources for their own gain and leave the rest of us holding the bag of higher taxes and degraded landscapes.

The other facet of this development is how (again) locals called out one of the basic assumptions of the destination tourism racket. Tourism development is often presented as “free money” coming into a destination with few impacts and even fewer detractors. Nothing is further from the truth. Unfortunately, most of the academic and consulting programs aimed at tourism adopt this position. Most of the expenditures by tourism consultants are intended to expand the market. The same is true of the academic literature and research. I published in international tourism journals for decades. Studies that were critical of development or those that tried to examine the impacts of the industry were few and far between. Again, I hope this is a trend that will take root. It could begin at the University of Montana Institute for Tourism Research.

Holland Lake is a small development but important in so many ways. Let’s hope it is the first effort to turn the corporate tourism ship in another direction – away from our communities and most special places.
About Members of Save Holland Lake

The Montana citizens who wrote this opinion piece are: Lucy Dayton, Pete Feigley, Jacole Johnson, Bill Lombardi, Jim Morrison, David Roberts, Grace Siloti, Cheri Thornton, and Jack Wade. Combined, they have a couple centurys'  worth of experience living in Montana and advocating for protection of public lands and wildlife. 
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