Save Holland Lake: ‘We are requesting transparency’ from Flathead National Forest

Group asks Forest Service to quickly release any revised expansion plans for resort on public land

By: - January 17, 2023 5:22 pm

A photo of Holland Lake in Montana (Fhoto by the U.S. Forest Service via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

A group that formed to fight a proposed expansion at Holland Lake Lodge is requesting the U.S. Forest Service make public the revised development proposal as soon as the agency receives the application.

In a Jan. 13 letter, Save Holland Lake, the group that is contesting the expansion, said since the Flathead National Forest announced the first development proposal last fall, public involvement has been “abbreviated” and “fraught” with “misinformation and obfuscation.” 

To assist in restoring public trust, we are writing to request that you promptly notify and disclose to the public any new special-use application, Master Development Plan (MDP), or proposal to expand Holland Lake Lodge,” reads the letter.

It was addressed to Flathead Forest Supervisor Kurtis Steele, and expansion partners POWDR CEO Justin Sibley and Christian Wohlfeil of Holland Lake Lodge.

In an email Tuesday, however, the Flathead National Forest said it won’t immediately release a revised proposal. Rather, it will first review a new proposal, or MDP, to determine if it will be accepted.

“The review of the MDP is an internal process,” said Beth Pargman, Flathead natural resource specialist, in an email.

If the Forest Service accepts the revised proposal, it will then release it for public review.

As of Tuesday, the Forest Service had not received a new expansion proposal, Pargman said. A POWDR spokesperson also said the company had not submitted a new one.

Holland Lake Lodge is a resort that operates on public land in the Swan Valley with a special-use permit. In September 2022, the Forest Service announced a project to expand the lodge.

Wohlfeil, who owned and managed the lodge for about 20 years, jointly submitted the plan with POWDR, an “adventure life” company based in Utah. 

In an earlier interview, Wohlfiel said his interest was in transferring the resort to POWDR because it shares his values of sustainability.

However, the project immediately ran into significant opposition.

Opponents argued putting more people at the lodge and extending its season would have negative effects on the pristine lake and on wildlife, like bull trout and grizzly bears.

They also pushed back against the Forest Service’s initial decision to exempt the proposal from an environmental review — a decision the agency has since reversed.

In an email Tuesday, Pargman reiterated the agency’s commitment to environmental scrutiny.

“If there is an expansion project proposed, Kurt has committed to going through an environmental assessment at a minimum,” Pargman said of Forest Supervisor Steele.

In late November, the Forest Service announced it had rejected the first expansion plan due in part to inaccurate and inconsistent information.

Members of the public had identified inaccuracies, such as the acreage allowed. The proposal had said the footprint would remain the same at 15 acres, for instance, but the permit allows 10.53 acres.

In its letter, however, the Forest Service also said it would accept a new and revised proposal from POWDR.

POWDR spokesperson Stacey Hutchinson did not address a question Tuesday about whether  the company would post its new proposal on its project website once it submits it to the Forest Service. She also did not provide a timeline for submission.

In the meantime, however, a couple of lawyers who have reviewed public records related to the project allege the special-use permit itself is no longer valid given its plain language. The permit states it is terminated “upon change of control” of the business entity.

Through a records request, lawyers George Corn and Dan Browder of Hamilton received a copy of an October 2021 email from POWDR to the Forest Service that said POWDR “is now managing the lodge.”

The Forest Service has said its legal team is reviewing the validity of the permit. Tuesday, Pargman said the team has not yet made a decision, but is continuing its investigation.

“We have requested further documentation from HLL (Holland Lake Lodge) and are still awaiting that information,” Pargman said.

In its letter, Save Holland Lake advocates for the Forest Service to present information to the public promptly, especially given the earlier rollout of the expansion plan. 

Due to the fact that the Flathead National Forest had the previous MDP in its possession for 10 months before it was unveiled to the American public (and apparently knew of a transfer of lodge management to POWDR in October 2021), we are requesting transparency from the FNF and to release, without delay, any new proposal details as they are presented to the Forest Service.

The immediate release of any new proposals regarding HLL would give ample time for the public – owners of the public land on which the expansion project is proposed – to properly assess the plan and determine whether it is in the public interest,” the letter said.

In the Sept. 1, 2022, notice about the expansion, the Forest Service set a Sept. 21, 2022, deadline for comment, but it later extended it.

The initial proposal elicited 6,500 comments; the Save Holland Lake group said its review showed 99% opposed the expansion.

Tuesday, Pargman said if the Forest Service accepts a proposal, “at a minimum, there will be a 30-day comment period followed by a 45-day objection period.”

“There could be other public processes, but that hasn’t been determined yet,” Pargman said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.