Flathead National Forest, POWDR, worked ‘hand in hand’ on Holland expansion proposal

By: - March 6, 2023 12:19 pm

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

For more than one year before the U.S. Forest Service announced a controversial proposal to expand operations at Holland Lake Lodge, it was working hand in hand with POWDR, an “adventure life” company that aims to take full ownership of the resort on public land.

POWDR drafted at least one letter of support the Forest Service signed, and in advance of the first public meeting about the expansion, provided the agency “talking points” and direction on designing presentation boards about the private company’s proposal.

The Forest Service characterized the collaborative work as business as usual with its partners — it said they must work “hand in hand.”

However, Save Holland Lake, a group that formed to fight the expansion, said public records raise questions about whether the agency is working on behalf of the public — or the private company.

Last week, Save Holland Lake released a report of public records it reviewed in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Its report includes emails that show the Flathead National Forest worked in tandem with POWDR, based in Utah, in advance of announcing the resort expansion to the public in September 2022.

It also noted Holland Lake Lodge paid the Forest Service nearly $47,000 to review the project as part of a cost sharing agreement for administrative work, but the agency returned the money in its initial rejection of the project. In the rejection letter, the Forest Service advised the lodge to correct its proposal to move forward.

However, from the start, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele showed enthusiasm for the expansion, records show. In an email in February 2021, Steele told the deputy regional forester in Missoula about the “exciting potential from an interested buyer” for purchasing and expanding the lodge.

“If this works out, this could be one of, if not ‘the’ primer (sic) place in the region,” said the email quoted in the report. “I am biased of course. Figured I would share. Nothing is official yet, but it’s a pretty cool idea that would be a great addition to our forest in providing an expanded opportunity for the public. Worth a quick glance.”

Holland Lake Lodge operates on 10.53 acres of public land in the Swan Valley with a special use permit issued by the Forest Service.

In an email to the Daily Montanan, the Forest Service said it makes sense for the agency to work with its special use permit holders, along with guides and outfitters.

“This work is collaborative in nature, and in this instance, the Forest Supervisor and District Ranger provide direction for Forest Service employees,” said Beth Pargman, recreation program manager. “We do work in collaboration with our partners on all kinds of matters.”

The report from Save Holland Lake questioned the relationship between the Flathead National Forest and POWDR — in direct contrast to the “disdain” it said the agency showed members of the public.

For example, after roughly 18 months working with POWDR, the Forest Service opened comment on the proposal for just three weeks initially; it extended the comment deadline from Sept. 21 to Oct. 7 only after people said they needed more time.

Also, members of the public have had to wait to receive Forest Service documents, but records reviewed by Save Holland Lake show POWDR had ample access to information and to top employees at the agency, the report said.

“It’s just incredible how friendly and accommodating certain Forest Service staff are to POWDR, and refer to them for direction on the project,” said Cheri Thornton, of Helena, in the Save Holland Lake report. “I thought the Forest Service worked for us, not billion-dollar corporations.”

Holland Lake Lodge sits on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in the Swan Valley. The area is home to grizzly bears, lynx and loons, and the lake is home to bull trout.

The resort operates on public land with the Forest Service permit, which identifies the lodge as the “holder” and Christian Wohlfeil as lodge “owner.”

Last fall, Wohlfeil said he wanted to sell the lodge to POWDR because he appreciated its ethic of sustainability. He also said POWDR has the resources to properly renovate the property, which is in need of repair.

Public records reviewed earlier by a couple of lawyers based in Hamilton show Wohlfeil already had transferred control of the resort to POWDR before the project was announced to the public. In October 2021, an email from POWDR to the Forest Service said the first phase of closing had taken place and the private company was in control of the lodge.

However, POWDR is not listed as the permit holder, and the permit itself states that “any change in control” terminates the permit. Early on, however, the Forest Service welcomed the idea of the private company’s expansion.

In March 2021, POWDR’s Brian Stewart sent the Forest Service a draft letter that expressed the agency’s support for “all efforts to rehabilitate facilities, enhance and expand public access to outdoor recreation and lodging” if they met the terms of an agency permit.

The Flathead National Forest made slight changes to the letter and reproduced it on agency letterhead. Swan Lake District Ranger Christopher Dowling signed it.

A year and a half later, in September 2022, the Forest Service announced the idea for the expansion to the public. In preparation for the public meeting, POWDR provided the agency with “talking points.”

(For example, POWDR’s founder has “a passion for the mountains,” and POWDR is “a company with soul.”)

Before that same meeting, the Forest Service worked with POWDR and the lodge to create “boards” that illustrated the expansion plan, and following feedback from Stewart, agreed to include “an existing condition board.”

The information the Forest Service and POWDR presented to the public incorrectly noted the current permitted acreage at 15 acres — nearly 50% more than the permit itself allowed and an error identified by the public.

In the Save Holland Lake report, Jim Morrison of Missoula said evidence shows the Flathead National Forest was working with POWDR, not independently. (The report said a Forest Service recreation program manager had taken an independent stance on the proposal, but leaders did not.)

“The Flathead National Forest has persistently and unreasonably withheld from the public information about POWDR’s proposed massive expansion of Holland Lake Lodge while collaborating extensively with POWDR, its contractors and others,” Morrison said in the report. “ … Has the Forest Service abandoned its motto: ‘Caring for the Land, and Serving People?’”

But the Flathead National Forest’s Pargman said the agency works with its partners to provide information for “a potential sale, reconfiguration of business, or potential improvements to what is currently permitted.”

“This would be the same courtesy given to all our permit holders,” Pargman said in the email.

Pargman also said it is not uncommon for an outside partner to write the first draft of a letter of support if they’ve requested it. However, she said the Forest Service needs to agree with the content prior to signing it.

“It is then reviewed and changed if needed before being finalized. This is a common practice in many agencies/businesses,” Pargman said.

Pargman said once scoping and public meetings begin, the Forest Service is working “hand in hand” with the proponent on materials and public talking points.

“It is our job to take the public information and subsequent environmental analysis and determine if the project will be approved as proposed, modified, or denied based on what we believe is in the best interest of the American public,” she wrote.

The lodge currently lists nightly rates from $310 to $395 with meals. Wohlfeil has said the expansion rates are estimated to be $200 to $450 a night, with the higher rate accommodating four to six people in a cabin, but no meals.

The report said if the Flathead National Forest approves the lodge expansion, it will preclude any near-term upgrades to the campgrounds, which cost $20 a night for a single site by comparison. The report said the Flathead Forest Plan limits increases in capacity of overnight developed recreation sites to one project every decade in each Bear Management Unit.

The report also said the Forest Service collected checks totaling nearly $47,000 that covered a period from May through December 2022 but it then returned the money to Holland Lake Lodge — and apparently didn’t bill anything prior to that period.

“The key point is that U.S. taxpayers paid for all work related to the proposed expansion of HLL (aka POWDR’s real estate transaction with Wohlfeil) conducted by FS employees from December 2020 to today,” the report said.

In an email, the Forest Service said the agreement doesn’t cover “pre-application review, including early discussion with the proponent,” or early screening. It said cost recovery applies to proposals “formally accepted as applicants.”

“The proposed use (expansion) was not formally accepted, as well as mistakes and other inaccuracies were made on both sides, so under advisement of our legal counsel and specialists, we felt it was not appropriate to charge HLL for the cost recovery at this time,” Pargman wrote.

In November, after public outcry over inaccuracies in the application and the agency’s initial decision to skip a thorough environmental review, the Forest Service rejected the expansion. The agency said it would consider a revised proposal and has since committed to conducting at least an environmental assessment if not a deeper analysis.

Last week, the Forest Service said Holland and POWDR had not turned in a new application, but POWDR has said it intends to resubmit a similar project.

The Forest Service subsequently clarified that it had not received a new expansion proposal but had received a new permit application.

This story was updated with additional information from the Forest Service about the documents it recently received related to the project.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.