Center for Biological Diversity, Save Holland Lake, allege USFS violating NEPA

USFS said it is reviewing the letter

By: - March 24, 2023 6:50 pm

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

Three organizations alleged Friday the U.S. Forest Service is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act in relation to the Holland Lake Lodge expansion.

In a letter to the Forest Service, the groups allege the agency’s actions show it already decided to allow the resort to expand in the Flathead National Forest. The lodge operates on public land with a special use permit granted by the agency.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Save Holland Lake, and Alliance for the Wild Rockies wrote the letter in advance of possible litigation.

“The Forest Service’s pattern of actions indicate that the Forest Service has come to a predetermined decision to authorize an expansion to Holland Lake Lodge by POWDR Corp,” said the letter.

“ … Evidence of a predetermined decision prior to compliance with NEPA violates the law.”

POWDR is a private ski company based in Utah. In October 2021, POWDR told the Forest Service it had taken control of the lodge.

The Forest Service announced the expansion proposal to the public on Sept. 1, 2022.

But the letter said the Forest Service has already allowed POWDR to “store a four-unit modular home for employee and construction housing” on the permit area, as an agency official confirmed at a public meeting. It also said on August, 22, 2022, the Forest Service granted POWDR the authority to drill two new wells “without public notice and without any analysis.”

In an email Friday, the Forest Service said it received the letter from the three groups and is reviewing it: “We plan to have more information as it becomes available.”

In November 2022, the Forest Service rejected the expansion plan, but POWDR has said it plans to resubmit its proposal.

However, POWDR already is moving forward to try to secure the permit to use the Flathead National Forest.

The letter sent Friday said POWDR has submitted an application to the Forest Service for a special use permit for Holland Lake Lodge, “essentially transferring permit authority from Christian Wohlfeil to POWDR.”

Wohlfeil, who has owned the lodge for some 20 years, earlier said he wanted to sell it to POWDR because he believes in the company’s ethic of sustainability, and it has the resources to upgrade the resort.

But the letter said the Forest Service needs to fully evaluate the request by POWDR, and it pointed directly to Supervisor Kurt Steele.

“In an email to a member of the public, Mr. Steele stated that ‘as long as [POWDR] is deemed financially and technically capable and is planning to meet the intent of the special use permit, a new permit is issued,” the letter said.

That assessment by Flathead National Forest Service Supervisor Steele is wrong, the groups said.

“Not only is this an incorrect summary of the law regarding the Forest Service’s duties when issuing special use permits, it also clearly indicates the agency’s predetermined decision to issue a new special use permit to POWDR Corp regardless of the results of public comment and analysis, in violation of NEPA,” the letter said.

Earlier this month, the Forest Service rejected the Daily Montanan’s request for a copy of the new permit application.

A denial letter said “approximately 280 pages comprised of the application are exempt from release in their entirety pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4), which pertains to trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential.”

The current special use permit is also in question. It names Wohlfeil as the lodge owner, but it states the permit terminates if control of the property is transferred.

In an October 2021 email, POWDR confirmed to the Forest Service it had taken control of Holland Lake Lodge. A couple of Hamilton lawyers discovered the email in a records request.

The Forest Service has since said it is reviewing the legality of the current permit. Earlier this month, it said the review was still underway, and it considered the permit valid in the meantime.

The letter also discussed the wells specifically.

It said documents show the wells require large drill rigs, trucks to transport 20-foot-long steel casing, and a “drill cutting pile, which will also create a slurry that may run into the lake and will be excavated.” It said at least 12 trees would need to be cut.

The letter said the wells are designed to support the expansion at the lodge, and they aren’t just for testing. It said POWDR “hopes to opulently remodel and substantially expand operations.”

POWDR spokesperson Stacey Hutchinson did not address a question Friday about whether the company has already started working on drilling. However, she said the company values outdoor recreation and conservation, and it will follow all laws, including NEPA, should the project proceed.

“If/when the Forest Service issues a new special use permit to replace the existing one, Holland Lake Lodge, Inc., will work with the Forest Service to follow all applicable laws about any future proposal,” she said.

However, in their letter, the three groups said the Forest Service needs to consider the public interest, provide notice and conduct an environmental analysis before granting a new permit — or face a lawsuit.

“The Center and its partners will pursue litigation in federal court should the Forest Service fail to adequately and completely comply with its duties as described,” the letter said.

CBD letter to FS

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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.