Lawyers: Flathead forest supervisor ethically compromised, should be removed from Holland decisions

By: - May 18, 2023 5:30 pm

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

Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele has violated federal ethics standards and should be removed as “authorized officer” in making decisions related to Holland Lake Lodge, allege a couple of Montana lawyers who have been scrutinizing the project.

In a memo sent Wednesday to the U.S. Forest Service Region 1 Forester, lawyers George Corn and Daniel Browder said Steele’s actions on behalf of a private company that wants to increase development at the lodge disqualify him to serve as the decision-maker on the project.

Thursday, a spokesperson for the Flathead National Forest did not return an email request for comment.

In the fall, the Forest Service announced a project to expand the luxury resort, which operates on public land through a special use permit. The public pushed back against the project and flawed process — the Forest Service admitted missteps — and in November, the Flathead National Forest’s Steele rejected the expansion proposal.

However, the Forest Service also said the rejection should be considered a “reset” of the process. It said POWDR, a private company that controls the lodge and wants to expand it, is welcome to resubmit another development plan.

But given the admitted bias Steele has stated for the expansion at the lodge, the lawyers requested U.S. Forest Service Region 1 Forester Leanne Marten serve in a decision-making capacity instead — or delegate authority to another official who they said could help regain public trust.

To make their argument, Corn and Browder point to statements Steele has made and compare them with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ethical standards. For example, in a February 2021 email, Steele lauded the expansion idea as having “exciting potential” in an enthusiastic email to the deputy regional forester in Missoula.

“I am biased of course,” Steele wrote, and the lawyers emphasized in their memo.

The lawyers describe Steele as a “cheerleader” for the project, not a “neutral evaluator,” and they allege his “admitted bias” violates federal ethics standards.

“Employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual involved in any way with the decision,” the memo said, quoting the standards. “Employees shall endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards set forth in this part. Whether particular circumstances create an appearance that the law or these standards have been violated shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts.”

Working on their own behalf, the Hamilton lawyers earlier discovered through records requests that the Forest Service and POWDR were working together long before the public agency announced the project to the public, some 19 months.

POWDR, which controls the lodge, describes itself as one of the largest ski operators in North America, with 18 resorts from California to Vermont. Its plan to increase operations at the lodge drew swift and bipartisan opposition, including most of some 6,000 written comments, and a grilling of the Forest Service chief by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

The memo notes the Forest Service knew POWDR, not shareholder and former full owner Christian Wohlfeil, was in control of the lodge when it announced the proposed expansion, but it didn’t disclose that information to the public.

Thursday, a group that formed to fight the expansion concurred with the analysis in the memo. In an email, Save Holland Lake spokesperson Bill Lombardi said Save Holland Lake “couldn’t agree more” with the Hamilton lawyers.

“The regional forester has a duty, responsibility and obligation to remove Kurt Steele as the decision maker on the Holland Lake Lodge boondoggle because Steele flatly admits that he is ‘biased’ for the giant expansion plans,” Lombardi said in a statement.

He also said Steele has not completed managerial tasks he pledged to address in response to a letter from the Center for Biological Diversity alleging National Environmental Policy Act violations. Additionally, he said the forest supervisor should be acting in the public interest.

“The Forest Service’s duty in administering commercial special use permits is to protect the public interest, not the financial interests of a few individuals seeking to profit from excessive development of the public’s Flathead National Forest,” Lombardi said. “We urge the Regional Forester to ensure that the agency’s authorizing officer for Holland Lake Lodge understands and fulfills that duty.”

20230517 memo to L Marten

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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.