Critics worry Holland Lake Lodge plan would hurt the environment and nearby communities
A proposed expansion at a lakeside lodge in the Swan Valley continues to draw public criticism over concerns it could hurt the environment and the character of local communities. More than 150 people attended a project Q&A session in Seeley Lake Tuesday.
Attendees who voiced concerns about the proposed expansion of the historic Holland Lake Lodge were often met with cheers and applause from the audience. Missoula resident Leticia Romero attended with her daughter and said she was worried what the development would mean for wildlife.
“How do you sleep at night knowing that your sole existence is to make big money and speak for corporations that destroy their homes?”
Utah-based resort company POWDR seeks to buy the lodge from current owner Christian Wohlfeil and expand the property with an additional 28-room lodge and more than two dozen new cabins. Nearby parking lots would also be expanded to increase capacity for visitors.
Swan Valley Emergency Services president John Tapp said the new resort’s larger capacity could strain the 28 volunteer EMTs and firefighters that serve the area.
“We’re afraid we’re going to be stretched really thin. I think our resources are going to be stretched to our vehicles, to our economics, and more importantly, to our people,” Tapp said.
Representatives from POWDR fielded questions and comments alongside Wohlfeil and Flathead National Forest Service officials for nearly two hours. No members of the public spoke in support of the plan.
The meeting highlighted a divide between the lodge’s owners and members of the nearby towns of Condon and Seeley Lake over the future of the privately-owned lodge, which sits on public land under a permit issued by the Forest Service.
Vice President of Communications at POWDR Stacey Hutchinson told attendees the company aims to include the public in the decision-making process. She added she wished POWDR had approached area residents with its plans earlier — an initial public meeting was held on Sept. 8.
“I know it’s hard. We have not earned your trust yet — I pledge to you that we will. I hope you will, assuming this whole process goes through and we get the honor of operating the permit and operating the lodge,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said POWDR is seeking to expand business into “boutique-style” resorts like Holland Lake Lodge in part because of their smaller footprint.
I’m at Seeley Lake Elem. where the Forest Service is holding a public meeting on a proposed expansion to the Holland Lake Lodge. 125+ in attendance, and the meeting is set to start any minute! Follow along for updates.— Austin Amestoy (@AustinAmestoy) October 4, 2022
On assignment for @mtpublicradio #mtnews pic.twitter.com/3xDVVLYfCj
Some commenters said the proposed expansion should be subject to strict procedures to study potential impacts on the environment. The lodge sits on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Condon business owner Grace Siloti said the Swan Valley has a history of major conservation efforts to protect grizzly bears and timber resources and said POWDR’s plans don’t align with that history. Siloti said the initial public comment period should be extended to at least 60 days.
Holland Lake Lodge was built in 1947. Lodge owner Christian Wohlfeil has said he is selling it in part because the facilities are aging and need updates. He said the property had been publicly listed for sale for nearly six years, and he chose to move forward with POWDR because he believed in the company’s vision for the site.
“Everyone else that looked at buying the lodge sought to exclude people,” Wohlfeil said.
Representatives from Montana’s congressional delegation attended to listen to the comments, as did spokespeople from the Ryan Zinke and Monical Tranel campaigns. Former state auditor and Democratic representative Mark O’Keefe attended and advised the Forest Service to slow down their process, extend public comment and improve transparency with the public.
“My advice to you folks is to open the door on the information process, or somebody is bound to come in through the window,” O’Keefe said.
"No decision has been made; the map isn’t written. We still have a lot of process to move forward with in order to get to a final decision. "Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele
The review process for POWDR’s master development plan will last months, Forest Service officials told MTPR. After public comment closes on Oct. 7, the service will move into an environmental analysis period, during which time officials say public comment pertaining to environmental impacts will be considered.
More than 5,800 comments had been submitted online as of Wednesday morning.
The decision whether to approve or deny the proposal will ultimately rest with Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele, who was in attendance at the meeting. Some members of the audience at times expressed frustration with Steele’s handling of the lodge’s permit. One asked who he worked for.
“I work for the Forest Service, I work for the United States government and I work for you all,” Steele said.
After the meeting, Steele told MTPR that while the current comment period would not be extended, the service would hold a second 30-day period following review of the first batch of input.
“No decision has been made; the map isn’t written. We still have a lot of process to move forward with in order to get to a final decision,” Steele said. “On whatever that is, that could be anything from denying the proposal to accepting it or to potentially changing it.”
The Forest Service said environmental analysis may take two to three months to complete, with an additional public comment period for the analysis opening in February or March next year.