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Emails raise concerns about forest service's work on Holland Lake Lodge proposal

At the Holland Lake Lodge near Condon, MT, an old, worn sign hanging from a pole reads, "Welcome to the Lodge."
Austin Amestoy
At the Holland Lake Lodge near Condon, MT, an old, worn sign hanging from a pole reads, "Welcome to the Lodge."

Emails show the Flathead National Forest Service worked closely with a resort company proposing a large expansion of Holland Lake Lodge in the Swan Valley ahead of the proposal’s public unveiling last fall.

Advocacy group Save Holland Lake released the emails they obtained through a public records request in a press announcement last month. Members of the organization are opposed to efforts by Utah-based resort company POWDR to triple the capacity of the historic Holland Lake Lodge, which operates on public land through a special use permit.

Jim Morrison is a Save Holland Lake member who worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 30 years. He says the emails call into question whether the agency serves the public interest.

“The Forest Service and Flathead National Forest has spent an awful lot of time and effort at the request of POWDR for the benefit of POWDR,” said Jim Morrison, a Save Holland Lake member who worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 30 years. “To me, that is working for POWDR.”

Morrison and Save Holland Lake say the Forest Service was wrong to work so closely with POWDR, since the company does not officially hold the special use permit.

The emails show POWDR first approached the Forest Service to gauge its interest in the company’s expansion plans in December 2020 — nearly two years before the Forest Service held an initial public meeting on the proposal.

Flathead National Forest supervisor Kurt Steele weighed in on the project in a February 2021 email to the deputy regional forester, saying it had some “exciting potential,” and that it was “a pretty cool idea.” Subsequent emails show the agency connected POWDR with internal experts and contracted surveyors as the company prepared its Master Development Plan for the project.

Additional emails show the Forest Service requested “talking points” from POWDR ahead of last year’s public meetings. The two also collaborated on a “project agreement” outlining the roles each organization would fulfill during review of the proposed expansion.

Forest supervisor Steele ultimately rejected the plan last year due to “inaccuracies and inconsistencies.”

Steele was not made available for an interview for this story.

Montana Public Radio reached out to Flathead National Forest via email, asking if it was standard procedure for the Forest Service to collaborate with prospective buyers of special use permits, why it asked for talking points from POWDR and if Steele had passed the proposal through agency screening before moving forward.

In response, Flathead National Forest sent a statement saying it has not received a new proposal for Holland Lake Lodge and committing to a full environmental assessment as part of the public process. You can read his full statement below.

POWDR, through subsidiary Holland Lake Lodge, Inc., said in a statement it’s working on an improved Master Development Plan and that it will follow all state and federal procedures. The company previously said its new plan will not compromise on scale.

"As a result of our highly engaged public process that started in September of 2022, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele made the decision to return both the Master Development Plan (MDP) and proposed action to Holland Lake Lodge, Inc., meaning the proposed expansion at Holland Lake Lodge is no longer being considered. No new expansion proposals have been received to date. Any new proposal would need to pass through the Forest Service’s screening criteria as well as other evaluation processes to try to ensure it is something the agency believes it would be required to consider. After it passes through those process a public engagement process and cost recovery process would begin. Similar to prior proposed expansions that had a required public comment period, consideration by the agency of a new proposed use does not mean it would be approved.

It’s important to remember the purpose of the public involvement process, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, is to ensure that any decision is an informed one and always discloses the anticipated environmental effects so that Forest Service decisions are thoughtful, deliberate and appropriate as defined by policy, laws or regulations. The Forest Service is committed to doing Environmental Assessment as a part of the NEPA process. This means the public will have opportunities to view and comment before any final decision is made. This would include at a minimum of a 30 day comment period and an additional 45 day objection period,"

U.S. Forest Service Northern Region Press Officer Dan Hottle.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
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