Holland Lake Lodge

An aerial view of Holland Lake Lodge taken in September of 2022.

Over 5,100 comments have been submitted about a large expansion project proposed at Holland Lake Lodge, including letters from a U.S. Senator and a congressional candidate.

Christian Wohlfeil, the owner of the lodge, has partnered on a joint business venture for the project with POWDR, one of the largest ski resort operators in North America.

Together, they have submitted a proposal to remove 10 aging structures at Holland Lake Lodge and add 32 new buildings, including a new 28-room lodge, a new restaurant and 26 new cabins near the lake. Holland Lake is in the Swan Valley about 90 minutes northeast of Missoula.

Based on a preliminary assessment conducted by the Flathead National Forest, as of right now the intention of the Forest Service is to categorically exclude the proposed project from documentation in an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment. However a spokesperson for the Flathead National Forest, Tami MacKenzie, said that nothing has been decided yet.

Documents submitted with the project include a graphic showing what the developers say is the current view of the lodge from the water compared to what it would look like after the expansion.  

Last week, Sen. Jon Tester wrote to Flathead National Forest supervisor Kurt Steele to express his concerns about the project. Tester noted that the Forest Service's initial scoping letter received over 2,500 comments in a few days, "illustrating the weight Montanans are giving to their consideration of this project."

Tester didn't say whether he was opposed to the project or not, but called for careful analysis.

"While your decision to briefly extend the comment period is a step in the right direction, an additional extension and further analysis may be necessary to ensure that the public has the opportunity to give due consideration to this project," Tester wrote. "The relatively short timeline on the initial scoping letter and public comment period may be inadvertently limiting further input from local stakeholders, including Missoula County."

He said many community councils meet monthly and need time to solicit and get input.

"This is especially relevant as Missoula County will need to grant additional permits for the site development beyond the Forest Service process," Tester explained. "In addition to county-level input, the high volume of comments submitted so far strongly indicate that the public is extremely interested in providing input on this project."

Extending the comment period further will allow both local government and the general public the opportunity to provide informed input on this project, Tester concluded.

The week before Tester sent his letter, the Forest Service had extended the comment period from Sept. 21 to Oct. 7.

Steele said that he realized there was a lot of interest in the project and many people believed that a decision about what type of environmental review would be conducted had already been made.

"The comments so far have made it clear to me that there is a lot of confusion surrounding the process and potential use of a categorical exclusion," Steele said in a press release. "I would like to make it clear that the use of a categorical exclusion does not mean there will not be an environmental analysis."

A group called Save Holland Lake has formed social media accounts and printed out flyers and stickers opposing the expansion.

The Forest Service's website for taking public comments has received 5,116 of them as of Tuesday afternoon. It's difficult to find many that favor the expansion.

"My vote is NO," wrote Erin Wright. "The last thing this beautiful place needs is to be a recreation zoo. These are the woods and it's okay to treat them as such. I've been coming here for years and would hate to see it turn into something very un-Montana, which is what everyone who comes here aims to do. I guarantee no Montanan wants this."

By comparison, a project to add a new chairlift and new runs at Whitefish Mountain Resort in 2020 got a total of three comments submitted to the Flathead National Forest. The ski area also leases land from the Forest Service and has implemented several renovations, expansions and upgrades in the last two decades.

Wohlfeil, who has owned Holland Lake Lodge for 20 years, sent letters to newspapers in the region last week explaining his position.

"Like many similar recreational facilities on federal land in the United States, the Lodge operates under a United States Forest Service special use permit," he explained.

"This permit allows a privately owned, for-profit business, whose purpose is to sell recreation-style products to the public, to operate on federal land," Wohlfeil wrote. "It has allowed me to make a living, just as similar permits have enabled thousands of small recreational businesses to do the same. We preserve the natural environment for public benefit rather than a multimillionaire seeking to use it as a second home and exclude it from others."

But, he said, the lodge is in need of improvements so that future generations can enjoy it.

"I have long considered making improvements to this business, as I currently utilize only a fraction of what my permit allows," he explained. "However, I decided the lodge and its legacy are best served with investments beyond my capacity by someone who shares my Montana values and vision. POWDR is a company that was familiar with and embraced the process of making necessary improvements to the Lodge to protect the environment."

More public meetings about the project are scheduled for early October. For more information visit online at bit.ly/3LKWMNv.

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Originally published on missoulian.com, part of the TownNews Content Exchange.

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