Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

Bitterroot ski resort proposal returned to sender


By Michael Howell

U.S. Forest Service officials hand delivered a letter to proposed Bitterroot Resort developer Tom Maclay at a meeting they held with him last week at Bitterroot National Forest Headquarters in Hamilton. BNF Supervisor Julie King said that Maclay was told at that time that his Special Use proposal for using Forest Service land in the area above his ranch on the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests was being returned because it did not pass initial screening criteria for allowing such uses. The proposal was basically returned because the activities and development proposed are inconsistent with current standards and guidelines in the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forest Plans for the area.

Maclay submitted the proposal on May 31, 2012 and it was accepted for screening on July 9, 2012. The proposal includes using the forest land for alpine skiing, snowboarding, guided ski touring, Nordic ski trail development, and mountain biking.

In the letter, signed by Lolo National Forest Supervisor Deborah Austin and BNF Supervisor Julie King, the inconsistencies are detailed for each Forest Plan.

On the Lolo Forest it was determined in relation to Maclay’s previous submittals that the construction of a gondola in, and ski trail development adjacent to, the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area was incompatible with the RNA designation which was established July 16, 1987, which states:

“Research Natural Areas may be used only for Research and Development, study, observation, monitoring and those educational activities that do not modify the conditions for which the Research Natural Area was established.”

It goes on to state that, aside from catastrophic circumstances that have completely changed the landscape, “the designation of a research Natural Area shall be in perpetuity.”

It is noted in the letter to Maclay that the Forest Plan and the Carlton Ridge Establishment Report both reference ski area feasibility. The 1986 Forest Plan proposed the establishment of the Carlton Ridge RNA. The RNA was officially established the following year. The ’86 Plan states there is room for a ski area on the north slopes of Lolo Peak and Carlton Ridge. But in the 1987 Establishment Report it notes that a ski area feasibility study done in the 1960’s determined that it would partially compromise the RNA as it was proposed at the time. The RNA was established, according to the report, “while still providing for the potential for ski area development in Section 23 and elsewhere to the north and northwest of the RNA as the Forest Plan and the Establishment Report required,” the letter states.

Maclay’s proposal, the letter notes, is inconsistent with the intent of both the RNA and the Establishment Order and in violation of Forest Plan direction.

“In addition, because of the topography ski trail development directly adjacent to the western and southern boundaries of the RNA, your proposal would bring a high potential for concentrated recreation use within the RNA that is inconsistent with preserving its natural, historic condition,” states the letter.

The letter goes on to note that Maclay’s proposal calls for several ski lifts, ski runs, snow routes, and gondolas as well as both major and minor facilities within a Management Area that consists of “large blocks of land distinguished primarily by their natural environmental character.” Restrictions in the area include no motorized access, no developed recreation facilities, such as constructed campgrounds or picnic grounds, and tree cutting is limited to elimination of safety hazards and trail construction. Visual quality guidelines in the area call for retention.

“Ski area construction is incompatible with all the standards listed above,” the letter states.

Similar conflicts with the existing Forest Plan and management guidelines on the Bitterroot National Forest are also detailed in the letter. Although the management area on the Bitterroot Forest allows both motorized and non-motorized use, it also emphasizes “semi-primitive recreation activities and elk security” as priorities. It directs the agency to, “Manage for recreation activities associated with roadless areas, including hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, motor biking, and snowmobiling,” with facilities and trails “compatible with the semi-primitive setting.”  Visual quality objective in the area is “retention.”

Maclay’s proposal was found to be incompatible with both the recreation and visual quality standards for the management area.

The Forest Supervisors state in their letter, “We believe the resource values and objectives outlined in our Forest Plans are still appropriate for this area.” They suggest that the most appropriate forum for presenting a proposal of such scope and impact would be a revision of the Forest Plan.

“It would not be prudent,” they wrote, “to change management area direction within this area without a Forest-wide comprehensive analysis, and public involvement process.” That process is scheduled to be restarted in 2016.

Maclay’s family ranch at the base of the mountain was foreclosed on by the company financing the development proposal and sold at a Sheriff’s auction on February 22, 2012. The ranch was purchased by the financer, Metropolitan Life affiliate MLIC Holdings LLC, for $22.5 million. Maclay has a year to make good on the debt and redeem the ranch and has publicly declared his intention do so, if financing for his resort plans can be secured. He has been extremely critical of the Forest Service’s processing of his proposal, blaming them for delays in the project that negatively affected the financing. The project has been in the permitting process for several years.

“Bitterroot Resort is committed to crafting an environmentally sound, world-class four-season recreation destination that affords economic opportunity and quality recreation for the families of the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys,” it states on the company’s website where it invites the public to sign a petition declaring their support for the project to the U.S. Forest Service.

Maclay could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

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