Last Friday, March 4, the Forest Service began investigating whether recent logging by Bitterroot landowner Tom Maclay’s crew on the Carlton Ridge trail in the Lolo Peak area was illegal. The question, said Dan Ritter, acting district ranger of the Stevensville Ranger District, is whether the work was done on the Bitterroot National Forest or on Maclay’s land, which borders the national forest.
“I saw photos of trees being cut, but we don’t know if it’s on national forest,” Ritter said Friday.
But that question seems to be a non-issue since David Blair, the communications director for Maclay’s proposed Bitterroot Resort, readily acknowledges that the trail widening was done on national forest lands. He says, though, that the work is part of regular maintenance the Maclay family and the Carlton Creek Irrigation Company, of which Maclay is president, have done for more than a century. Maclay declined to speak directly with the Independent.
The real issue at hand is a debate over access to the Carlton Ridge trail, which is the subject of a lawsuit the CCIC filed in August 2004. The CCIC holds water rights to Little Carlton Lake, which is within the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness Area, and Carlton Lake, which is not in the wilderness area. The CCIC, represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative group whose first president was wise-use movement advocate and Reagan administration Secretary of Interior James Watt, says in its complaint that its right of access to the lakes through the Carlton Ridge trail dates back to 1898 and remains valid today. But the Forest Service, in its October 2004 response, says that CCIC abandoned any such right-of-way years ago. And CCIC acknowledges in its complaint that “the Forest Service refuses to allow the Company to use the road to the Little Carlton Lake Reservoir,” although it does not say how long that access has been denied. Neither Blair nor the Forest Service will comment about the lawsuit, which is still in its early phases.
In light of Maclay’s recent work on the trail, it seems clear that the question of access is being played out on the ground rather than in the courtroom.
Blair maintains that the work done is within the rights of the Maclay family and CCIC. “This is business as usual,” Blair says. “But we want to work with the Forest Service to make sure there is no misunderstanding about what is usual, and what is unusual. We look forward to working with the Forest Service to further determine the activities that are appropriate up there.”
Asked whether the lawsuit and the courtroom were the proper forum for establishing whether Maclay has the right to maintain the trail, Blair agreed that the suit concerns the status of the road, but still maintained that Maclay is working within his rights. He also said “the Maclay family and Carlton Creek Irrigation Company are not going to relinquish rights that they feel they have.”
Though Stevensville ranger Ritter couldn’t comment about the ongoing Forest Service investigation, pictures and firsthand information from locals who have been up on the trail in the last week confirm that the work in question is on public land.
Bill Martin was snowshoeing with a friend in the area Feb. 26 when they came across a snow-grooming machine and stumps along the Carlton Ridge trail. Numerous trees that had been cut and pushed into the forest along the trail showed that someone had been widening the trail. After hiking about a half-mile past the machine, Martin says, two men on a snowmobile claiming to work for Maclay came up the trail behind them and delivered a lecture about walking across private land on their way up to the trail.
“They definitely gave us a good talking to,” Martin says. “They presented themselves as friendly but they kinda talked in the context like they owned the whole area. They said, ‘This is gonna be a ski area, but for now ask permission.’”
After Maclay’s workers left, Martin says, he and his friend began wondering whether the trail work was above-board. So on the hike back down the trail, Martin took a handful of pictures, and later they reported their observations to the Stevensville Ranger Station.
On Monday, March 7, Sierra Club volunteer Joel Webster went up to the trail to document the happenings. His description of the scene matches Martin’s, although Monday “there was no one to be seen” and the snow groomer had been pulled back onto Maclay’s land. Webster says the trail had been widened by about five feet, judging from the stumps. The cut trees, some up to 15 inches in diameter, had been slashed along the side of the trail, Webster says.
Blair says Maclay’s work on the trail “involves well-established, longstanding practices involving the maintenance of the Carlton Ridge road, and it’s a separate issue from the ski area.”
However, in the future, CCIC’s water rights to both Little Carlton Lake and Carlton Lake could play a role in the proposed ski resort. Blair said that “the opportunity for snowmaking would deal with Carlton Lake,” not Little Carlton Lake. Julie McNichol, a water resource specialist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, says the CCIC has rights to 450 acre feet of water per year from Carlton Lake and 40 acre feet per year from Little Carlton Lake. This water is now designated for irrigating about 1,200 acres of land. If Maclay wanted to use the water for snowmaking on his proposed Bitterroot Resort, McNichol says, CCIC would need to apply for a change in the use of its water rights.
Water rights and access battles aside, Blair says the proposed resort has the duty to act “above reproach.”
“In proposing a resort, we the proponents have a responsibility to demonstrate the highest standards of protection of the land and dealing with the public,” Blair says. “At the same time, that does not mean that the family should give up rights that it has had for more than a century. Some may believe that those two goals are incompatible. We do not.”