The U.S Forest Service told backers of the proposed Bitterroot Resort that they had passed an initial screening last week, the first step in a long process that could eventually land the large-scale ski resort on Missoula’s doorstep.
Tom Maclay, owner of about 3,000 acres of ranchland just east of the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests, has been trying for four years to gain access to public land for the proposed four-season resort. His current proposal requests a special-use permit for about 3,000 acres of public land spread across both national forests, a considerably smaller amount of land compared to Maclay’s original request to access more than 12,000 acres.
Last summer, the Forest Service rejected Maclay’s proposal citing concerns about the resort’s impact on lynx, winter range for elk and alpine scenery. The new proposal addresses those concerns. Jim Gill, Bitterroot Resort’s chief operating officer, says Forest Service land would only be used for alpine skiing via snowcoach, Nordic skiing and mountain biking. Ski lifts and the resort’s dining and lodging would be on Maclay’s private ranchland.
The Forest Service announcement served as a small victory for the Bitterroot Resort after a series of setbacks and news of a historically poor market for large developers. Nonetheless, the victory remains relatively small.
A review of the Forest Service’s proposal and application processing steps shows much of the first screening to be rather straightforward. The Forest Service recognizes that Maclay’s proposal is consistent with land use laws. The Forest Service also agrees that the proposal jibes with the Forest Land Resource Management Plan and that it doesn’t pose a substantial risk to the public, create exclusive occupancy or conflict with administrative use.
Other criteria are less inherent. For instance, the Forest Service recognizes that Maclay doesn’t intend to erect a whorehouse or a casino. “Use does not involve gambling or provision of sexually oriented commercial services,” the summary states. Nor does he plan to build a training ground for the likes of Blackwater: “Use does not involve military or paramilitary training/exercises by private organizations or individuals.”
Now the process grows more difficult. During the second set of criteria Maclay must prove that the resort is consistent with purposes for which the land is managed and, among other caveats, he must show that the project is in the public interest.
Both Maclay and environmentalists have already battled over the latter point. Dave Bull, forest supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest, says it’s a question of need.
In September 2005, the Forest Service released a report concluding ski resorts within 100 miles of the Bitterroot were operating at 25 percent capacity, and didn’t forecast a change: “…it is unlikely that the Rocky Mountain Region, or the state of Montana, will experience any significant increase in destination skier/snowboarder visits in the foreseeable future.”
In July 2006, the resort sponsored its own report that predictably disagreed with the Forest Service’s assessment: “The ski industry is poised for growth and can expect to record a 60 million plus skier/boarder visit season within the next five years. With the proper focus on bringing new participants to the sport and retaining existing customers, the future of the industry looks strong.”
Although Bull’s agency sponsored the needs analysis, he plans to take the resort’s rebuttal into consideration.
“We’ll be using their counter to the assessment that we did as helping us answer the public interest question,” Bull says.
If the Forest Service agrees with the resort’s findings, it will accept Maclay’s proposal as a formal application. That application will then be reevaluated with an environmental assessment, which will include a public comment period. After all that, the Forest Service will decide whether to issue Maclay a special-use permit.
This initial screening process and criteria only pertains to the land in the Bitterroot. Maclay must also get the green light from Lolo National Forest officials, although the scope of use for that land is much more narrow—about seven miles of mountain bike trails. Since the request does not include any paid guiding tours, Lolo National Forest officials aren’t sure that Maclay will need a special-use permit.
“We’re looking at their request, and because it’s been amended and shrunken, we’re kind of asking the question, what is this?” says Boyd Hartwig, spokesperson for the Lolo National Forest.
If Lolo officials determine that Maclay doesn’t need a special-use permit, Hartwig says they would probably check with the mountain biking community to see if the trails are necessary. For now, Hartwig says Lolo officials are ensuring that their maps match the resort’s.
“We have to reconcile what their map shows with what our map shows,” he says. “If there are any existing roads or trails, we have to make sure our map shows it as well.”
One other large component of the project—the selling of real estate at the resort—remains on the back burner. The resort’s website describes a development not unlike Whistler Village, but about a tenth of the size. Gill says the resort will eventually work with Missoula County’s Rural Initiatives office to propose amending the Lolo growth policy, but says he has not yet contacted county officials.