Since 2004, the Forest Service has repeatedly told Tom Maclay that his proposed Bitterroot Resort is incompatible with the agency's land management plans. It said so when Maclay originally asked for access to 12,000 acres of public land below Lolo Peak. It said so again when Maclay later sought 3,000 acres, with no ski lifts on public land.
But now, with a bank set to take control of Maclay's 3,000-acre ranch if he can't repay $23 million in debt by next February, he's going big again.
Maclay wants access to 12,000 acres on the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests, and permission to install a gondola and seven other ski lifts. The Forest Service last month released the request, which Maclay originally asked to be kept confidential. It was a proposed "addendum" to the scaled-back 2008 proposal that made it through the agency's initial screening process before being rejected.
Tim Newhart, the Bitterroot Resort's spokesman, says the bold proposal arises from the "imminent need for the Bitterroot Resort to attract investment, given the time frame that Tom's on. The clock is ticking. If indeed he can push forward a proposal and even get some indicators of enthusiasm on it from the Forest Service, it plays well into a potential investor bringing resources to the table. ... It may seem aggressive, but we're putting forth our vision of what we think the project should be."
The Forest Service isn't considering the latest proposal an addendum. "From our perspective," says Bitterroot National Forest Stevensville District Ranger Dan Ritter, "too much time has passed and we're starting over." Which means the process could take precious months.
Responding to concerns previously expressed by the Forest Service, the proposal attempts to mitigate the resort's visual impact by excluding a ski lift to the top of Lolo Peak and other lifts and lodges on prominent ridgelines.
In 2005, MLIC Asset Holdings, part of the insurance giant MetLife, gave Maclay the bulk of his $19 million in loans from the company. He missed payments, and in 2009 MLIC foreclosed, with Maclay owing more than $23 million. His land was auctioned off on the Missoula County Courthouse steps in February of this year. MLIC bid $22.5 million, effectively buying back its loan and starting the clock on Maclay's one-year right of redemption to repay the debt and save the ranch.