Whistler thinking 

Can Lolo sustain Tom Maclay’s proposed ski resort?

To the uninitiated, those new snow-covered clearings on the hills just south of Missoula toward Lolo Peak might look like oddly shaped clear-cuts. But to the skiers and snowboarders in town, it’s apparent that ski runs have been carved from the forested slopes. This season, those runs won’t see much action beyond Tom Maclay and his friends and family. But to hear Maclay talk, his neighborhood is about to see some big changes.

The fifth-generation Montana cattleman sees the future of ranching in the area as grim, and he’s looking to transform a good part of the nearly 3,000 acres of pastures, cropland and woodlot his family has accumulated over the past several decades—his relatives first settled the valley in 1872—into a world-class, year-round destination resort. You’d be excused for rolling your eyes at the audacious plan—until you learn who he’s brought on board.

Jim Gill, the newly hired chief operations officer for what could become Bitterroot Resort, spent the last 30 years managing such places as Breckenridge, Jackson Hole and, most recently, the new Teton Springs Resort near Victor, Idaho. To help design the ski runs, Maclay contracted Don Murray, vice president of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners and former manager at Whistler in British Columbia. And he’s enlisted Olympic Nordic track designer John Aalberg to lay out a vision for a system of cross-country ski trails.

But despite his all-star team of ski industry veterans, Maclay faces some formidable obstacles. Not the least of which is that he doesn’t own the land where the best snow falls. Just above the runs visible from town, his property ends and Forest Service lands begin. In order for him to build farther up Carlton Ridge, above 6,200 feet elevation, Maclay is going to have to enlist a good dose of community and Forest Service support for such a development.

According to Terry Knupp, developed recreation program manager for the Northern Region of the Forest Service, Maclay wrote a letter last year outlining his general idea of developing on Forest Service land. The agency told him at that time that if his project were formally submitted, it wouldn’t pass the screening criteria. Recreation-induced clear-cuts, new maintenance roads and lift structures to transport skiers and snowboarders are not part of the current Bitterroot and Lolo forest management plans for that part of the public forest.

But the management plans for both the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests are currently in a long process of revision. “The Forest Service encouraged him to attend the public meetings and make comments during the revision process, which he has,” says Knupp.

If the Forest Service eventually approves Maclay’s plans, Bitterroot Resort would likely enjoy the same deal as other ski areas that operate on Forest Service land. The resorts typically receive 40-year permits to occupy public land and pay a small percentage of the income generated by lift-ticket sales—about 2.5 percent to 4 percent—to the government in exchange for the right to develop the land.

Watchdog groups have criticized such arrangements because the public receives a relatively small amount of “rent” compared to the benefits reaped by private developers. While big vertical drops and expansive views from the chairlifts attract the visitors, the majority of resort profits come from real estate, golfing, food and product sales and other amenities. For example, the American Skiing Company, which operates Steamboat in Colorado and The Canyons in Utah, among others, earns less than half its revenue from ticket sales. Former Missoula resident David Blair, a Healthy Forest Restoration Act and government relations specialist retained by Maclay, says Lolo Peak was identified by the Forest Service in the early ’60s as one of the premier mountains on federal lands for ski area development. Over the years, there has been some effort to explore the feasibility of such a development. Prior attempts at creating a resort in the area lacked appropriate lower-elevation land for access and sufficient water for snowmaking.

Maclay has both the land and the water. His ranch stretches from Old Highway 93 all the way up to the National Forest boundary. And his family holds senior water rights to most of the water in Carlton Lake, a reservoir on the border of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Ideally, he says, he’d like to build a pipeline from the lake to his snowmaking equipment below.

Maclay says he will “absolutely” go forward with his project regardless of his ability to put lifts into the high country.

“This is still feasible without the Forest Service [land],” says Maclay, standing on a recently cleared spot overlooking the valley, just below where skiers may one day disembark from the chairlift. “Compare it to Whistler—low elevation with snowmaking.”

Another low-elevation-with-snowmaking comparison drawn from closer to home might be the shuttered Marshall Mountain.

But Maclay clearly hopes that he can convince potential skeptics to allow his resort to reach onto public land. “It’s a bigger opportunity if the community wants it,” he says.

Maclay, along with his small platoon of consultants, will unveil the Bitterroot Resort proposal at community open houses in Missoula and Stevensville sometime in early December. Maclay is also scheduled to speak to the Lolo Watershed Group’s monthly meeting Dec. 15 at the Lolo Community Center.

A draft of the Forest Management Plan for the Bitterroot and Lolo National Forests should be out in spring 2005, at which point the public will have an opportunity to comment.


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