Tom Maclay bet the ranch on the Bitterroot Resort and lost a family legacy. But he's still optimistic. 

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In 1987, 920 acres of alpine larch forest above Maclay's land became the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area. The Forest Service designated the RNA to provide "non-manipulative research, observation and study of undisturbed ecosystems" for perpetuity.

In 1988, the concept of a resort on Lolo Peak was put on a Missoula County ballot. It was approved by 63 percent of Missoula voters.

In 1990, a private feasibility study concluded that a resort, accessed from Highway 12 to the north of Lolo Peak with a base area below 5,900 feet, lacked "adequate natural snow to be competitive as a destination ski resort of national significance."

All the while, the Maclays kept ranching. "My family lived here, and that's how we made our living, clear through 'til we sold our cattle in 2001," Bruce says. Tom, the second of Bruce and Mary Maclay's three children, didn't see a future in ranching. "He could see the ski possibilities and decided that's the way he wanted to go," Bruce says. Other Maclays had considered that the ranch could be part of a ski resort, but "not to the point where they acted on it," he says.

Tom began discussing a possible ski resort with the Forest Service in 1999. In 2000, he, along with his ex-wife and his parents, took out a $2.25 million mortgage loan from MLIC. In 2003, Tom began cutting ski runs up to the Forest Service boundary. In 2004, the Forest Service told him that his plan to access public lands was incompatible with the Lolo and Bitterroot national forest plans. Still, in 2005, Maclay publicly announced his proposal and asked the Forest Service for access to more than 11,000 acres. His application didn't make it past the agency's first screening. Later that year, MLIC loaned Tom and his parents another $16.55 million.

click to enlarge A Missoula County sheriff’s deputy auctions off the Maclay ranch Feb. 22. The lender Maclay owes placed the winning bid. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • A Missoula County sheriff’s deputy auctions off the Maclay ranch Feb. 22. The lender Maclay owes placed the winning bid.

In 2006, the Forest Service sued Tom for cutting about 400 trees on public land, including within the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area. The sides settled and Tom paid a $20,000 fine. In 2008, the Forest Service rejected Maclay's scaled-down proposal.

In 2009, MLIC decided it wanted its money back.

In some ways, the wonder is that Tom got even this far.

Roger Lund, the forester, who's now 82 and lives in Paradise, Mont., says that in the 1960s, the Forest Service "felt that the national forest was a good place for recreation, and didn't really think [development] was a conflict of uses. Today, they feel that that's taking away land and tying it up in private management to the detriment of people who just want to look at it and walk around on it."

The conspiracy

On a recent morning, about a week before the sheriff's sale, Tom Maclay rolls out an old map on a table in his home. It's the ski resort map drawn by Lund, dated November 1966. It details sites for ski lifts, including a gondola, hotels and lodges. "They had a pretty good understanding of what it took," Maclay says.

To him, the fact that the Forest Service supported the idea of a ski resort on Lolo Peak a half-century ago appears to prove that he's getting screwed now.

Maclay lives in a 5,565 square-foot Douglas fir log home on the hillside overlooking the Bitterroot Valley, fit for the pages of glossy Western real estate magazines. Maclay paid for it with the first of the two MLIC loans. He offered public tours of the home in 2006, billing it as an example of the kind of local craftsmanship that would characterize the Bitterroot Resort's residences. Six years later, it's still the only home at the end of a winding dirt road, near McClain Creek and in the shadow of empty ski runs. On the way here, about 40 elk were spotted grazing in the edge of the timber.

Maclay's never been media-friendly, but today he's parading through local news outlets. He wants to share his version of the story, of how a man who inherited one of the most beautiful ranches around might find himself homeless in a year.

Sitting at the table, reading glasses resting on the edge of his nose, Maclay reads from a notepad, delivering calculated, opaque quotes. He reads Lund's memo about the Lolo Peak area being a "national resource." He notes the 1988 ballot results. He claims that the area has been among the top three sites in the Forest Service's inventory of potential ski areas. He says the agency "brilliantly" modeled the site in Lund's day and that the north-facing fall lines are "wonderful."

"It just so happens that this ranch holds all the keys," he says, "including a four-lane highway corridor, ranch water rights, base-lands for development—all the pieces were here."

So why has the Forest Service repeatedly said no?

Maclay alleges a conspiracy.

click to enlarge Many doubt that a ski hill on the Maclay ranch, which abuts national forest land at about 6,000 feet, would get enough snow to be viable. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Many doubt that a ski hill on the Maclay ranch, which abuts national forest land at about 6,000 feet, would get enough snow to be viable.

He says he's spent the last year following the threads of a "complex web" of coordinated misconduct within the Forest Service dating back to the '60s. It involves the building of a Forest Service road that triggered a landslide that damaged his property, a protracted court battle, a threat to condemn and devalue his land and, most egregiously, he says, conflicts of interest among agency staffers with incentives to see his proposal fail. He can't prove it, but he's trying to through the Freedom of Information Act. He's been stymied so far, he says, partly because the stack of documents he seeks would cost, he was told, about $200,000 to produce. "There's probably a file this thick somewhere that explains a lot," he says.

In any case, he's convinced that what he's uncovered shows that he's been stiffed, and as a result, his resort proposal has been whittled down to a point where it's no longer attractive to investors.

"I've burned up our family's ranch equity thinking I was in a fair process," he says.

In his Missoula office, Paul Matter, the Missoula District Ranger, essentially shrugs. "I think from the perspective of somebody who was around in the '50s and '60s and had this idea that Lolo Peak was a good place for a ski area—well, things evolved and changed and obviously we're not in the same time and place," he says.

Maclay and the Forest Service have exchanged more than 100 letters over the years. Some of them are strewn on Matter's desk. He finds the rejection letters the agency sent Maclay in 2004, 2005, and 2008. That Maclay's proposals—including the one from 2008 that asked for access to 3,000 acres for gladed skiing, Nordic skiing, guided touring and mountain biking, none of which would require ski lifts on public land—haven't jibed with forest plans is "huge," Matter says. "Those are insurmountable problems."

Maclay's early proposals ran into trouble largely because he proposed ski runs and a lift in the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area. The scaled-back proposal in 2008 was rejected because it would have affected lynx habitat and big game winter range and wasn't consistent with soil, water and visual quality standards. And public sentiment had turned decidedly against the resort: In 2007, when the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests were taking comments on their revised management plans, more than half of the roughly 2,000 letters received were specific to the management of lands around Lolo Peak, and about 80 percent of those were in opposition to a resort, according to a Sierra Club analysis.

"I don't know if it's possible or not to have a major resort fit the plans," Matter says, "but the proposals he came forward with did not."

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