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

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Maclay is moving on. He has to. He has less than a year to turn the Maclay family ranch into cash. "There's always a Plan B," he says. "The train is leaving the station on the public model." Instead, "Why not just have a private club?"

He envisions an exclusive community where only residents can access the slopes, something akin to, though less extravagant than, the Yellowstone Club. Or maybe just a modest public resort. Either way, the development would be based only on the existing ski runs.

"There are plenty of people who see a shorter return on a private model than a pubic modeland a lower up-front investment," he says. "That can be easier to do...It's a simpler, faster model."

Faster being the key word.

"We certainly remain optimistic to move forward and obtain investment," he says.

Maclay now hopes to develop a private resort on his land. “We certainly remain optimistic to move forward and obtain investment,” he says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Maclay now hopes to develop a private resort on his land. “We certainly remain optimistic to move forward and obtain investment,” he says.

Can he secure enough to pay off his existing debt and finance the development?

He says the ranch is worth "multiples" of what he owes, but he doesn't put a number on it.

MLIC put a number on it—$22.5 million. That's about $8,000 an acre. Bill Zader, a real estate agent with an office just below the Maclay ranch, guesses that the ranch land is worth between $12,000 and $14,000 an acre, or at least $33.6 million.

Maclay has his supporters. Dick King, the former director of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation, says some members of the business community, "who think this is really a good idea, especially now with the economic changes that we've experienced," have recently gotten together in hopes of salvaging the resort and its potential economic benefits before Maclay's clock runs out.

Five years ago, the MAEDC and the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study, by Portland, Ore.-based economic consultants ECONorthwest, that compared the economic impacts of a Bitterroot Resort with access to skiing on public land versus one without. It predicted that in the first decade, the "destination" resort would create about 4,600 jobs and generate more than $450 million in economic activity in Missoula and Ravalli counties, while the smaller resort would generate about 800 jobs and $90 million. That was before the recession.

Meanwhile, with the door nearly closed on developing Lolo Peak, Friends of Lolo Peak is working to slam it shut. The group, which formed in 2004 to fight Maclay's proposal, is lobbying to add the Lolo Peak and Carlton Ridge areas to the adjacent Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. "We're looking to put in the last piece of the puzzle up there," says Friends of Lolo Peak member Steve Seninger.

The Maclay ranch is one of the last remaining swaths of intact ranch land in the lower Bitterroot. Maclay says he can give directions to the ranch at night by telling people to "drive out of Missoula until it gets dark, because there's this two-by-three mile black hole that's surrounded by development."

It's going to be developed, too. The question is how and by whom—Maclay or MLIC, or whomever MLIC might sell it to. The company won't say what its plans might be should it take ownership in a year.

Maclay's original proposal called for a dense resort village. Now the ranch seems more likely to become another hillside dotted with five-acre ranchettes.

"One of the things that really seems significant to me," says King, "is that a well-planned resort with supporting infrastructurewater and sewer, etc.has a far less harmful impact on the environment than the other alternative for development, which we tend to call sprawl."

click to enlarge In 1966, Forest Service staffer Roger Lund wrote that Lolo Peak’s skiing potential made it “a national resource.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • In 1966, Forest Service staffer Roger Lund wrote that Lolo Peak’s skiing potential made it “a national resource.”

Allan Foss, a long-time neighbor of the Maclay family, who attended the sheriff's sale, says he fears that a subdivided Maclay ranch will just add to the "unsightliness" of much of the Bitterroot. Years ago, when Maclay first proposed the resort, Foss was on "both sides of the fence," he says. He wasn't convinced that enough snow falls on the hillside for a viable ski resort. But, "being as I own property right next door, even though I didn't honestly believe in what he was doing, I kept the properties because I thought, 'Well, possibly, if the thing works out, it could be something that would help my own economy.'"

Foss says he tried to keep an open mind, but as time went on, he saw Maclay make too many mistakes—contractors who went unpaid, development plans he didn't like. He wrangled with Maclay over water rights and access to Forest Service roads. Foss believes all the goodwill the Maclay family created over years is gone, "basically because of one man." The scars, he says, are on the mountain.

"It turned out to be a huge fiasco," Foss says. "And the thing is, the repercussions of this are going to be in people's minds for a long time. I've had this property for 46 years and I've lived on it a good number of those years. I'm familiar with the family, I love the ranch. I've always just thought it was the most beautiful place there was. And even in my own mind, it's a big black cloud now."

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