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Finding a Way Forward at the Bitterroot Resort

As Missoula’s pre-eminent resort-in-progress announces an amended Forest Service proposal for ski trails, other more sensitive negotiations are underway involving money.

The official news from the Bitterroot Resort, south of Missoula, involves what resort manager Jim Gill calls a “give-and-take” with the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests.

“That’s what we’re focusing on right now, the permitting with the Forest Service,” Gill said. He wants to offer Nordic skiing and mountain biking trails. In some cases, those activities could affect habitat for lynx and elk and areas with sensitive soils. So a new plan has been proposed to mitigate those impacts, he said.

That sounds easier than navigating the tanking real estate industry while pursuing Tom Maclay’s plans for a four-season resort. How’s that working?

“Well, we’re constantly re-evaluating our plans,” Gill said. “There have been changes in the some of the directions we’re going. We’re keeping them close to the vest. We’re not divulging.”

One imagines it could be difficult to find financing for a high-end resort in the Mountain West. More than a few developments this year have been forced into or sought protection from bankruptcy. Last fall, Arkansas-based ANB Financial’s new branch in Jackson, Wyoming, sent people to Missoula to court Maclay with the goal of backing his resort plans. Maclay didn’t bite. (This May, the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency shut down ANB FInancial, calling it undercapitalized and saying it used unsafe and unsound practices.)

Yet with no real infrastructure yet, the Bitterroot Resort may be in an enviable position. Without big loans, the resort has the luxury to change strategy, Gill said, rather than being forced to try to sell homes or property in order to make debt payments – into the teeth of an unforgiving market.

That leaves Maclay free to talk to potential investors, Gill said. While the credit crunch has some of them balking, the right projects still look attractive to the right people, he said. He declined to say more.

But what about those skiing and mountain biking trails? Gill said he thinks his new plan has legs, but there’s a lot of work to do.

“We’re not there yet,” he said.

About Robert Struckman

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  1. Bob Wire’s trip from Pigeon Forge is kind of an indication of what will become of the already f–ked up Bitterroot Valley…

  2. Christopher Cauble

    The Bitterroot Resort is like a bad hangover, when will it ever end?

  3. I happen to think the Bitterroot Resort would be a healthy thing for Missoula, and I hope it happens.

  4. I think the resort would destroy everything that makes living in Missoula great.

  5. Missoula_Misanthrope

    Jason M, could you elaborate?

    I’m thinking Bitteroot Resort could have major impacts on Missoula and Ravalli Counties in the following ways:

    1. Affecting critical habitats and unique ecological units.
    2. Using a ton of water
    3. Encouraging lots and lots of other development that could have its own significant environmental, demographic, and infrastructure impact and also increasing year-round recreational pressure on the forest and the Bitterroot River.

    1. Creation of lots and lots of entry-level, near minimum wage service jobs, especially during winter. (I can see this going a couple of ways. There’s a summer workforce in terms of river guides and USFS folks out there who have leaner times in the winter, but I don’t think most of them are used to making as little as they would probably make working at Bitterroot. They are a mobile crowd, and I see them making the choice to work in the more tony resorts like Park City, Jackson Hole, Tahoe, Sun Valley and Aspen before deciding to stay in Missoula. If the seasonal work force in Missoula turns its nose up at Bitterroot Resort jobs, the solution will be to bring people in, which means housing them and providing them with the types of human services that folks living on near-minimum wage inevitably need. The current economic studies out there don’t even touch on the cost to the people of the two counties to fund these possible needs.

    Cultural Impacts:
    1. The “soul” of Missoula. There are an awful lot of people who just think this will ruin the soul of Missoula. Take a walk around James Bar on a Friday Night, and you’ll see the future of Downtown Missoula with a Bitterroot Resort down the road. More boutiques, more fancy bars, more fake cowboys. Furry boots, dumb tourists. I actually think this is the biggest issue for most people.

  6. Yes, a resort would bring millions of dollars into Missoula, but at the same time it would take away values that are not as easy to measure. The cultural aspect is one of the biggest issues. Talk about a big population increase on a city that is already growing steadily. More traffic (which with the way Missoula is layed out is a big issue), more tourists, and I don’t think the world can handle any more furry boots. Missoula has a sweet unique simplicity about it, especially down town. With the resort, prices go up. Cost of living goes up. Big name stores come in and force out local shops. Pollution goes up. And hundreds, probably thousands of transplants come in and dilute the “soul” of Missoula.

    On top of all that are the Environmental impacts which I think should be first and foremost the biggest reason against the resort.

    I would like to hear someone elaborate on why they think this would be a good thing.

  7. Lolo Peak is YOUR Mountain, will YOU give it away to developers? The development of a 4-season destination ski resort on the public lands surrounding Lolo Peak and Carlton Ridge can only be a bad thing for area residents and wildlife. Where to begin? Oh, Lack of trust. Tom Maclay has shown over and over his complete contempt for the public lands, law, process, and his neighbors by knowingly cutting 400 trees, building 6 new roads and opening up 6 other roads ON PUBLIC LAND without permission. And this was not an “oops I forgat where my property line ends” but 5 miles into the backcountry. Purposely and arrogantly. And what about the roads that he illegally cut? two months ago he requested the permitted use of those same roads for his commercial operation even though the court settlement that he agreed to says that they will be restored to their original condition. Oh and many of the 400 trees he cut were 500- 700 year old old growth White-bark pine and alpine larch growing within the protected Carton Ridge Research Natural Area.
    And then there are his official comments to the Forest Service asking that the Research Natural Area be open to snowmobile use and that the high basin below Lolo Peak and adjacent public lands on Carlton Ridge be managed under a allocation that allows all forms of motorized recreation and timber cutting (all of this in a 16,000 acre inventoried Roadless Area abutting the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.)
    What about public support for the resort? Two years ago the Forest Service conducted a public comment period during their Forest Management Plan Revision process. Over 1000 citizens sent in comments specifically addressing the future of Lolo Peak and Carlton Ridge. The large number of comments was in part spurred by numerous full page advertisements from the resort asking citizens to comment in favor of development. 80% of those comments asked the agency to keep the 12,000 acres of public land just the way it is – no resort development. 1 in 5 wanted the resort to move forward. This past spring, Off the Grind magazine, a western Montana snowboarder/skier publication polled their readership about the resort’s use of public land and 58% of those skiers and snowboarders said no. The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes this year passed a resolution calling for the protection of Lolo Peak and Carlton Ridge and opposing the development of the Bitterroot resort there. Trout Unlimited and Hellgate Hunters & Anglers opposes the resort’s use of public lands. So does Mayor John Engen and a host of City Council members. Former Regional Forester and two former Forest Supervisors think it’s a bad idea. The bigger question is, who really supports it besides the obvious real estate brokers, construction engineers and consultants and anyone else in line to make a profit from it? After more than 4 years the Missoula Chamber of Commerce is yet to officially support the resort’s development of public lands. Additionally, the resort’s own market analysis lists public opposition to the plan as one of the resort’s central weaknesses.
    The resort is not needed. The FS did an “Needs Analysis” and found that the six ski areas already operating within a 100 miles of Lolo, MT. are operating at an average of 25% of their capacity, clearly able to accomidate many more skiers should they come. Remember “growth for growths sake” is the ideology of the cancer cell.
    Do you hunt? well you can forget about hunting white-tail deer and elk on those public lands because it is common for the FS to prohibit hunting in high-use recreation areas including ski areas for the obvious reasons of public safety and to protect facilities. We know that the bitterroot resort doesn’t really care becuase their CEO said that the hunters have lots of other places to hunt. The resorts Mater Plan (make no mistake, they are after the whole 12,00 acres) develops elk winter range and a major carnivore corridor as outlined by MFWP biologists.
    There is so much more. Any one or group interested in learning more about this real estate development disguised as a ski resort call me at the Sierra Club office in Missoula. Remember, Lolo Peak is YOUR Mountain, will YOU give it away to developers?

  8. Yeah! What he said!

  9. Clench up that sphinctre folks; because I think it is inevitable that we’ll soon be the next elitists’ destination…

  10. Christopher Cauble

    We could be the next elitists’ destination but Missoulians still have some fight left in them.

  11. Missoula_Misanthrope

    I think the impacts to the mountain itself could be pretty bad, but pale by comparison to the rural resort second-home sprawl that such a mega-resort is likely to trigger. I’m thinking about impacts to open lands within a 10-20 mile radius of the proposed resort, and further up and down Highway 93.

    Tom M. can promise all sorts of stuff on his own land and to the USFS, but can he promise to hold off on developing until Missoula and Ravalli counties are appropriately zoned to handle such a massive change in land use? (And even just a resort on his land only will constitute such a trigger to some extent).

  12. Having spent the better part of a day with Tom Maclay and his wife, Jill Clapperton, this past winter, I can honestly say that I have lost all trust for these people. They are as misleading as they are personable–a dangerous combination, especially in the face of the radical changes they propose to our community and livelihood.

    I initially believed the resort might be a good idea. As an avid skier, I personally appreciate ski lifts and groomed trails. This sentiment faded as I realized they were misleading both me and my fellow classmates. The resort is rife with environmental calamities which they said would not be an issue. Some of these include the use of Snowmax (Pseudomonas syringae) which helps snow form above freezing but is also known to destroy orchards and other crops. Also, weed management and forest thinning, loss of water from natural impoundments, and countless others–all of these issues were downplayed by Clapperton, who uses her degree in soil biology to support her unscientific findings.

    I highly encourage everyone to form their own opinions. I also encourage you to visit with the Maclays. If you can’t see through their plastic smiles and funny science, we may all be doomed to survive what is now happening to other communities who fail to heed the warning signs–an enormous ecological, cultural, and economic disaster.

  13. so what is the price of grass fed beef these days? looks like a nice place to put a ranch.

    Mr McClay should be thanking the USFS for stalling this boondoggle before concrete and studs showed up.

    I love the smell of smoldering developers – god help me but I do love it so.