Tom Maclay took to the podium Friday at the Missoula City Club to tout the benefits of his proposed ski resort at Lolo Peak, and much of the conversation involved the core public policy issue: would the economic and recreational benefits of the resort outweight the loss of some spectacular wildlands? But the forum also shed a little bit of light on two other questions they may be even more relevant as the resort project proceeds: will the Forest Service’s decision on whether to allow Maclay to use public lands around Lolo Peak be a local decision, or one made in Washington? And if the Forest Service says no, what kind of development will Maclay build on his private land?
Maclay, as most Missoulians know, wants to build a major destination ski resort, using his ranch south of Lolo as the base area and some 8,000 acres of public land stretching up to Lolo Peak. Currently the National Forest land in question is managed for wildlife and backcountry recreation, and the Forest Service would have to make a major change in its management plan to allow a ski resort. Since those management plans are currently being re-written such a change is eminently feasible, but it remains unclear what the reasoning behind such a change might be.
Maggie Pittman, forest supervisor for the Missoula district, was also on City Club panel, and she was charming and vague, artfully punting a question on whether and how Congress might intervene in forest management decision-making. But former Congressman Pat Williams then chimed in with a rather startling comment on the critical question of whether, given the ardently pro-development administration in Washington, the fix is already in on this decision.
“People from on high came in and said ‘we can slamdunk this for you,'” Williams said. “But Tom Maclay, to his credit said no, we don’t want to do it that way, we want to do this for the community.” Williams wouldn’t say whom these powers from on-high might be, but it certainly isn’t hard to envision such a scenario.
Indeed, the sense from most of the public discussions of the resort so far is that it does not have a lot of support among Missoulians, who love their undeveloped public lands and do not want to see their town become the next Aspen. Certainly the comments in the Forest Service process are running heavily against the resort thus far, and it’s hard to see on what basis Maggie Pittman and her local Forest Service colleagues could make the management plan changes needed to approve it – unless, of course, there was a palpable shift in public opinion, or they were ordered to do so from “on high.”
But if Forest Service approval is not forthcoming, then what? Maclay has made it clear that some kind of development will happen, and is now more explicit than ever that such a development would include a ski hill. His property, where the runs have already been cut, has 2400 vertical feet of elevation, and while it’s a bit low for good natural snow he’s got plenty of water rights for snowmaking. [Correction: As a commenter below rightly points out, the water rights are currently for agricultural use and would need to be converted for snowmaking].
While discussions of the “private” options are vague, it sounds as if the plan is a private or semi-private housing development and resort in which the public would have little or no access to the mountain. When I asked Maclay after the session whether he was thinking about an entirely private development along the lines of the Yellowstone Club, he allowed that that would be one “low-risk” option.
The latest packet from the resort includes lots of discussion of after-school ski programs, free lift tickets for fifth-graders, and various benefits that would be provided to employees and the public if the big resort went forward. Increasingly, the proposition seems to be, ‘if you let us use the public land there will recreational benefits for the community, but if you don’t, there won’t.” Not an entirely unreasonable stance, if you think about it, but not one you want to voice too directly in Missoula.