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Bitterroot Resort: Public Amenity or Private Playground?

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.

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  1. Ravalli County Observer

    Actually, the claim that “he’s got plenty of water rights for snowmaking.” is incorrect…
    What he hoilds are water rights for agricultural uses. The same water he might have the right to pour on crops can NOT be used for non-ag uses like snowmaking.

  2. Great article. I live in the Bitterroot, was curious and came to the lunch today to get more information. I was very impressed from all sides – even the table discussion where I sat came from every perspective… All very thoughtful.

    One observation I had was that there seemed to be a strong undercurrent in many of the comments from the public today that was based in the ”fear of change”. Very understandable… We live in “the last best place” and take great pride in preserving that. (…and there are obviously many questions still to be answered).

    A point I might offer is that if one looks at the change afoot in Western Montana – it is here – with or without the Bitterroot Resort. We have been discovered and growth and development are happening and will continue to happen.

    Jonathon, I think your final comments are exactly right… McClay’s development is clearly happening one way or another. Personally, I feel why not get involved to help make it a contributing member of the community, hopefully incorporating and reflecting the values that Missoula and the Bitterroot hold so dear. Otherwise, it will just be another completely private development.

    Whether we (as a community) want to hear it or not you might have hit the nail on the head when you said, “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.”

    It will be an interesting duscussion to follow…

  3. Ravalli County Observer, you are correct, thanks, I’ve noted the correction in the article.

    M.H., thanks for your thoughtful comments, I think you are absolutely right about both the fear of change, and the inevitability of it. It’s good to hear you found the conversations thoughful, whatever peoples’ perspectives might be. This is the kind of discussion we need to make the best decisions.

    – Jonathan

  4. I’m curious to know how many of the folks who are opposed to this project call themselves “bitterooters” or “missoulians”, yet have only called montana home for a short time. As someone who was raised in Lolo, and whose family remains there, I can say that the project gets my support. Yes, there should be compromise. I’m just tired of folks from out of state moving in and deciding what’s best for those of us who’ve been in Montana for generations. We don’t have the luxery of having made money somewhere else, then deciding to move to montana. We live here and we need the economic development and the jobs that come with it. It would be great to see Lolo offer more to its citizens than a Kings Hat, Lolo Drug, Dairy Barn and Hayloft Saloon (although I supported all of the above).

  5. Why do 5th or 7th or 57th generation Montanans believe they have a special claim to federal land just because they are natives? Maclay hopes to expand his ski resort onto nearly 11,000 acres of Lolo & Bitterroot National Forest lands (according to Friends of Lolo Peak website, — land belonging to ALL Americans, even the reviled Californians and New Yorkers , and everyone in-between.

    Whether we are “Bitterrooters” or “Missoulians” is irrelevant. We are Americans, and wild, roadless federal lands (and the clean air, clean water, and wildlife they propagate) are our national heritage. Many citizens don’t want to see that squandered for a private developer’s resort/real estate project offering seasonal, low-paying service jobs, an ever-increasing cost of living, and prohibitive property taxes for local residents — whether we have lived here 60 years or six.

  6. As someone who has spent an entire career cleaning up hazardous waste sites and other environmental problems, I have never had to perform a cleanup on a ski resort. As a Lolo resident, I believe that we should be glad to see clean development and the jobs it provides.

  7. My stomach turns at the thought of the Bitteroot valley being carpeted with ski condos.

    If people feel that a resort economy presents them the best employment opportunities, there are already two major ski resorts in Montana, and dozens in other states. MOVE TO ONE. Don’t expect the mountain to come to you.

  8. Just to make things clear, I live here every day, and I don’t have the luxury of independant either.

  9. It seems folks are debating “if” the project should go forward or not… I may be mistaken… but from attending the lunch it seemed to me, as Jonathon wrote, that is not the question… McClay seems to be developing no matter what. …either a private development – perhaps like the Yellowstone Club (private homes and private ski area for exclusive high end residences) – or a public development – something perhaps we all can have the opportunity to enjoy. It is not about “if” it will happen… it seems it is about “what” and “when” will happen.

    While change can be uncomfortable – we can’t just kick and scream to try to avoid it. …it seems to be happening no matter how you slice it. I’d say… if the development is happening either way – I’d sure like it to benefit the greater community in a way that is more inclusive. The alternative is to continue to drive by, yet another private, gated community (or should I say gated ski area). I think I’d rather be able to go take a run…

  10. Everyone familiar with this issue understands quite well that Mr. Maclay can, will, and has the right to develop his own land. At issue is the appropriation of national forest roadless land — some of it bordering designated Wilderness, all of it vital to our watershed and wildlife.

    “M.H.” says that a public development is “something perhaps we all can have the opportunity to enjoy.” He/She ignores the fact that ALL U.S. citizens already own that land and indeed already do have the opportunity — the right — to enjoy it. We hike, trail run, and ride horses there. We snowshoe and snowboard there. We watch birds, photograph wildflowers, and pick berries there. We hunt there, commune with nature, camp there. We get our Wilderness fix there; we study a rare alpine larch community there. Since it is our land, we ask no one’s permission, observe no one’s artificial boundaries, pay no fees. What could be more inclusive than THAT?

    I find it condescending to suggest that opposition to this scheme is based on “fear of change.” It is a bogus assertion to imply that all change is good, all change is progress, and all change is inevitable. I feel sorry for “M.H.” that he/she feels so helpless in the face of change, and submit that he/she is wrong: We can, indeed, “kick and scream to try to avoid” a particular outcome. It’s called standing up for what you believe to be right, and it’s the American way.

  11. While I certainly understand both sides of this debate, I’m very disturbed by a couple of “flawed logic” themes which seem to be repeatedly cropping up; both related to the fact that Maclay may proceed with some form of development no matter what.

    Theme 1: “Since Maclay says he will proceed with development anyway, shouldn’t we support his efforts so we have some say in what happens and the results benefit the community”. First off, the only “say” you’re going to have is to just answer “yes” to everything Maclay wants. But, that’s not what disturbs me. The disturbing thing is the HUGE leap of logic which equates development on a few hundred acres to carving up thousands upon thousands of acres. There’s simply no comparison between the two.

    Theme 2: “Maclay may end up creating some kind of development we like even less (gated community, etc. etc.)”. Whether he really intends it or not, there’s an implied threat from Maclay here that really rubs me the wrong way. As has been stated by several other readers, there is a definite “let me use the public land or you’ll regret it” mentality coming from Maclay. Folks, you need to seriously think through the implications of these kinds of threats, and how we respond to them. In the end, the decision to use public lands or not, should in no way be influenced by what “might” happen if the requested is denied.

    The bottom line for me is this. There will certainly be continued development of the private lands which adjoin the national forests. Whether Maclay’s few hundred acres become just another part of that growth or not, is completely irrelevant, and pales in comparison to the issue of developing 8 to 12 thousand acres of public land.

  12. Home Montana My Home…O give me a Home where the Mountian Lion can roam, where the deer and the Native Indians can play..Where seldom it is heard…Feeding the Homeless kids is not absurd..and the rich can go to Taos Ski Valley and Play..:)

  13. I wonder which type of development would qualify for a resort tax. And if one were in place, could Lolo then be more self supporting and better able to incorporate?
    Other questions come to mind. What is the Maclay history of land stewardship? Has he been responsible? Ethical? Community mindful? Mr. Maclay is a hometown boy and as such has a “track record”. What is it?
    Thanks for the ear.

  14. D.J. comment of 1-31 raises an excellent question. It would appear to me to already be answered–is McClay a good steward of the land? I submit that McClay has already proven that he is not. His land shows up as an eyesore with wide ski-type runs on land that is not at an elevation to maintain quality snow (ask the Marshall Mountain owners how the elevation at that facility affected the number of days they could stay open for quality skiing.) So by pre-developing (as it were) the skiing area, which for all practical purposes couldn’t be used for skiing, he has shown that he is unwilling to wait for and abide by the public process needed to achieve the necessary forest plan amendment; a move which amounts to an attempt to bully the Lolo Forest into deciding in his favor.
    I also have lived in Missoula more than a few years (but not all of them) and consider a ski area to be a potential eyesore (the current development on McClay land is an actual eyesore) regardless of the potential economic benefit. We already have two ski areas in the valley. Why doesn’t McClay buy out the Marshall area instead of adding more? We don’t want to look like Aspen, now do we?