Forest Service Considers Latest Bitterroot Plan

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SAM Magazine—Missoula, Mont., July 9, 2013—The U.S. Forest Service is considering would-be developer Tom Maclay’s latest proposal to build a destination ski resort on the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests. The Forest Service agreed to a first-stage screening on June 26, and has 60 days to determine if the proposal meets the agency’s criteria to formally start the application process and initiate a full environmental analysis.

The Forest Service has rejected two earlier proposals from Maclay to develop a resort on national forest lands adjacent to his family’s ranch. Both times, the Forest Service ruled the plans failed to meet the minimum requirements for a special use permit application. One major hurdle: as recently as 2012, the Forest Service found recreational development and ski trails to be inconsistent with the Bitterroot and Lolo forest plans for some of the same management areas that are included in the current proposal.

However, Maclay’s current proposal avoids at least some of the zones the Forest Service has previously deemed inconsistent with the forest plan. It further argues that Forest Service officials have been considering a ski resort for the Carlton Basin area, site of the most recent proposal, since the 1960s.

The new plan, outlined in a 20-page document, calls for snowboarding, downhill and Nordic skiing in the Carlton Lakes basin south of Lolo Peak, with hiking in the summer months. In a change from earlier proposals, the latest plan is entirely on Forest Service land, as Maclay has lost his family farm, incporated into the earlier plans, through foreclosure. The current proposal also relocates and reconfigures some on-mountain facilities and, unlike previous plans, avoids the Carlton Resource Natural Area, in which commercial activity is banned. The Forest Service had cited inclusion of the natural area as a reason for rejecting earlier proposals.

To proceed, the plan must survive the Forest Service’s initial screening process to determine whether it aligns with the forest plans for the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests and other uses of the area. A second review would assess the plan’s financial and technical aspects. If the plan passes both those tests, it would be subject to environmental review under NEPA.

In anticipation of these various steps, and perhaps to blunt the inevitable public opposition to recreational development on the national forest, the proposal declares that the plan “takes into account the long history of off-road vehicle use on Carlton Ridge. It is unlikely that skiing or hiking in this area will have impacts beyond the historic use.” But the Forest Service has final say on that.