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SAM Magazine—Missoula, Mont., Mar. 12, 2013—Tom Maclay, who has long sought to develop a destination resort at Lolo Peak in the Bitterroot Mountains, has lost control of his property to Met Life Agricultural Investments through foreclosure.

Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen signed a sheriff’s deed over to Met Life on Feb. 27, five days after a one-year deadline for Maclay to redeem his loan from Met Life. Maclay’s 3,000-acre ranch and home were sold at a sheriff’s auction to Met Life on Feb. 22, 2012.

Maclay had twice submitted plans for a Bitterroot Resort to the U.S. Forest Service, but both times the FS determined that his plan didn’t meet minimum requirements for a special use permit application.


Bitterroot Resort response

The plan for Bitterroot Resort was modeled from the original United States Forest Service (USFS) Lolo National Forest Carlton Ridge ski area plan, as outlined in the current Forest Plan. The Resort would use private land and the embedded infrastructure along the Highway 93 corridor to minimize the need for new infrastructure on public land. The economic benefit of this all season destination ski resort, modeled independently by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce (see their website), shows a regional impact similar to the benefits of the University of Montana. My name is Tom Maclay and the Carlton Ridge are is my backyard, this is where 6 generations of my family have grown up, and this is where I hope children and grandchildren are able to live, work, and play. My proposal for an all season Bitterroot Resort is a healthy, ecologically sound development plan with integrated agriculture for a community that knows the value of local business development, and prides itself on quality outdoor recreation in a stunning landscape. With respect to the current conversations…….There is a 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. Today there continues to be an opportunity for people of all ages and abilities to enjoy an alpine environment within easy reach of Missoula. As we have become a more environmentally aware society, our citizens appropriately demand that their outdoor recreational areas respect the natural landscape. When designing a new ski area there are a number of ways to make skiing and other outdoor recreation activities compatible with the alpine environment. The Environmental Impact Statement associated with resort planning is part of the public process, and certainly we look forward to working with the community in this regard. At Bitterroot Resort one of our main goals is to embed an understanding and appreciation for the many aspects of the mountain culture and environment. This includes protecting the specific area of hybridized larch habitat. Our plan has an option for species connectivity on an ‘Ecosystem level’ that will create a model for balanced development. We also plan to restore fishery viability, and at the same time improve groundwater and river water quality. At the end of the day our snow making model enhances riparian resources because of extended run-off, and greater water infiltration. To suggest that the Maclay Ranch lands are flat with a poor aspect for skiing, makes clear that Mr. Fenske has little understanding of the property. Without being onsite it is hard to keep in perspective that this location holds the largest vertical drop of any ski area in America. The average ski trail gradient down to the base at Bitterroot Resort is similar to that at Jackson Hole. In fact, it has taken an exceptional run designer to find intermediate and novice routes to the main base area. Within the Bitterroot Resort and USFS ski area plan is a 3000 vertical foot drop zone with consistent ski trail gradients for all levels of ability (including expert) – this is what makes Bitterroot Resort worthy of an international reputation. Ski resorts around the world know and respect the expertise of both Mr. Matthews and Mr. Cory for their understanding and planning of effective and enduring ski resorts. In fact, Mr. Matthews was retained by the Missoula community from 1989-1990 to work with the Lolo National Forest and update the Lolo NF Carlton Ridge ski area plan, which was started as the Lolo Winter Sports Recreation Site around 1960 and then extensively planned by the USFS from 1966-1971. The Bitterroot Resort development plan adds the ‘Outstanding’ base area necessary for long-term viability. The initial step for ski trail design at Bitterroot Resort was solar/aspect modeling, which included monthly and time of day analysis. It is obvious that the trails constructed on private land using this modeling retain snow well. I have enjoyed skiing from my home at the 4000’ elevation 3-5 months each year – without snowmaking. As with any major ski areas there will be snow making on the lower runs. Furthermore, since all stumps and significant rocks have been removed, we need 2-3 feet less snow than many other ski areas require – as one guest (who did ski on our private land) remarked,” we could ski these runs after a good frost!” We have planned what is likely the most efficient snowmaking system in the nation. The north latitude combined with our north aspect is known to equal a 2000 vertical feet bonus in terms of snow retention when compared to nearby south facing ski areas. It is clear that ski resorts with lower elevation base areas are often preferred by guests. Whistler and many resorts in the Italian Alps at similar latitudes have base areas around 2000 feet of elevation. The moderate elevation makes it easier for guests to breathe and enjoy the full day, especially if they have recently arrived from sea level. The unfortunate situations of Moonlight Basin and Tamarack, are ample proof that it will be important for Bitterroot Resort to go forward as a ‘National-Class’ area. The current Lolo National Forest Plan specifically allows for a National-Class ski area as outlined in the Bitterroot Resort proposals. The success and significant increase in skier visits for Revelstoke Resort (Revelstoke BC Canada) in the last 5 years (despite difficult access) demonstrates the demand for the same type of ski terrain that was planned for by the USFS and found at Bitterroot Resort. Major resorts are still growing where there is convenient air service – in both the US and Canada – and no resort has more convenient access from an airport than Bitterroot Resort. The team at Bitterroot Resort has planned for water, energy, and land use efficiency – and is committed to finding the balance between healthy community development, landscape and ecosystem integrity, and sustainable agricultural production – we intend Bitterroot Resort to be exemplary for future mountain community planning.


Mr. Maclay; I don't wish any misfortune on you or your family and am sorry to read of the issues your family is now facing. I have spent 30 year in the ski industry in western mountain operations and believe I have a pretty solid idea of what constitutes a viable ski experience. Terrain that is below 6000' isn't it, even at these northern latitudes and terrain that faces east and southeast compounds the problem. The proximity of your proposed operation to existing wilderness and sensitive habit may have been acceptable in the 1960s but 50 years have past and the public's appetite for further impacts such as major ski expansions onto public land no longer garner the support they once did. As for dirty dealing with the USFS, you have a compelling story and one that deserves to be looked into and if proven you have a solid case for damages that could be huge. Good luck.

Bitterroot Resort

Regarding comments by Craig Sweet and Arthur Fenske: I am quite curious about the source of information they appear to believe is reliable. I know from my life growing up on this mountain ranch – everything from watching the USFS ski planner’s aerial reconnaissance of our ranch in the 1960’s, to only seeing 1 other set of ski tracks during 30 trips to the Carlton Ridge Summit one winter – that few other people have been seen the majesty of what this mountain offers. The snow quality and quantity is some of the best in Montana, and the Rockies – the steep north aspect often preserving 3 week old powder as dry as the day it fell. This access to the nationally significant Lolo Winter Recreation Site is exactly what the USFS used as justification to force a road through our family ranch in 1961. In terms of terrain, the Carlton Ridge glades hold treasures like a 3000’ vertical foot, direct fall-line, ‘Elevator Shaft’ – only in Chamonix, France, have we found anything comparable to the sustained vertical of this run – the area holds an Alpine experience unique in most of America, with balanced terrain for all ability levels. There are 10,000 acres of excellent backcountry and side-country terrain that are largely unutilized due to the approach distance. Because of our northern latitude, elevation, and aspect we could have the most reliable Thanksgiving opening for skiing in America. The USFS correctly inventoried over 20 characteristics of this site as ‘Outstanding’, and using the Maclay Ranch for the primary base area gets around the only, ‘Fair’, rating which they gave to the problematic Mill Creek area. I agree with Mr. Sweet’s comment about starting small. I set out to do this as I finished my agricultural degree from MSU-Bozeman. As I grew up hearing about the exceptional potential for the Carlton Ridge-Lolo Peak Ski Area, which nobody had initiated in 2 decades, and I thought I could do exactly that - it is the model of development for the Alps with many farmers tending their ski lifts for winter income. I approached our local USFS office about initiating development, but was told by the Stevensville Forest Ranger that the Lolo Forest had a plan for developing the mountain and it did not include me. Within weeks after those meetings the USFS committed to building a road through a known landslide zone that favored development on about 500 adjacent acres that had been assembled by the USFS employees responsible for the ski area planning and scientific research – land that was personally purchased in clear contradiction to ethical guidelines. Contrary to Mr. Sweet’s suggestion that BR is only about real estate, in which case development would have started long ago, this is a skier’s mountain and I have felt it has been critical for that to be the focus – this focus has helped avoid a real estate dependent plan. Having grown up ranching in what was often the fastest growing zip code in the state, considered and comprehensive planning, (which includes exceptional community and conservation benefits), has been central to our efforts – our mountain focused plan is balanced. BR has many similarities to Revelstoke, which despite being harder to access, has grown to around 250,000 skier visits in the last 5 years. Neither my wife or I, and she travels by air very frequently, have ever had flight interruptions due to fog at the Missoula Airport. Bozeman’s airport has leap-frogged past Missoula’s directly as a result of the skier traffic coming into the Big Sky Resort complex of ski areas, which in conjunction with Bridger bowl host about half of the states skier visits. Bridger Bowl has had continued skier visitation growth right along with Big Sky, just as other ski areas around a national resort hub at Missoula have the potential to enjoy growing guest visits. The December though February months are the slow months for the Missoula Airport –Bitterroot Resort could be the catalyst to year around direct flights from the 10 major cities with summer service, and increase the number of cities and airlines providing service. Last fall, on the same week that an airline suspended service from LA to Missoula until the next summer, direct daily airline service from LA was initiated to the heart of Canadian ski areas. According to RRC Associates about 10 million skier visits result from flights to the Rockies each winter – the Missoula Airport to Bitterroot Resort distance and time is the shortest of any major existing or potential resort in America – BR can easily attract the visitors that can create year around jobs from the existing seasonal jobs focused on the needs of about 5 million tourists in this region every summer, (about 4000 nearby motel beds in need of more winter guest visits makes this relatively easy). The community sponsored, (3rd party), economic modeling shows Bitterroot Resort would, over the decades, create economic benefits similar to the University of Montana. This is the broad public benefit our family continues to believe is a fitting outcome for this 6 generation ranch, which has been surrounded by other development, as it is regarded as an exceptional place for generations of family and friends to live.

MSO Airport

I am the Airport Director at MSO. It was pointed out to me that this conversation was going on and I thought I would add to the discussion. It is true that prior to 2006 the fog and weather did cause the cancellation of a significant number of flights each winter. However, since 2006 the airport has had a very active and successful fog seeding program. As an example, in 2005 during the week of Thanksgiving we had a stretch of 7 days were fog was an issue. During that time we had 49 flights cancel. The following winter after our fog seeding program was implemented we had a similiar 7 day event during the 1st week of December. Only 1 flight was canceled during that time. This winter we have had over 10 days were fog was a factor, so far we have only had 4 cancellations. There are many resort airports that have terrain issues that are a much bigger challenge, Sun Valley, Eagle Vail, and Aspen to name a few. Concerning airservice, we currently have 12 non-stop destinations which is equal to our much bigger neighbor, Spokane. It is true that our prices are higher than hub markets but this is driven by the fact that their is no competition in the market and is not unusual for a market our size. We are actively engaged in trying to add carriers to the market but what would make that easier is additional traffic volume. It is more about people coming to Missoula than it is about Missoulians wanting to fly out. You can look at Bozeman and see the impact that the resorts there have had on their market. I might also point out that ski markets typically have some of the highest fares in the industry. We are fortunate that we have a much broader business base to help level out the big peaks and valleys in seasonal resort markets. Additional volume will bring additional carriers (competition) which will bring prices down. I will leave it to you all to debate the merits of the resort but I can tell you that in terms of proximity and capabilities we are in a better position than most resort airports. Anything that adds volume to the market will bring competition and lower fares.

Bitterroot Resort

Tim, regardless of upgrades at MSO there still exist the issue of fog, and the cost of air travel to Missoula. And when you consider the other "destination resorts" in Montana suffer from a lack of skiers, what makes anyone think Bitterroot would be any different? Snow quality simply is not there. Easy access simply is not there. And I seriously question your assertion that Bitterrroot would be a Top 5 resort. The terrain simple is not there. Sixty years ago someone like MacClay would have developed what he could afford to develop....sell some land, or housing, use the income to finance expansion, and gradually grow the resort to its full potential. EVERY successful resort has done it that way. The one's that have failed (and that includes those centered around golf) went for the grand slam and borrowed hundred's of millions of dollars based on a plan that included the sale of thousands...not hundreds...of housing units. You can call MacClay whatever you want, but in my opinion he was a housing developer first and a ski area developer second. That is the ass backwards approach that has failed every new development of the last 15 years. Given the total collapse of the housing market this project probably would have failed regardless of the USFS ruling.

Tim, thanks for your answer.

Tim, thanks for your answer. However to say that in order to be successful the Bitteroot proposal MUST have connectivity to public lands tells the entire story. Good luck and best wishes.

Response to comments by Arthur Fenske and Craig Sweet

Mr. Fenske writes - "Isn't the Mclay ranch lands too low, with a poor aspect and very flat? Wouldn't a major ski development on those lands require extensive snow making in an already arid valley where the surface water rights are already over allocated?" Recent advances in snowmaking technology have made cost-effective operations possible at low elevations and in marginal temperatures. For example, look at Pitzal glacier in Austria where IDE Technologies installed a system capable of making snow at above freezing temperatures and effectively giving the town a lifeline to contine off-season operations. Often the limiting factor for snowmaking operations is the availability of water. The Maclay family secured water rights generations ago, long before the USFS even existed. The recent court case regarding the USFS attempting to bully Ski resorts into giving up water rights was soundly defeated through the efforts of NSAA and resort operators. And it has been documented that the withdrawl of water for snowmaking is considered "non-consumptive" use and in the case of Bitterroot will comply will all stream flow reqirements. Mr. Fenske also speculates-" Moonlight Basin and Tamarck may be ample proof that there are enough major destination ski areas in the US as it is and there is no need for another one to be built, especially on public lands." My response is both resorts cited were based on real estate ventures more than viable ski area operations. Bitterroot, if given proper access to public land, could be one of the top five resorts in the US and pose serious compeition, preventing to the defection of US skiers to Canadian resorts. Mr. Sweet claims - "It also questioned access given that our airport often experienced closures due to fog in winter." The Missoula International Airport continues to see upgrades to their capabilities to better deal with fog and other weather related closures with advances in radar technology currently in use. This is an old argument and a irrelevant issue.

Bitteroot Resort

Mr. Cory and Mr Mathews are both resort developers/consultants. Correct? Isn't the Mclay ranch lands too low, with a poor aspect and very flat? Wouldn't a major ski development on those lands require extensive snow making in an already arid valley where the surface water rights are already over allocated? "As we all know the last successful major ski area to open in the US was when we had a population of 228 million. We now are over 313 million." Define successful? Moonlight Basin and Tamarck may be ample proof that there are enough major destination ski areas in the US as it is and there is no need for another one to be built, especially on public lands. I will have to disagree respectfully that this area is a loss for skiers, habitat and the people of the Bitteroot valley.

Bitterroot Resort

My understanding of the oft quoted citizen vote is that back in the 90's their was a vote to spend $100,000 of county money to study the *feasibility* of a major ski area on Lolo Peak. The report said it would be difficult without huge amounts of snowmaking. It also questioned access given that our airport often experienced closures due to fog in winter. After the report came out it put a damper on any resort talk until MacClay came along. MacClay might have been more successful if he had built out his resort in phases. An all or nothing approach has but two possible outcomes.

USFS "Insider Trading" to blame

It is a shame the real back story behind the conflict with the USFS has not been reported by the media or acknowledged by the USFS. Here is the scenario as I know it -- Multiple USFS attempts to gain road access from the Maclay Family Ranch, under the auspices of USFS scientific research, had the potential to greatly increase the value of immediately adjacent property holdings assembled by USFS employees and their spouses.The land acquisition by Roger Lund and others was in clear violation of the USFS Handbook and Ethical Code. The primary scientific researchers ‘requiring’ road access, and the 15 year USFS Ski Recreation Specialist in charge of planning this recreation site, assembled at least 500 acres adjacent to, or near, the USFS ski project site. These USFS employees documented the site as a “National Treasure”, “Bigger than Vail” – this included lands that were the key for successful project development, that the USFS employee in charge of the project was directly responsible for seeking out – The only lands better were the Maclay Ranch. The USFS employees key land parcel adjacent to the Forest Service land had no road access, but over time a USFS road was built to the developable location of this parcel, despite the USFS Hydrologist warning that this road building would cause a landslide. The landslide was triggered immediately by the USFS road building. The USFS then asked the Maclay Family to bring a lawsuit against the Citizens of the United States to force environmental remediation of this USFS caused landslide, resulting in a $6M charge to the taxpayers – there were previously existing road alternatives but they did not provide access to the USFS employee owned parcel. Furthermore, I've personally filed a FOIA with the USFS to further investigate and document activities of employees and their families in regards to the adjacent property, the road and their assesment of the ski area potential. I've found the USFS to be uncooperative and have placed significant roadblocks towards completion of the FOIA. Currently, the result is that the USFS is unwilling to allow a ski area project of international potential for a community with negative economic growth every year since the bottom of our recent economic collapse – a resort in which the community voted 2-to-1 in favor, which the USFS has offered in a Joint MOU Prospectus for Investors, is clearly allowed for in the Forest Plan, has planned exceptional environmental benefits, and which the six generation Maclay Ranch has always held the key for successful development. Tom Maclay deserves a level playing field in his attempt to bring his dream of this development to fruition. Let's hope he gets the chance he deserves.


I agree with Paul. As we all know the last successful major ski area to open in the US was when we had a population of 228 million. We now are over 313 million. The Baby Boom age cohort fueled the growth of the industry, and the Gen Y/millennial generation, bigger than the Baby Boom group in numbers, is just entering the same age bracket that will continue to fuel demand in what has been a supply constrained industry. We have been exporting skier days to our northern neighbors for decades because the Forest Service refuses to open up more public assets for winter recreation, despite adopted forest management plans that call for the contrary. The real travesty for Bitterroot is that the project provides an opportunity to create a valuable recreational asset while transferring significant economic benefit to the existing infrastructure in Missoula. Bitterroot could focus on the mountain operations for years while allowing the existing bed base and retail environment to capture most of the other spending potential.

Bitteroot Resort

This has been a real travesty of justice by the USFS in Region 1 in my opinion. Originally the City of Missoula and the USFS desparately wanted a major resort on Lolo Peak but it was confirmed that the proposed base terrain to the north was inadequate. Tom McClay's family ranch on the east side is more than adequate but the Forest Service could not agree to his sensible proposals. Another one bites the dust, again.