The categorical exclusion was created by the US Forest Service to exempt small projects from the National Environmental Policy Act review and public comment and objection process. This makes sense for small actions like replacing picnic tables, rehabilitating a campsite, or fixing plumbing. However, the Forest Service takes advantage of CE by misapplying it to major federal actions in the West.
The plan to expand the rustic Holland Lake Lodge in the Flathead National Forest into an upscale four-season resort is a prime example. The Forest Service notice states, “Based on a preliminary assessment, the intentions are to categorically exclude the proposed project from documentation in an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment.”
The Lodge has a 15-acre Special Use Permit and the existing buildings are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Permittees would demolish the historic structures and build a new 13,000 square foot pavilion, a separate restaurant and a total of 32 new buildings totaling 33,000 square feet. About 200 large trees would be felled.
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Flathead National Forest says there would be substantial environmental analysis with a CE. Don’t buy it. The purpose of a CE is to exempt the project from the detailed analysis carried out in an EIA. They only want to assess 15 acres, but we know the impacts would be much greater.
The Forest Service’s CE website states, “Activities must be within the size and scope described in the categorical exclusion, and the agency must consider whether there are extraordinary circumstances that would preclude the use of the categorical exclusion. If the action does not fit into a category, or if extraordinary circumstances apply, the agency must conduct an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
There are many extraordinary circumstances, including the habitat of three species protected by the Endangered Species Act, a proposal for protection, a loon nesting site, the scope (the list of proposed constructions and infrastructure four pages), the potential for expansion of the permit area and structures with increased use (reasonably foreseeable connected actions), its location adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and altering the character and way of life of the Swan Valley.
The company behind the program has developed mountain resorts throughout the West. With their foot in the door, they’ll likely be looking for further expansion onto public lands with heli-skiing, mountain bike trails, and maybe a cable car. A real estate development is likely. The economic model is a luxury destination that would not be accessible to everyone. We see the following. National forests are affected, such as the Big Sky region, where development and recreational use are out of control and the beloved Gallatin River is polluted.
The understated and underhand manner in which the Forest Service handled Holland Lake’s proposal shows that the agency must be stopped from continuing to abuse the EC. CE is the NEPA exception for small projects. Situations like the Holland Lake proposal call for an EIA.
Better yet, the Forest Service should declare that the proposed expansion is not in the public interest. The permit could be revoked and the Lodge and other buildings designated as a National Historic District and operated as a visitor center, museum and public wharf.
To think that an upscale four-season resort proposal could be flatly excluded from NEPA’s proper analysis with full public participation represents poor judgment. The Forest Service needs a reminder that these public lands do not belong to them. They belong to the American people.
Public comments are accepted until October 7. Send them to: fs.usda.gov/project/?project=61746.
Mike Bader, Missoula, is an independent grizzly bear consultant and researcher, conservationist, and former Yellowstone ranger and seasonal firefighter. He writes frequently on natural resource issues in the western United States.