The Categorical Exclusion was created by the U.S. Forest Service to exempt small projects from National Environmental Policy Act analysis and the public comment and objection process. It makes sense for small actions like replacing picnic tables, rehabbing a campsite or plumbing repair. However, the Forest Service is taking advantage of the CE by misapplying it to major federal actions across the West.
The plan to expand the rustic Holland Lake Lodge on the Flathead National Forest into an upscale four-season resort is a prime example. The Forest Service notice states:
“Based on a preliminary assessment, intentions are to categorically exclude the proposed project from documentation in an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment.”
The Lodge has a 15-acre Special Use Permit and the existing buildings are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The permittees would tear down historic structures and build a new 13,000-square-foot lodge, a separate restaurant and a total of 32 new buildings adding up to 33,000 square feet. About 200 large trees would be cut down.
The Flathead National Forest claims 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 done in an EIS. They only want to evaluate 15 acres but we know the impacts would be far wider.
The Forest Service website on CEs states:
“Activities must be within the size and scope described in the categorical exclusion, and the agency must consider whether there are extraordinary circumstances which would preclude the use of the categorical exclusion. If the action does not fit within a category, or if extraordinary circumstances apply, the agency must conduct an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.”
There are numerous extraordinary circumstances including habitat for three species protected by the Endangered Species Act, one proposed for protection, a loon nesting site, scope (the list of proposed construction and infrastructure is four pages long), the potential for expansion of the permit area and structures with increased use (reasonably foreseeable connected actions), its location next to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and altering the character and lifestyle of the Swan Valley.
The company behind the scheme has developed mountain resorts across the West. With their foot in the door they will likely seek additional expansion onto public lands with heli-skiing, mountain bike trails and perhaps an aerial tram. Real estate development is likely. The business model is a luxury destination that would not be available to everybody. We see what follows. National Forests are impacted like the
Big Sky area where development and recreation use are out of control and there is pollution of the beloved Gallatin River.
The quiet and sneaky way the Forest Service has handled the Holland Lake proposal shows the agency must be stopped from further misuse of the CE. The CE is the exception from NEPA for small projects. Situations like the Holland Lake proposal cry out for an EIS.
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 boat dock accessible to all people.
Thinking that a proposal for an upscale four-season resort could be categorically excluded from proper NEPA analysis with full public involvement represents poor judgment. The Forest Service needs a reminder these public lands do not belong to them. They are owned by the American people.
Public comments are accepted through Oct. 7. Send to: fs.usda.gov/project/?project=61746.