Holland Lake: The Once Burnt Child Fears the Fire

We’ve all heard the old saying “The once-burnt child fears the fire” — and likely all had the experience that gave rise to its simple wisdom. But recently Montanans of any and all political persuasions rose to overwhelmingly reject the highly controversial proposal to expand and develop Holland Lake Lodge. The reason? We have been burned time and time again by developers who promised environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and the supposed benefits of their proposals only to leave us with broken promises and environmental degradation.

While Big Sky is the poster child for phony broken promises by developers, it certainly isn’t alone. Montanans were promised a “family ski area” by the developers nearly 50 years ago. Instead, we got massive real estate developments stuffed between two major wilderness areas — and the price we’re paying has now become undeniably evident. The once-pristine Gallatin River is now so polluted by nutrients flowing down from the golf courses, lawns, hotels, motels, restaurants, and failing septic systems that its once gin-clear waters now flow over a mass of neon-green algae where no algae should be growing – in a world-famous freestone trout stream with its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park.

Millions of dollars will be spent to try to ameliorate the eutrophication of the Gallatin and surrounding waters by the nutrient pollution from Big Sky, the Yellowstone Club, Moonlight, and Spanish Peaks development complexes. But as we’ve found time and time again, the “after the fact” efforts to remediate pollution are very poor substitutes for resisting the pollution before the damage occurs.

But real estate developments aren’t the only place Montanans have been burnt. Take the Golden Sunlight Mine near Whitehall, for instance. When the open pit gold mine was first proposed we were promised it would not be a repeat of Butte’s notoriously problematic Berkeley Pit because it was “new mining” — and much more environmentally conscious.

HAHAHA! Well, we learned that lesson alright. Now the nearly defunct mine produces groundwater pollution at the confluence of the Boulder and Jefferson Rivers that will have to be “treated in perpetuity.” Perpetuity means the pollution problems will be with us long after the mine is closed and all the much-lauded jobs are gone. If there’s an upside to that notorious example, it’s that it drove Montanans to approve a landmark citizen initiative to ban new cyanide heap leach gold mining in our state.

Like Big Sky, the Holland Lake Lodge proposal came with plenty of promises from the developers. But of the more than 6,500 comments received by the Forest Service, 99% opposed it. Many of those comments directly criticized the agency’s attempt to use a “categorical exclusion” to exempt the proposal from environmental analysis as well as public review, comment, and objection.

The Forest Service was rightfully condemned, not only for trying to use a categorical exclusion, but for ignoring the financial ownership issues which should have canceled the special use permit over a year ago. And to the surprise of many, the overwhelming public backlash also side-stepped the toxic political divisions so frequently employed to split us into “pro-development” and “anti-development” camps.

Due to inaccurate boundaries, acreages, and lack of important details, the Forest Service was finally forced to reject the proposal entirely and send it back to the developers to start over from scratch —  this time with full scoping, analysis and public involvement.

As Montanans showed, we’ve been burned enough by phony developer promises. Proving “the once burnt child fears the fire” we sent an important message by standing united — for our lands and waters, our fish and wildlife, and our future.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.