Forest Service again rejects Maclay's Bitterroot Resort proposal



The Lolo and Bitterroot national forests have denied Tom Maclay's last-ditch appeal for a permit to build the proposed Bitterroot Resort on public land below Lolo Peak, a decision that could mark the end of Maclay's decade-long quest to build the four-season resort, and result in him losing to foreclosure the adjacent 3,000-acre ranch that's been in his family since the late 1870s.

Tom Maclay

The Forest Service said today that Maclay's proposal "is not consistent with all of the initial screening criteria." That's partly because the agency found Maclay's plans for a gondola in the Carlton Ridge Research Natural Area, on the Lolo National Forest, to be incompatible with the area's intended use, which is to provide "non-manipulative research, observation and study of undisturbed ecosystems" for perpetuity. On the Bitterroot National Forest, the proposal's ski lifts and runs didn't jibe with the forest plan's emphasis on "motorized and nonmotorized, semiprimitive recreation activities and elk security."

Read the letter from forest supervisors Deborah Austin and Julie King here (PDF).

Their reasoning is consistent with the agency's previous rejections of Maclay's special-use permit applications, in 2004, 2005 and 2007.

The latest permit request, filed in April, came about two months after Maclay's ranch was auctioned off on the Missoula County Courthouse steps. Maclay's lender, MLIC Asset Holdings, part of the insurance giant MetLife, had foreclosed on the $19 million loan it gave him to begin developing the resort, a debt that had grown to more than $23 million with interest. MLIC bid $22.5 million to essentially buy the loan back. The auction started the clock, giving Maclay a year to find investors to bail him out and save the ranch.

This time Maclay asked for access to about 12,000 acres of public land, four times the acreage he'd sought in an earlier, scaled-down proposal that was also unsuccessful. In May, Tim Newhart, the Bitterroot Resort's spokesman, acknowledged that the bold proposal arose from the "imminent need for the Bitterroot Resort to attract investment, given the time frame that Tom's on. The clock is ticking. If indeed he can push forward a proposal and even get some indicators of enthusiasm on it from the Forest Service, it plays well into a potential investor bringing resources to the table. ... It may seem aggressive, but we're putting forth our vision of what we think the project should be."

Newhart was unable, and Maclay unavailable, to comment on today's decision.

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