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Bunker Park cabin project put on hold

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | April 8, 2021 11:00 AM

A proposal from Flathead National Forest to develop a small network of rental cabins at Bunker Park has been temporarily placed on hold after the project drew more than 250 comments from the public.

Flathead National Forest Spokeswoman Tami MacKenzie said in an email that officials “would like to take the time to thoroughly review all input before determining how best to proceed.” She added it’s likely there will be additional public engagement opportunities in the future, before any formal decision on the project is made.

“Scoping of any project is intended to bring the perspective of the public into our process and is a highly valuable tool as we work through planning, analysis, and implementation,” MacKenzie wrote. “We thoroughly appreciate the feedback that we have received to date.”

The agency said the Bunker Park Campground — a backcountry spot available to trailers and tent campers — has seen decreased use in recent years after the 2015 Bear Creek Fire swept the area. Officials believe rental cabins would attract more people to the area again and lighten the load on other Flathead National Forest cabins, which have annual occupancy rates of 87%.

The project calls for building four cabins, ranging from 300 to 600 square feet in size, at the existing Bunker Park Campground, a remote destination in the Spotted Bear Ranger District that is situated about 1 mile from the protected Bob Marshall Wilderness. Additional vault toilets, 20-by-30-foot parking pads, a wildlife corral, would also be included as part of the project, according to a March 9 scoping letter from District Ranger Scott Snelson.

THE PROJECT drew quick opposition from several organizations, including the Swan View Coalition, National Parks Conservation Association and Montana Wilderness Association.

The organizations primarily highlighted concerns related to wildlife in the area, which is designated as critical habitat for lynx and is frequented by species including elk and mountain goats. Nearby Bunker Creek also is designated as critical habitat for the bull trout and is adjacent to known wolverine denning sites.

The organizations also said the cabins would generally increase human use in the area, particularly in the winter months as they would attract snowmobilers to the area. While Forest Service officials say they believe the long journey to the cabins would be a deterrent to snowmobilers, the organizations maintain they could pack in enough fuel to stay for multiple days and are likely to trespass into the nearby Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Other concerns included the agency’s preliminary determination that the project was categorically excluded from needing an environmental assessment (EA), though MacKenzie noted recently that other evaluations would have been performed. The National Parks Conservation Association noted the rules that might allow for such a project to be excluded are being litigated and have also been scrutinized by the Biden Administration.

In an objection letter, the association said “The Forest needs to produce the supporting records that clearly show that replacing an existing lightly-used tent/trailer camping area with four rental cabins does not have an impact on wildlife, wilderness and forest resources through a proper EA or EIS.”

SWAN VIEW Coalition Chairman Keith Hammer said he is concerned the Forest Service won’t be able to fund long-term maintenance at the backcountry structures. He said the agency already struggles to maintain its 16 existing rental cabins.

The Flathead National Forest recently received $200,000 in federal funding for deferred maintenance on the properties for this year.

A federal document on the funding, which is being provided through the Great American Outdoors Act, says the proposal includes a range of maintenance and improvement needs such as roof replacements, window replacements, septic tank repairs and appliance upgrades. The document explains the project would address issues that “cannot be covered by fees for the forest’s rental cabins.”

As it stands, the cabins are part of a popular national program that allows 95% of revenue gained to be used for maintenance and improvement costs. MacKenzie said the Service’s five-year collection average is around $140,000 annually for the rentals.

That money covers the ability to keep the cabins “open and functioning,” with some of the funds going toward the “needed upkeep of those annual maintenance needs,” MacKenzie said. She noted many of the existing cabins are either historical or eligible to be on the historic register; therefore, normal maintenance costs of the buildings are higher than average.

As for the proposed Bunker Park cabins, MacKenzie said any costs associated with their upkeep would be minimal for several years considering they would be new structures. She did not provide a long-term plan for how maintenance issues might be covered should they arise, but pivoted back to the original intent for building the cabins.

“The cabin rental program is in high demand on the forest and provides an outstanding opportunity and a unique way for individuals/families to enjoy the forest and is part of the multitude of recreational diversity the Flathead National Forest provides,” MacKenzie said.

She added, “We saw an even larger demand last year with the increase in use due to the pandemic. We are projecting to have an even larger demand this year. We also have the fact that our current cabins are occupied around 80% of the time, therefore, Ranger Snelson thought it would be good to get public feedback on the possibility of providing a new opportunity for this increase in recreational demand.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com