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Rental cabins proposed in remote area near the Bob

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | March 14, 2021 12:00 AM

In an effort to meet the growing demand for cabin rentals on the Flathead National Forest, agency officials are looking to develop a group of road-accessible cabins at Bunker Park Campground, a remote area near the Bob Marshall Wilderness within the Spotted Bear Ranger District.

The Forest Service is seeking public comment on the project, which proposes constructing four rental cabins at existing campground sites that can hold up to six people each. The cabins would range from 300 to 600 square feet in size and would include 20-by-30-foot parking pads, according to a March 9 scoping letter from District Ranger Scott Snelson.

The project also calls for the installation of a vault toilet, a 50-by-100-foot livestock corral and two stock trailer parking pads, a new groundwater well, information kiosk and a “nature playscape” that would include “various natural and artificial items” such as logs and rocks. One vault toilet, several fire rings and a bear-resistant food storage locker already exist at the property, which sits adjacent to Bunker Creek in the South Fork of the Flathead River drainage.

The add-ons, Snelson notes, would not increase capacity at the site.

Forest Service documents also say additional features, such as a barricade made of rock, earthen berm and other materials, would be included to protect Bunker Creek’s water quality and bull trout.

The project activities are expected to unfold between June 1 and Nov. 15, though the agency has not settled on a year yet. Once it is finalized, the cabins will be available for rent from May 21 to March 31.

According to Forest Service Spokeswoman Tami MacKenzie, although agency officials have not settled on a nightly price, the cost would “be in line” with what other Forest Service cabins are rented far, which range from $50 to $85 per night.

MacKenzie also said agency officials have not determined how many consecutive nights renters will be able to book the cabins, which will cost around $75,000 each to build. That funding could come Forest Service funding, partnerships, donations, grants, or a combination of those.

Stay limits at the Flathead National Forest’s other 16 rentable cabins range from three days to 16 days, with that range being lower in more highly used areas. MacKenzie said officials hope the public can help them determine the maximum night stay.

The public has until April 6 to submit their comments.

Snelson's letter explains the agency chose Bunker Park as the potential location for new cabins because recreational use of the site “sharply declined” after a 2015 wildfire in the area. The hope is that the cabins will draw more people to the site again and help meet the public’s demand for more road-accessible Forest Service cabins.

THE CABIN rental program began on the Flathead National Forest in 1991 and is part of the National Fee Demo program, which allows 95% of the revenue generated to be retained by the agency and used to cover cabin maintenance and improvement costs. The program generates around $80,000 annually.

The average annual occupancy rate of the cabins, Snelson notes, is currently 87%.

“These numbers demonstrate a high level of public demand and a need to provide additional cabin rental opportunities, particularly during the summer months,” he wrote.

MacKenzie explained the undertaking, should it move forward, would be a first for the Forest Service and is different from other cabins in that they would be new units built primarily for public recreational purposes. The majority of existing cabins and lookouts have been around for decades, offer historical significance and are fairly primitive in nature — qualities that make staying at the structures a unique and sought-out experience.

“This is really our first attempt to see what the community’s reaction is to us building new cabins. Recreation is booming in this area and we’ve definitely seen an increase in usage,” MacKenzie said.

HOWEVER, MEETING the demand is one of several concerns highlighted in a March 10 opposition letter from Swan View Coalition, an organization dedicated to “conserving community and quiet habitat for fish, wildlife and people,” according to its website.

“Simply put, your proposal is an unwarranted development in a far backcountry area that is as important to fish and wildlife as the adjoining wilderness. It will increase human use in the area and very likely be utilized by outfitters and their clients as an outpost,” wrote Ketih Hammer, the organization’s chairman. “Your proposal stands to have significant impacts on the recreating public, which has in the past been able to camp at Bunker Park without cabin rental fees, as well as significant impacts to fish and wildlife...”

HAMMER ALSO argues the proposal “reeks of empire building at the expense of public resources.”

Hard-sided living quarters, he maintains, would draw high numbers of people to the area, including snowmobilers in the winter months when delicate species such as lynx and wolverine are most active. Hammer said the Forest Service is “flat wrong” to think snowmobiling groups are going to be self-policing and not venture into nearby areas that are closed to over-snow vehicle activities.

Although Bunker Park is road-accessible and is open year-round, it’s a trek. And for snowmobilers, the journey is likely to burn a full tank of gas. Hammer said groups are likely to bring enough multiple days’ worth of fuel so they can ride in areas surrounding the cabin.

“The proposal will greatly expand the day-reach and fuel-reach of over-snow vehicles into the upper reaches of both forks of Bunker Creek, which are critical wildlife habitats, closed to over-snow vehicles and designated in the Forest Plan as the Alcove-Bunker proposed Wilderness,” Hammer wrote.

But MacKenzie said agency officials believe the journey into the cabins is likely a deterrent for snowmobilers because they would have to carry so much fuel in addition to their other overnight supplies. She also said if the agency discovered snowmobilers were venturing into restricted areas they would “adjust the availability of the cabin to specific groups.”

Hammer called on the Forest Service to either scrap the project all together or prepare an environmental assessment in order to determine if an environmental impact statement is required. According to Snelson, the proposal falls within a category of actions that are excluded from such documentation, though MacKenzie said the agency performs other environmental and wildlife studies prior to starting a project.

More information about the proposal can be found on the Flathead National Forest website. Electronic public comments may be submitted to comments-northern-flathead-spotted-bear@usda.gov with the subject line “Bunker Park Cabin Project.”

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