Emails show Forest Service hoped to keep Columbia Mountain tram plans quiet
A rainbow arches over Columbia Mountain in this file photo.
Hungry Horse News | September 15, 2023 12:00 AM
Newly revealed emails show that the Flathead National Forest under then supervisor Kurt Steele looked to keep a proposal of a tram up Columbia Mountain from public view for more than year prior to it being first proposed.
Pursuit, the company that owns several resort properties in the Flathead Valley and in Glacier National Park, floated the idea of the tram to the Forest Service in December 2021, according to emails obtained by the Swan View Coalition through a Freedom of Information Act request. Swan View shared the emails with the Hungry Horse News.
“ … I wanted to highlight that Pursuit is looking to limit the amount of agency folks that know about this right now to ensure that it doesn’t leak out to the public before they are ready,” Steele wrote in an email to T. David Smith, director of public and governmental relations and office of grants and agreements for the Forest Service’s Northern Region.
Swan View Coalition Chairman Keith Hammer said shortly after the conservation organization learned of the tram proposal they filed the Freedom of Information request.
“I bet they redact everything,” Hammer said he recalled when he filed the request. “And that’s what they did.”
He said any details on the tram itself were redacted. According to a letter sent to Hammer, 149 pages of the proposal were redacted due to “trade secrets” and other financial information provided by Pursuit in the proposal.
The tram idea was never officially made public — the Hungry Horse News found out through confidential sources in December 2022, more than a year after the first emails by Steele to his colleagues.
“The process where the public comes into play is when it becomes the NEPA process,” Flathead Forest spokesperson Kira Powell said about the emails.
NEPA is the standard environmental review, which the tram project would have been subject to if it had moved forward, but the Forest Service rejected it before then, Powell noted.
When asked about the proposal at that time, the Forest Service said the tram would require an amendment of the Forest Service plan. Under the current Forest Plan, most of Columbia Mountain is designated as primitive non-motorized use, Powell noted. It’s also inventoried roadless area and listed under the forest plan as “backcountry,” which includes “a variety of backcountry recreational experience, ranging from nonmotorized year-round to motorized summer and over-snow areas and routes.”
The area is also core grizzly bear habitat.
“It wasn’t compatible with the forest plan,” Powell said.
But it appears the Forest Service was at least considering amending the plan to accommodate the tram, according to one email obtained by the Swan View Coalition.
“Bringing you into the conversation about this potential project on the Flathead NF because it’s coming from investors who apparently have the financial resources to build a tramway, meaning they likely have political savvy also. As you can see from Kurt’s list of priorities for the Flathead, this may not be #1 and he may have to convey that message at some point. No specific ask at this time, but at some point Kurt may need your sage communication advice and skills in messaging where this fits in the Forest priority project list to congressional staffers and the company itself. Thanks,” wrote Keith Lannom, who was deputy regional forester for Region 1 at the time to Smith, carbon copying it to Steele as well.
At the time, the Forest Service also said the company had first proposed it in June — when it appears it actually proposed it earlier than that by at least six months.
The tram, under Pursuit’s plan, would have had a base on Forest Service land just to the north of the South Fork of the Flathead Bridge in Hungry Horse.
Hammer likened the tram proposal to similar issues at Holland Lake, where a company there was looking, and still is — to expand the resort on public land on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
He was critical of the process, where the public is left out until a project is all but secured and the public gets a month or less to comment.
“The Forest Service is helping these corporations blind side [the public] until it’s too late to do anything,” Hammer claimed.
Steele stepped down as forest supervisor in June and has taken a deputy directorship position in ecosystem planning.
A successor has not been named.