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Emails expose Forest Service's preferential treatment

by Daily Inter Lake
| September 17, 2023 12:00 AM

A recent public records request pulled the curtain back on Flathead National Forest’s dealings with a resort operator that had plans to install a tram lift to the top of Columbia Mountain, and the findings raise some ethical concerns.

Under Pursuit’s plan, the tram would have had a base on Forest Service land just to the north of the South Fork of the Flathead Bridge in Hungry Horse.

Knowing the project’s location and impact to the surrounding viewshed would be controversial, it appears former Flathead Forest supervisor Kurt Steele sought to help Pursuit keep the tram idea under wraps.

“ … 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 a December 2021 email to T. David Smith, director of public and governmental relations and office of grants and agreements for the Forest Service’s Northern Region.

The tram idea was never officially made public, but the Hungry Horse News learned about it through confidential sources in December 2022, more than a year after it was first floated.

“Why is a public agency helping a private corporation get the jump on the public and members of its own staff?” questioned Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer, after obtaining the email correspondence through a Freedom of Information Act request.

He equated it to the controversy that played out earlier this year with POWDR’s bid to expand Holland Lake Lodge in the Seeley-Swan Valley.

But the Forest Service assisting private stakeholders with proposals isn’t the issue. The federal agency has an obligation to guide companies like Pursuit and POWDR through the process to ensure certain criteria are met and no shortcuts are taken.

It’s no different than a developer working with a city planning and building department before a project goes to a public board for approval.

In the case of the tram, the Forest Service actually denied the idea before it reached the environmental review process because it would have required an amendment to the Forest Service plan, which flags Columbia Mountain for primitive non-motorized use.

But what is concerning is the apparent effort made by the forest’s top official to assist Pursuit in hiding the tram idea from public view, even going out of the way to advise staff of the company’s wishes to keep the project on the down low. It stinks of preferential treatment.

The supervisor works for the public and Steele was wrong to act as a de facto public relations manager on Pursuit’s behalf. In attempting to steer clear of controversy, Steele sowed mistrust of the forest’s commitment to impartiality and public transparency.