Skiing, or wheeling and dealing?

New resorts smell a lot like real estate bonanzas

  • Determined to build the Bitterroot Resort on Lolo Peak, Tom Maclay has already cut ski runs on his land, right up to the border of the national forest

    Chad Harder

MISSOULA, Montana — With an urban population topping 65,000, Missoula’s drivers can’t escape idling at the intersection of five major streets, locally known as "Malfunction Junction." But even while they stew in traffic jams, drivers heading out of town can find solace on the southern horizon, where Lolo Peak rises.

The 9,096-foot rocky summit acts as a gateway to hundreds of square miles of wild backcountry. Motorists who’d rather be outdoors look yearningly toward a popular trailhead at the peak’s base, only 45 minutes away.

Now, however, one man wants to change that horizon. Tom Maclay, a fifth-generation rancher who owns nearly 3,000 acres along a flank of Lolo Peak, has asked the U.S. Forest Service for permission to cut ski runs on 10,000 acres of the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests, right up to the summit.

Maclay’s resort would be one of the nation’s largest, covering his forests and meadows with an estimated 2,200 housing units, plus a golf course, amphitheater, hotel, shops and restaurants.

In public meetings, Maclay says his project will create jobs and expand the local tax base. "This land has too much going for it, not to try (to develop it)," he told a crowd in a December meeting, according to the Missoulian. "It’s now a question of whether the community wants to get behind it."

Yet many local people, ranging from other ranchers to biologists and hikers, already oppose the development. "Someone is going to make a bunch of money, and the public is going to lose 10,000 acres of prime recreational land and wildlife habitat," says Bob Clark, local Sierra Club representative.

Opponents fear impacts even beyond the disruption of several roadless areas and a 900-acre "research natural area," all habitat for bull trout, rare plants, and possibly wolves and lynx. Pointing to the experience of other resort towns, they warn that the development would inflate local real estate prices, drive up property taxes, create undesirable low-wage jobs that would attract migrant workers, and make traffic jams even worse.

Maclay’s proposal is part of a trend that seems to defy gravity. The number of skier visits has increased only 6 percent in the last decade, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Snow conditions this winter have been poor in Montana and Idaho, and scientists predict that global warming will continue to shrink ski seasons (see story, page 8). Yet many developers are forging ahead with plans to create new resorts, trying to cash in on their proximity to public lands.

Every season is profit season

The West’s newest resort, Tamarack, north of Boise, Idaho, just finished its first full winter of downhill skiing. Attempting to sidestep federal regulations, it has developed ski runs on about 2,100 acres of leased state-owned land. Now it wants the state to acquire 12,000 acres of federal land through a land swap, for additional ski runs and hiking trails. Meanwhile, Tamarack’s real estate sales, on more than 1,000 acres of private land, have been spectacular: The resort has already sold about 300 residential units and lots for more than $170 million, and it expects to sell six times that many lots and units eventually.

Tamarack has hit the town of Donnelly like a "freight train," according to local real estate broker Carol Amburgy. Prices for existing homes and raw land in the former timber-mill town have "doubled, tripled, even quadrupled" in the last year. Rents have also soared, she says, and newcomers are crowding in: "Affordable housing is gone. If you’re a local working person, and you haven’t bought something yet, you’re out of luck."

Another developer plans to build 875 units at the base of Idaho’s Grand Targhee resort, which would increase that resort’s housing eightfold. And in Colorado, a billionaire wants to create a controversial resort of more than 10,000 people near Wolf Creek Ski Area (HCN, 2/7/05: Developers push ahead with mammoth ski village). In Oregon, the Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort swapped private land for 620 acres of Hood River County land in 2001. It wants to add hundreds of new housing units, shops and a golf course; environmentalists are battling in court to reverse that swap (HCN, 6/24/02: Mount Hood recreation may go big time).

Such developments, while cast as ski resorts, actually profit most from other sources: "The growth in the resort industry is in four-season resorts — mostly in summer business and real estate," says Steve Stuebner, Tamarack’s director of recreation development. Tamarack will have two or three golf courses, boating on Cascade Lake, tennis, fishing, hiking and mountain biking.

An economic downer?

Maclay’s Bitterroot Resort would compete with six ski areas within a 100-mile radius. "It’s not a ski area (proposal)," Clark says, "it’s a huge real estate development."

Ironically, the proposed resort might actually put a damper on Missoula’s economic growth, says Steve Seninger, an economist with the University of Montana. Entrepreneurs, drawn to the Missoula area by natural amenities like Lolo Peak, have created thousands of well-paying jobs during the last decade, many of them in health care and business services. "Public lands, and access to them, contribute significantly to the kind of growth we’ve experienced," he says. "Why would we want to add low-wage, low-skill jobs to our employment base?"

Several previous attempts to build a ski resort on Lolo Peak have failed, and Maclay faces a federal review process that could take years. But he’s determined: He’s already had logging crews cut ski runs on his land. He’s also suing the Forest Service, saying he has a right to use an old road to an irrigation dam in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

In mid-March, the Forest Service denied Maclay permission to develop the small research natural area, and told him that he can only carry out the rest of his proposal if he can get it included in both national forests’ long-range plans. Those plans are being revised now with public input. A spokesman for the developer says Maclay is resolved to press ahead and win approval.

The author writes from Missoula. Ray Ring, HCN’s editor in the field, contributed to this story.

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