One Man's Land: Maclay family's Bitterroot Resort
August 28, 2010
by Dave Reese
Tom Maclay did everything the Montana way.
photo by Laira Fonner
He went to high school in Missoula, attended Montana State University and moved back to the family ranch in the Bitterroot Valley.
For nearly 20 years since he graduated from MSU with an agronomy degree, Maclay has raised cattle and hay, and did what he could to make a living. Now he wants to take the land that his great grandfather homesteaded in 1883 and raise something else: a ski resort.
Maclay’s proposed Bitterroot Resort would occupy 2,900 acres of his family’s land that sits at the foothills of Lolo Peak, at the north end of the Bitterroot Valley near Missoula.
It used to be, Maclay says, that a family could make a living off the land; raising cattle and hay. But as development around him encircled his family’s land, “it forced our hand” to do something else with the land, Maclay, 49, says. “The growth around the ranch has forced out agricultural operations.”
Maclay is not the first person to attempt a ski resort on Lolo Peak. In the 1960s and 1980s, studies were made on the feasibility of a ski area on this 9,000-foot peak. A U.S. Forest Service study done between 1966 and 1971 rated the Lolo Peak area as having some of the best snow in the nation, Maclay said.
With long, continuous fall lines on north-facing slopes on Carlton Ridge and Lolo Peak, the land on the proposed ski area has skiable terrain that compares to Aspen-Snowmass, Maclay said. The resort would offer 5,500 feet of vertical — longest of any single resort in the nation. “They (the Forest Service) did their homework very well.”
There’s just one problem, however.
Part of the ski resort would use federal land.
Only 1,000 acres of the overall 4,000 acres of the ski resort would be Maclay’s own land; the rest is Forest Service land. The entire Bitterroot Resort development would occupy 2,900 acres of land owned by the Maclays.
Maclay has been on fast forward with the project since 2003, going through the legal planning process with the county government. A former member of the city/county planning board, Maclay knows the hurdles that his proposed ski and golf resort must overcome before he can begin construction. “I was prepared for this,” Maclay said. “The Forest Service has been good neighbors for a long time. There are a lot of people that have to weigh in on this.”
In the meantime, he’s cut more than 20 ski runs on the forest just above his home, which sits at the base area. A large yurt sits at the top of the ski runs, serving as an outpost in the winter months, when he takes friends and potential clients on free ski tours of the land.
Maclay has hired Jim Gill, former manager of Breckenridge, Colo., ski area, to help pursue the dream of building a resort. On a tour of the resort in October 2007, Gill looked up at the mountains and saw gold — white gold. “This is some of the best snow in the country,” he said. “that’s exactly the type of inventory you need to keep people coming back to your resort year after year.”
The land is sandwiched between the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and Missoula and Bitterroot valleys — one of the fastest-growing areas of the nation.
At the time of the ski resort’s previous study, 62 percent of the local community voted in favor of a ski resort on Carlton Ridge. The effort never materialized, however, because the access off the north side of Lolo Peak via U.S. 12 did not make the ski area feasible and there was no real estate to be offered at the time — which is what pays for a ski area to be built.
The real estate part has changed, though, and now Maclay wants to use his land as access for a public ski resort. “Through wise use of real estate proceeds we can do this right the first time, and invest in the community,” he says.
The ski area would offer Nordic skiing as well.
Bitterroot Resort — despite its detractors — would offer something that few Montana ski areas offer — great snow with a long season. With 30 percent of Montana’s ski resorts having runs on south faces and being below 6,000 feet, the high, north-facing Bitterroot Resort would offer good snow late into spring, according to Maclay. Modern snowmaking equipment would augment what nature provides.
Maclay is pushing forward with the project, despite his detractors. It’s costing him money, of course. On a fall tour of the property, Maclay showed where he had to cut out a few trees to clear a Forest Service road that cuts across his property. Environmental groups sued Maclay for stealing trees. The stumps that remained from the trees show that they were small, spindly trees, no more than four or five inches in diameter, grown closely over the road. Yet Maclay ended up paying nearly $20,000 in fines for cutting those trees.
Maclay’s great-grandfather, David Richardson Maclay, was the first man to bring sheep to the Bitterroot Valley, and ran cattle at the south end of the valley near Sula when there were only about 500 people in the entire Bitterroot. “He was progressive and he had to be,” Maclay said. “He moved with the times.”
Now Maclay’s sons, who are sixth-generation Montanans, are poised to take over the land legacy that the Maclay family has built over the last century.
And family, Maclay said, is what this is all about. “The bottom line is, skiing is a wonderful sport for families.
“And this land hasn’t stayed the way it has by accident. It’s been a lot of hard work on the part of my forefathers.”