The Bitterroot National Forest rejected four previous plans for a ski resort outside Missoula, Mont. But the Forest Service has finally given approval for a special use permit for the national forest lands at the Bitterroot Resort.

The fifth proposal for a 99-year special use permit included less obtrusive use of the forest. The resort requested use of smaller acreage, but also agreed to lessen the number of trees they would cut down and to build fewer new trails.

The controversial resort already owns ski runs cut into private lands on Tom Maclay's ranch outside Lolo. Proposed development plans on national forest lands above the resort include Nordic skiing, gladed alpine skiing, guided snowcoach ski touring, and mountain bike riding.

The resort's first proposals put it on track to be one of the largest resorts in North America with an 11,000-acre ski area. The Forest Service rejected those plans. The resort trimmed down its proposed size, now seeking to develop about 3,000 acres. The Forest Service found that size to be more reasonable and less invasive to the adjacent wilderness area.

But the deal is not sealed yet. The Forest Service initial approval is only the first hurdle in the screening process. The resort must now show they have the funds and expertise to develop the project, go through an environmental review process, and submit to public comment.

Meanwhile, the controversy over Bitterroot Resort continues to rage in Missoula, lining up those who want the recreation access and economic boost against those who want to protect public lands and thwart a potential Aspen clone.