In the rearview 

A look back at the biggest news stories of 2008

Yes we did
“Did you touch him?”

When Barack Obama visited Missoula Saturday, April 5, the city buzzed for days about his speech inside the Adams Center and his brief appearance afterward at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Free tickets to the indoor event were gone in a day and the fire marshal turned away ticket holders hours before Obama took the stage in hopes of quelling the crowd. Nearly a thousand people caught in the overflow braved cold weather to catch the speech on the scoreboard above an otherwise empty football field, essentially stuck watching television outside. And no one complained. Most in attendance traded stories about where they were, whether they shook his hand, how they passed their baby into his arms. All the hope and change and “Yes we can” of a standard stump speech boiled down to an electric “I was there” moment akin to if the Beatles visited Zoo Town circa 1964.

Surprisingly, Obama’s stopover was just one of many involving a national politician trying his or her best to connect with western Montana voters. During the lead-up to Montana’s meaningful June primary—a vote usually rendered moot by earlier votes, but vital in the drawn-out prelims this year— locals clamored to see John Edwards on campus, Karl Rove fundraising at the DoubleTree and Hillary Clinton holding court inside an airport hangar. Heck, Bill Clinton campaigned enough in the region to practically gain residency—and spent a night imbibing with locals at the Mo Club.

In the end, Obama’s strong showing in the primary prompted his campaign to open 12 offices across the state and make a serious run at taking Big Sky Country in the general election. The Democratic nominee furthered his goal of competing in all 50 states by tapping University of Montana alumnus and up-and-coming Dem organizer Jim Messina as his campaign chief of staff. Obama didn’t win Montana—John McCain, who never visited nor opened an office in the state, won by three percentage points—but he did sway enough key states to reach the White House, sending scores of Missoulians into the streets to celebrate.

Locally, the elections delivered considerably less intrigue and change. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Rep. Denny Rehberg and Sen. Max Baucus all won easily against long-shot competitors. Democrats took every seat on the state’s Land Board, highlighted by incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who became the first American Indian woman elected to a statewide executive office anywhere in the country. Democrats also continued to dominate Missoula elections, with Michele Landquist joining the county commissioners and Gail Gutsche the Public Service Commission.

While the results were relatively predictable, the local races did offer some juicy scandal. A desperate GOP received nothing but poor press and a judicial spanking after challenging the voter registration of more than 6,000 Montanans less than one month before Nov. 4. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy called the stunt “political chicanery” and Jake Eaton, executive director of the Montana Republican Party and the one who authored the challenge, quickly resigned “to pursue other interests.”

The Democrats, meanwhile, weren’t without their own follies. The major headlines followed Schweitzer after he boasted about rigging the state’s 2006 Senate election for Jon Tester at an event in Philadelphia. The gregarious governor ate crow and said he was “just joking,” although some Republicans weren’t so quick to take his word. It’s something that will surely be mentioned as the two sides work things out in the upcoming 2009 Montana Legislature.


Plum tiring

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey arrived in Missoula April 28 to discuss a topic stirring western Montana for most of the winter: the U.S. Forest Service’s nearly complete negotiations with land trust Plum Creek to update its public road easements for residential development. The occasion drew heads of county government from across the region looking for answers on why the deal transpired behind closed doors.

But Rey didn’t oblige. County commissioners and County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg left the meeting feeling Rey merely deflected their concerns, which pertain mostly to the Forest Service empowering Plum Creek to develop large tracts of the Wildland-Urban Interface. The county filed a Freedom of Information Act request for easement documents early in the summer and spent the rest of the year pressuring the Forest Service to comply.

Plum Creek responded to the controversy by stressing its intent not to recklessly develop the trust’s vast Montana holdings. In June, the company signed a deal with the state to transfer 320,000 acres of forestland into conservation for $510 million in public funds. Participation in the deal, dubbed the Montana Legacy Project, might have cost Plum Creek its Missoula County zoning veto under state law, though the experts still seem confused on this issue.

However, whatever points Plum Creek scored through the Legacy Project didn’t transfer to the Forest Service. An Oct. 10 letter from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the agency and its director for doing public business in the dark. Sen. Jon Tester, after meeting with Rey, formally asked for a probe into the entire negotiation process in early November.

Rey has announced his plans to finalize the easement updates before Obama takes office along with the new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) leaders.


Cut off
Several months before the slow housing market forced most of Montana’s wood product industry to close its doors, Stimson Lumber Co. announced its plans to shutter the Bonner mill. Employees of the 122-year-old facility received 60-day termination notices on March 18. The plant’s machinery fell silent in May.

About the same time as Portland, Ore.-based Stimson began looking for an industrial buyer, the state turned its attention to the property’s apparent environmental problems. On Aug. 5, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper visited Bonner to announce the state’s plan to clean up sediment in and around an old cooling pond contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals.

Opper estimated the cost of sediment removal alone at $5 million. Former millers told the Independent that the facility’s closet contains many more pollution skeletons. Additionally, a series of alleged encroachments upon the state-owned Blackfoot River began constricting the waterway’s flow once federal cleanup crews removed the Milltown Dam in March.

Attorney General Mike McGrath filed a Dec. 17 lawsuit asking the Montana Fourth Judicial District to order the removal of all Stimson facilities allegedly encroaching upon public riverbed. The state also seeks damages for the public nuisance and potential health hazard—money that could serve to recoup state cleanup costs for the whole deal.

How the company plans to pay for the cleanup if the court rules in the state’s favor is another matter. Stimson failed to locate an agreeable buyer at $16 million—though, local developer Scott Cooney reported making a generous offer at one point—and liquidated much of the mill’s gear during an October auction. The property itself still has no buyer.


Collapse
The nation’s economic crisis arrived late to Big Sky Country, but it still hit certain industries fairly hard.

The shriveling wood products industry—heavily impacted by a nationwide drop in new home starts—steepened its precipitous decline in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. Locally, the Stimson mill in Bonner shut down completely (see above), while seasonal layoffs impacted both the Smurfit-Stone pulp mill in Frenchtown and the Pyramid sawmill in Seeley Lake. Meanwhile, Tricon in St. Regis dropped half of its workforce in Mineral County and Plum Creek slashed payrolls across the Flathead.

Lee Enterprises, saddled with debt from its 2005 Pulitzer acquisition, cut jobs at several of its Montana dailies, including the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic.

The tourism industry also took a sizable hit. According to a study by UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research that compared 2007 and 2008 numbers, tourists spent 67 percent less on guides and outfitters; 44 percent less on licenses and entrance fees; and 36 percent less on retail purchases. That resulted in some tourist businesses cutting back, with the most notable example coming Oct. 13 when the swanky Blackfoot River resort Paws Up sent 70 employees home for the season.


Finally, few Missoulians could ignore the economy’s effect on local retail. The autumn and early winter witnessed the closure of several noteworthy storefronts, including downtown stalwart Stoveruds.

Perhaps the lone silver lining to the economic crash came in the form of fuel price relief prompted by a massive drop in demand. At one point during the summer, regular gas rose above $4 per gallon in the Missoula area. Most Missoulians responded to the spike by embracing alternative transportation, with Mountain Line, for example, recording a record number of riders.


A fiery end
Scott Waldron’s ability to avert tragedy in the 2007 Black Cat Fire failed to translate to the polls when citizens voted in a fiscally conservative majority to the Frenchtown Rural Fire District Board of Trustees during a spring special election.

Tension between the chief and the new anti-regulation board peaked in the late summer when Waldron declared board member Glenn Green’s alleged activities against him a breech of contract. Waldron accused Green of improper investigation and took a lengthy leave of absence to work on subdivision review for the county—a responsibility the new trustees had officially nixed as a department function since being voted into office.

Green, along with trustees Ray Winn and Mitchell Hicks, took issue with the fact that Waldron announced his leave during “extreme fire danger”—something, they said, that led to the dismissal of district employees in the past. The board then ordered the chief to resume his duties by Sept. 8 or he would be terminated.

Waldron accepted the termination and demanded compensation due under his contract. The district hired an attorney to deal with the chief’s claim, but drew further criticism for making the decision outside of public meetings. No resolution has been announced.


The other red meat
The region continued to struggle with its strategy for controlling the ungulate bacterial disease brucellosis, with the typically bison-centric debate expanding into new fronts.

Record snowfall in the late winter forced hundreds of park bison into the ranges surrounding West Yellowstone and Gardiner, where federal cowboys corralled, trapped and sent more than 1,600 animals off to slaughter amid renewed national protest.

Despite culling the Yellowstone herd to its legal threshold, authorities also confirmed June 9 the transmission of brucellosis to a cow in the Paradise Valley. The Montana Department of Livestock quickly winnowed the probable sources of the infection down to wild elk, though some environmentalists still suspect a bovine host. The USDA followed procedure in revoking the state’s brucellosis-free status after some months of inaction. Wildlife advocates suspect the delay provided ample time for the livestock industry to, as one activist put it, “Shoot, shovel and shut up.”

Before the summer ended, brucellosis management in elk emerged as a topic of discussion. In August, two Helena livestock groups authored a preliminary plan to track and destroy infected animals found near a positive diagnosis in cattle. Schweitzer conversely responded with a suggestion to create a special high-risk classification region around the park.

Schweitzer also called on his Wyoming counterpart to close the Cowboy State’s many elk feedlots that reportedly serve as reservoirs for the disease. Dropping the feedlots drew strong support from Montana and Idaho, but not Wyoming, where the lots play heavily into the tourism economy.

At a Sept. 22 meeting of the Board of Livestock, the panel began looking at the available options for dealing with the elk problem. Before the meeting ended, the board’s two holdouts from former Gov. Marc Racicot’s administration resigned in protest, citing a lack of transparency within the agency as cause. Both supported the cattle industry’s position on brucellosis management, and opposed Schweitzer’s.

The disease issue suddenly shifted back to buffalo Dec. 17 as five state and federal agencies involved in the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) signed an update to the 2000 document in response to criticisms levied by the GAO earlier this year. Among other things, the update called for increased tolerance for bison exiting Yellowstone in search of winter pasture in the surrounding Montana valleys.

The IBMP directly outlines practices for managing the Yellowstone herd to the idealistic end of protecting range cattle from contracting brucellosis. However, the government’s April audit of the IBMP lambasted the plan’s previous working model, which failed in 2008 to protect Montana’s brucellosis-free status and prompted the largest slaughter of wild bison since the 19th century.
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