Good riddance, 2009 

Looking back at a year with its fair share of unsettling news

The recession

Nearly every big Montana news story this year was seen through the lens of the nation's biggest story—the economic recession. Unemployment rates in some corners of Montana hit their highest levels since 1990 (when county unemployment rates first began to be tracked). Western Montana's booming housing market spiraled back to earth, putting countless development projects on hold and countless real estate agents out of work. Even the state's budget surplus, projected just last year to be $1 billion, went into the red. Unfortunately, there are few signs of a rebound in 2010.

In Missoula, most notably, the recession proved to be the last nail in the coffin for the long-struggling Smurfit-Stone containerboard plant, which will close for good on Dec. 31. The shutdown spells the loss of more than 400 high-paying jobs, and the loss of Missoula County's second-largest taxpayer. It will also, no doubt, have a devastating trickle-down effect. For instance, United Way states that contributions from the Frenchtown mill's employees totaled more than $1.4 million since 1997.

click to enlarge Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, conducted regular meetings with a group of moderate senators that came to be known as the “Gang of Six” in hopes of hashing out a bipartisan solution to reform health care. The Senate finally garnered enough votes to pass a watered down version of the bill this week. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAX BAUCUS
  • Photo courtesy of Max Baucus
  • Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, conducted regular meetings with a group of moderate senators that came to be known as the “Gang of Six” in hopes of hashing out a bipartisan solution to reform health care. The Senate finally garnered enough votes to pass a watered down version of the bill this week.

The shocking loss of a long-time economic anchor is familiar to residents of the Flathead, another area hit especially hard by the recession. The Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant closed in October, and mills throughout northwest Montana continued to shed jobs or close outright. The unemployment rate in Flathead County peaked at 12.6 percent in March, almost double the average rate for that month since 2000, and the area's highest overall rate since 1990. The Flathead's most reliable industry of late—growth—also faltered, with real estate sales slowing to a crawl. For example, it took until July for the year's first lakefront property on Flathead Lake to sell. The home originally hit the market in 2007 for about $4 million—and it sold for $1.1 million.

The state's tanking real estate market contributed to one of the highest-profile economic stories of the year—the Yellowstone Club bankruptcy saga. The resort for the super-rich collapsed under the weight of a $375 million loan and the messy divorce of its owners, Tim and Edra Blixseth. Other resorts have floundered, too. Big Sky's Moonlight Basin filed for bankruptcy protection in November. In October, the proposed Bitterroot Resort's creditor filed foreclosure papers.

The economy hit the university system, as well. The University of Montana finds itself scrambling to address a $3.6 million hole left by the withdrawal of federal stimulus funds. "We are cutting into bone—muscle and bone," UM President George Dennison told reporters about impending cutbacks. University wages, meanwhile, have been frozen for the next two years, while tuition continues to inch up. Between 2005 and 2010, in-state tuition will have jumped 19.6 percent.

Some economists optimistically point to signs that the economy is on the verge of a turnaround. In Missoula and elsewhere in the state, the federal first-time homebuyer credit has breathed life into the real estate market. Montana also received some $870 million in federal stimulus dollars for, primarily, highway projects around the state. While the stimulus money certainly helps, most agree that it's still not enough to stem the economic tide.

W.R. Grace acquitted

In a trial some 10 years in the making, a jury in U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's Missoula courtroom acquitted W.R. Grace & Co. and three of its former executives of all crimes in connection with the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana.

The May ruling deflated Libby residents and their legion of sympathetic supporters, all of whom saw the trial as hope for at least a smidgen of retribution against Grace. More than 270 people have died and 1,800 more sickened by asbestos in the town.

But the outcome wasn't a surprise. "From the nature of the charges themselves to the statute of limitations, from the rulings prohibiting evidence Molloy deemed prejudicial to the final jury instructions," wrote Andrea Peacock in the Indy after the verdict, "Grace's lawyers prevailed on nearly every point that gave them an edge, making it all but impossible for the 12 jurors to come to any other conclusion."

Still, the feel of injustice remained. The extent of it was further revealed toward the end of the trial when the federal government released a damning memorandum detailing the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) inadequate cleanup of asbestos in Libby, three years after the Indy first submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the document.

The memo, written by Special Agent Cory Rumple in 2006 and known as the "Rumple Report," summarized the findings of an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation into the EPA's cleanup. The memo made OIG—but no one else—aware of infighting within the EPA, a disconnect between scientific evidence and cleanup procedures, and "unconscionable" documents distributed to Libby residents that assured safe levels of asbestos exposure.

Then, in June, the EPA—for the first time ever—declared Libby a public health emergency, promising millions of dollars for the town's cleanup. An initial $6 million health care grant was sent to Libby in November to provide treatment and health care screenings for its residents.

Baucus and health care

Not since former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield ushered in the passage of Medicare in 1965 has a Montana legislator played such a prominent role in developing historic legislation as Sen. Max Baucus did in 2009 to shape health care reform. But some say Baucus' involvement did more to hurt the cause of reform than help it.

Baucus, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, spent more than a year holding hearings and educating committee members on the nuances of the issue. Despite his commitment to the issue, Baucus' motivations were questioned early on. The industry he was supposedly trying to reform had given him more money than it's given almost any other member of Congress. It was revealed that five of Baucus' former staffers represent a total of 27 different organizations in the health care industry. Critics claimed that Baucus worked under the veil of "bipartisanship" to do the biddings of the companies that fill his campaign coffers.

Even those who gave Baucus the benefit of the doubt said the senator, if he wanted to claim a legacy in line with Mansfield's, needed to step up and provide the necessary leadership to solve the problem. With a so-called watered-down bill set to finally pass the Senate this week, many believe Baucus failed to make the step.

click to enlarge The recession sent Missoula County’s unemployment rate to its highest level since 2003, hitting 6.9 percent in February. The month before, the Missoula Job Service reported more than 7,000 walk-ins, a record. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The recession sent Missoula County’s unemployment rate to its highest level since 2003, hitting 6.9 percent in February. The month before, the Missoula Job Service reported more than 7,000 walk-ins, a record.

Tester and wilderness

Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is the first-term senator's highest-profile and most ambitious piece of legislation—and predictably sparked a considerable amount of debate throughout the state.

The bill, which strives to find common ground between conservationists and the timber industry, brings together three separate community-based conservation efforts in western Montana. If passed, it would designate the first wilderness areas in the state since 1980, while also mandating thousands of acres of public land be cut every year to buoy the state's floundering timber industry. Tester hammered out the bill with input from conservationists, recreationists and loggers, and introduced it to a supportive Townsend crowd in July.

The groups involved in crafting the bill say it's an outstanding example of once-bitter rivals working together. Meanwhile, critics question the exclusive nature of the groups' negotiations, the bill's financial sustainability considering the shrinking market for wood products, and the legal precedents it could set.

The bill is potentially precedent setting in a couple ways. Martin Nie, a professor of natural resource policy at UM, worries the bill could create the expectation that future wilderness bills must be packaged with economic development provisions. In addition, multiple environmentalists say the bill's language could alter the standard for what's permissible in wilderness areas across the country. For example, the bill allows military helicopters to land inside the Highlands, a portion of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest slated for wilderness designation. The U.S. Forest Service says that would make it the first bill to authorize such landings in any wilderness area in the country. Traditionally, even bicycles aren't allowed in wilderness areas.

According to a poll commissioned by The Wilderness Society, 67 percent of Montanans back the bill, which suggests that Tester's strategy to end the decades-old gridlock between conservationists and the timber industry is working. It's telling, though, that some conservationists, even with the prospect of designating more than a half million acres of wilderness, are hoping the bill gets cut down in Congress.

The Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests held its first hearing on the subject Dec. 17 and it didn't exactly bode well for Tester's bill as currently written. Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service, said the bill would require logging levels in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that are "likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable."

Wolf hunt

Few things in Montana and the West raise hackles like wolves. It proved especially true in 2009, as Montana and Idaho held their first wolf hunting seasons following the contentious canines' removal from the endangered species list.

In Montana, hunters killed 74 of roughly 500 wolves during a hunting season that ended at the end of November, coming just one shy of the state quota. In Idaho, 127 of its some 850 wolves had been killed as of press time. Idaho extended its season until March 2010. Its quota is 220.

Montana wildlife officials say the first hunting experience was a success, though they admit mistakes were made. Most regrettably, of the nine wolves shot in the backcountry north of Yellowstone National Park, four proved to be from Yellowstone's Cottonwood Creek pack, one of the park's most studied packs.

Critics of the hunt charge that the backcountry deaths undermined the hunt's premise: to do away with wolves that prey on livestock.

"If we had known nine wolves would be taken in that backcountry area, I think we would do things differently, and I, for one, will think about that in the future," Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commissioner Bob Ream told the Helena Independent Record.

But despite some 200 dead wolves, the environmentalist groups that filed suit to reverse the wolf's delisting found consolation in U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's September denial of their request for an injunction to stop the wolf hunts. While Molloy wrote that environmentalists didn't meet the burden for issuing a preliminary injunction, he said they "are likely to be able to meet the burden to show the balance of equities tip in their favor. They would also likely prevail in showing an injunction is in the public interest." Molloy's ruling implies the groups will likely prevail in their ongoing suit—also in District Court—to send wolves back to the endangered species list.

Barkus boat crash

On the evening of Aug. 27, a 24-foot motorboat driven by Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, slammed into Flathead Lake's rocky shore, badly injuring all aboard. Passengers included Barkus' wife Kathleen, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, Rehberg's state director, Dustin Frost, and Rehberg's deputy chief of staff, Kristin Smith. Frost suffered a fractured skull and was in a coma for about 10 days. Rehberg required surgery to repair a broken ankle. Barkus broke his pelvis.

Details of the crash were initially difficult to piece together. Rehberg quickly offered his side of the story through his former state director Erik Iverson, who said that Rehberg's blood alcohol content registered 0.05. But the extent of Barkus's impairment was the subject of speculation for more than a month, partly due to a court-imposed silence as Flathead County prosecutors and investigators sorted out what happened.

Turned out, records show Barkus had been drinking. In October, charging documents revealed that Barkus' blood alcohol content registered 0.16—twice the legal limit—45 minutes after the crash. Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan charged Barkus with felony criminal endangerment and two counts of felony negligent vehicular assault for operating a motorboat under the influence of alcohol and causing "serious bodily harm" to two of the passengers.

Frost, the most seriously injured, is a UM graduate. He was transferred from Kalispell Regional Medical Center to Community Medical Center in Missoula two weeks after the accident, and then released a week later. Frost continues to recover at his home in Billings.

Whether or not the crash will be a political liability for Rehberg, who is up for reelection in 2010, is up in the air. One of his challengers, Dennis McDonald, used the incident to call Rehberg's actions "irresponsible" and question the representative's decision making.

Barkus' trial is currently scheduled for April 5, 2010, but last week his attorney said he wants the three felonies against Barkus dismissed, or at least the evidence suppressed and the trial moved out of town. Depending on how the trial goes, the story could reappear on this list again next year.

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