News & Features

Storylines That Could Define 2016

From elections to park milestones, here’s what to watch in the new year

Entering the new year, there are several interesting storylines worth keeping an eye on, including the race to the White House and the governor’s mansion. Here’s a breakdown of what to follow in 2016.

Governor Election

Voters will have plenty of decisions to make on Nov. 8. The presidential race is heating up as the nation prepares to elect a new commander in chief for the first time in eight years. In Montana, several other important offices are up for grabs, including the governorship.

Incumbent Steve Bullock, a Democrat first elected in 2012, is seeking another four-year term. Last week he named long-time state legislator and former Secretary of State Mike Cooney as his lieutenant governor and running mate. Cooney replaces Angela McLean, who resigned amid tension with Bullock and his staff.

Bullock’s potential Republican challengers include Bozeman businessman Greg Gianforte and Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson. Both men announced in June that they were strongly considering candidacies for governor. Republican Mark Perea, Libertarian Ron Vandevender and Independent Christopher Zarcone have already filed paperwork to run against Bullock. Casey Filler of Helena also filed to run and has not declared a political affiliation.

The lineup of official candidates will solidify by March leading up to the June 6 primary.

Bullock has an approval rating of 50 percent, according to a recent poll conducted by Montana State University Billings. Democratic candidates — Bullock and Brian Schweitzer — have won the past three elections for governor. Before that Republicans firmly held the position dating back to 1989.

U.S. Representative Race

Another significant election this year is Montana’s lone congressional seat. Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Whitefish, is running for a second two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives. His challengers so far are Denise Juneau, a Democrat who has served as the state’s superintendent of public education since 2008, and James St. Goddard, a Democrat and former vice chair of the Blackfeet Tribal Council. Juneau and St. Goddard will square off in the June primary. Republicans hold a strong advantage in the House with 247 seats to Democrats’ 188.

Forty-four percent of respondents approved of Zinke’s performance in office, while 21 percent disapproved, according to a recent poll of Montanans.

Voters in Montana will also decide on the attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor, superintendent of public instruction, public service commission and several state lawmakers.

Grizzly Bear Delisting Proposal

Just over 40 years ago, as grizzly bears nearly disappeared from the landscape, the federal government listed the iconic species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, enacting widespread protections for populations across the U.S. Montana, which is home to the largest population of grizzlies in the lower 48, is approaching a watershed moment now that there are nearly 1,000 grizzlies in this area and another 750 in the Yellowstone region.

Federal officials have said the species has recovered and is ready to be removed from the ESA. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to propose delisting the Yellowstone population first followed by the population of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in this region by late 2016. This decision will surely spark debate; several conservation groups have expressed opposition along with tribal governments that oppose the possibility of hunting grizzlies.

National Park Service Centennial

On Aug. 25, 2016, the National Park Service turns 100. As part of the centennial celebration, the agency is hosting festivities throughout the year at sites across the U.S. and urging Americans to rediscover its scenic wonders or find new ones to visit. The nation’s parks are already riding a wave of popularity; many of the most prominent sites, such as Yellowstone, set new visitation records in 2015. Overall visitation to national parks was on track to hit 300 million in 2015, besting last year’s all-time high of nearly 293 million. Glacier Park has broken its annual visitation mark two years in a row, surpassing 2.35 million people.

The influx of people could mean park officials have to adjust for the crowds. Glacier Park is preparing to unveil this spring a new study of its congested Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. The agency could propose several changes that could impact how visitors travel throughout Glacier. The list of options includes expanded parking, a larger fleet of free shuttles, an added emphasis on biking opportunities and controlled vehicle entry through a reservation system.

Flathead County’s Jail Crowding Problem

When the Flathead County Detention Center was built in 1985, it could hold 63 inmates. Now the jail located in downtown Kalispell holds more than 100 people on most nights, leading the sheriff’s office to shuffle around inmates and release others to make room for those deemed more dangerous. Sheriff Chuck Curry said traditionally the jail would house a mixture of people accused of or convicted of misdemeanor and felony crimes. But at one point last fall, 106 of the 108 inmates were charged with felonies. The county is searching for a property where a new jail could be established, but there does not appear to be any solutions in the near future, creating a worrisome scenario for law enforcement.

America’s Tumultuous Energy Sector

A year ago, crude oil was nearly $100 a barrel. Now it’s less than $40 a barrel, an 11-year low. One of the top storylines in 2015 was the dramatic drop in oil prices. For American consumers, it was welcome news as gas prices fell to $2 per gallon on average. Economists say this has also helped people pay down debt and increase savings, while also leading to a boost for retail sales. But the dropping commodity has also led to dramatic ripple effects, including severe impacts on oil-exporting states, such as North Dakota, and nations, such as Canada.

What will happen in 2016? It still appears to be a guessing game. Some analysts are predicting a price recovery for oil prices while traders appear to be predicting a stagnant market. The inventories of crude oil in the U.S. are the highest in eight decades.

Falling oil prices are one facet of the tumultuous American energy sector. Natural gas prices are also down sharply and the future for coal looks bleak, as mines across the country, including Montana, lay off employees and cut production.

Canada’s Loonie Letdown

Closely tied to the fall in crude oil prices, Canada’s economy closed out 2015 in rough shape while the U.S. dollar has improved substantially. The country’s oil-sensitive loonie has fallen to 72 cents U.S. Last year saw the second-biggest decline on record against the U.S. dollar, and this upcoming year could see even more challenges up north.

For Americans, this can be considered good news — $100 in U.S. currency is worth $138 in Canada. However, in the Flathead Valley, where retailers and real estate agents have depended heavily on Canadian visitors and part-time residents, the dropping loonie is considered worrisome and could cut back on revenues. Analysts predict the loonie will remain around 71 U.S. cents during the first quarter before slowly rising.

Lingering Drought

Pray for snow. Not only will skiers benefit from a good winter, but so will the region’s agriculture producers, who suffered through last year’s historic dry spell. Last winter was less than bountiful in Northwest Montana and the region is in desperate need of water after the driest spring and warmest summer on record. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack designated 15 Montana counties as primary natural disaster areas due to last year’s drought, including Flathead County. This also led to a severe wildfire season and hurt ranchers and farmers who are part of the state’s largest industry, agriculture.

The Completion of Kalispell’s Bypass

Crews are busy completing the long-awaited U.S. 93 Alternate Route, which will drastically change Kalispell’s transportation grid. How will it change? Well, for starters, drivers will now have a quicker route from the south end of town to the north end, without having to travel through the bustling heart of town. This could also reduce congestion in downtown and divert semitrucks to the bypass. City officials are considering changes to Main Street that could alter the number of lanes and parking layout, potentially reducing the thoroughfare from four lanes to three. This dramatic shift arrives at the same time Kalispell is preparing to revitalize its core area with the removal of the railroad tracks in downtown and the reconnecting of city streets, both changes that could lead to economic redevelopment in the area.

The Impacts of the Plum Creek Timber Merger

The news that Plum Creek Timber Company was merging with Weyerhaeuser was startling in Northwest Montana. When it officially purchases Plum Creek in the coming months, Weyerhaeuser will hold more than 13 million acres of timberland across the U.S., including a vast swath in Montana. Plum Creek operates mills in Columbia Falls and Evergreen and has more than 700 employees in Flathead County. Weyerhaeuser officials have been mum about any potential changes in Montana, including altering Plum Creek’s public access policy that allows hunters and others to recreate for free. But just as concerning is the unknown fate of Plum Creek’s employees. Weyerhaeuser has said it plans to save $100 million annually, but the company has declined to provide details of how that savings will come about.

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