News & Features

2016 News Year in Review

The top news stories in Northwest Montana in 2016

The CFAC Saga

The mighty aluminum plant along the Flathead River was once a critical part of Columbia Falls’ industrial backbone and blue-collar identity, but now the deserted manufacturing site is the source of unresolved environmental and public health concerns, leading the federal government to initiate the nation’s foremost hazardous waste cleanup program.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced in September that it was adding the CFAC property to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List, designating it for critical cleanup among the nation’s most contaminated sites. The Superfund program will ensure that the property’s owner, Glencore, a global commodities trading and mining giant based in Switzerland, and possibly other former owners will be held financially accountable for cleaning up any hazardous materials and addressing other environmental impacts. The program will also devote grants and other resources to the community to help spur redevelopment and revitalization at the CFAC site.

The cleanup plan will be developed after the site investigation is completed around 2020.

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Haskill Basin Protected

In July, residents and stakeholders gathered in Whitefish to commemorate a conservation easement on 3,020 acres in Haskill Basin near Whitefish. The event celebrated the permanent protections on the land east of Whitefish, which is owned by F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. While Stoltze has managed the parcel as a working forest for years, conservation groups and city officials have long recognized the development pressure bearing down on the prized watershed, which is the source of Whitefish’s water supply and a haven for recreational uses such as hiking, biking and cross-country skiing.

The $16.7 million necessary to pay for the easement came from a hodge-podge of sources, including the City of Whitefish and two federal programs. In April 2015, voters overwhelmingly approved a 1 percentage point resort tax increase that will help finance the purchase of the easement.

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Creston Farmer Proposes Water Bottle Plant

In March, news emerged of a newly formed company laying plans to open a water bottling plant on a slough along the Flathead River that could produce millions of gallons of bottled groundwater per year. The company, Montana Artesian Water Co., was incorporated in Flathead County in 2014 and lists the site address of its proposed facility near Creston on a farm owned by Lew Weaver, located about one mile from Egan Slough. The volume would allow the company to bottle, ship and sell up to 191.6 million gallons of treated groundwater per year — the equivalent of 2 billion 12-ounce water bottles — while the rest would be reserved for rinsing bottles and equipment, as well as for on-site tap water. The proposal prompted an outpouring of concern from conservation groups and nearby residents, who contend that the scope of the project warrants a more in-depth environmental assessment by state agencies than it has received so far.

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Voters Approve Largest School Bonds in Kalispell History

In October, Kalispell voters overwhelmingly approved a pair of bonds for $54 million to build a new elementary school and upgrade other school facilities across the district. Altogether, the bonds represented the largest in Kalispell school district history.

The elementary district bond — $25.28 million — will address persistent overcrowding by building a new elementary school on Airport Road, along with funding repairs and updates at the city’s existing five elementary schools and middle school. The new elementary school will be the first built in Kalispell since 1987, when Edgerton was developed, and will break ground this spring.

The high school bond — $28.76 million — will go toward renovating sections of Flathead High School that are over 100 years old as well as deferred maintenance, along with an expansion of the Agricultural Education Center and upgrades at Linderman Education Center. The bond will also fund maintenance needs at Glacier High School and rebuild parts of Legends Stadium.

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JUNE- Workers leave after a shift at Weyerhaeuser's Columbia Falls facilities. The June 22 announcement that timber giant Weyerhaeuser Company was closing two mills in Columbia Falls and eliminating 100 positions was a gruesome testament to the flagging timber industry’s struggle to regain footing in the market after decades of decline. Blaming the closures on the ongoing lack of available log supply, company officials said the decision was difficult but necessary, and denied that it was part of a blueprint for consolidation drawn up when Weyerhaeuser absorbed Plum Creek earlier this year. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

JUNE- Workers leave after a shift at Weyerhaeuser’s Columbia Falls facilities. The June 22 announcement that timber giant Weyerhaeuser Company was closing two mills in Columbia Falls and eliminating 100 positions was a gruesome testament to the flagging timber industry’s struggle to regain footing in the market after decades of decline. Blaming the closures on the ongoing lack of available log supply, company officials said the decision was difficult but necessary, and denied that it was part of a blueprint for consolidation drawn up when Weyerhaeuser absorbed Plum Creek earlier this year. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Weyerhaeuser Takes Over Plum Creek Timber Co., Closes Mills

In August, the final logs rolled through the Weyerhaeuser Company’s plywood plant and lumber mill in Columbia Falls, marking the end of an era and a pivotal point in Montana’s timber tradition.

Weyerhaeuser Co., which merged with Plum Creek in early 2016, cut roughly 100 jobs while sending another 146 employees to the stud and plywood mills in Evergreen, where extra shifts were added. Another 100 positions at Weyerhaeuser’s administrative office in Columbia Falls, known as the Cedar Palace, were also phased out. The company’s medium-density fiberboard plant is still operating in Columbia Falls.

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Behold the Bypass

After decades of work, the Kalispell bypass — the single largest highway transportation project in Montana history and a community aspiration dating back 70 years — is finally whole and open. In October, local, state and federal leaders celebrated the completion of the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route.

Four lanes of new highway, accompanied by a pathway for cyclists and pedestrians, now flow past burgeoning neighborhoods along the bustling north end of Kalispell and connect with the existing two-lane south half at U.S. Highway 2.

Nearly $140 million was invested in the bypass in the last decade and millions more in new development has surfaced around the massive transportation project, which has largely reshaped the city’s transportation grid and opened the door for possible improvements on Main Street.

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High Levels of Radioactive Elements in Drinking Water

Flathead County health officials have been discussing how to notify the public about potentially dangerous levels of radioactive elements in some private water wells west of Kalispell. The discussions began in January, shortly after a Flathead Beacon article drew attention to the issue, reporting that hundreds of drinking water samples tested in the area exceeded federal standards for gross alpha radioactivity, including uranium and radon, potentially exposing area residents to unsafe levels of contaminants.

In particular, the radioactive elements, which occur naturally, seem to be present in private water wells in the communities in and around Kila.

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Badger-Two Medicine Leases Canceled

U.S. officials canceled 15 oil and gas leases in November in an area bordering Glacier National Park that’s considered sacred to the Blackfoot tribes of the U.S. and Canada. The cancellation was aimed at preserving the Badger-Two Medicine area, a largely undeveloped, 130,000-acre wilderness that is the site of the creation story for members of Montana’s Blackfeet Nation and the Blackfoot tribes of Canada.

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Job Openings Hit All-Time High in Flathead County

While Flathead County’s economy has been growing at one of the fastest rates in Montana, many local businesses are feeling the strain of worker shortages. The local job service in 2016 posted over 900 open positions, the most ever. The openings span a wide range of industries, from construction to manufacturing and professional services. But the most pressing needs involve tourism-related businesses in the service industry, which reaches peak demand in the busy summertime.

In the wake of the great recession, Flathead County has developed into a robust tourist destination, leading to an influx of accommodation and service-industry jobs, while manufacturing has remained strong but not as sizeable as before. For example, the number of local jobs in the wood products industry has dropped from 1,537 in 2006 to fewer than 1,000 this year.

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Flathead Valley Community College Builds First Student Housing on Campus

As Flathead Valley Community College approaches its 50th anniversary, the local college is also nearing completion of its first on-campus student housing facility. This summer, the college broke ground on its $9 million facility, which is slated to be completed next summer. FVCC’s first on-campus housing complex will feature 124 beds, including 50 double units and 24 singles, along with kitchen units. There will also be a common areas and laundry facilities.

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Supporters cheer as U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke watches election returns at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake on Nov. 8, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Supporters cheer as U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke watches election returns at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake on Nov. 8, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Zinke Selected as Interior Secretary

Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native who served as a Navy SEAL commander before becoming Montana’s lone congressman, was selected to oversee the nation’s federal lands and natural resources. President-elect Donald Trump offered Zinke, 55, the position of Secretary of the Interior after meeting with the Republican congressman on Dec. 12. Zinke accepted the position and will vacate his Congressional seat, which will prompt a special election between Republicans and Democrats vying for Montana’s lone House seat.

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First Aquatic Invasive Mussels Discovered in Montana

On Nov. 8, state officials announced the discovery of destructive mussel larvae in Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs east of the Continental Divide, marking the first time the invasive species have been detected in Montana waters and pulling a dire scenario into grisly focus. An infestation of zebra or quagga mussels could spell the beginning of the end for Montana’s most pristine watersheds, holding the potential to topple underwater food webs that prop up the Treasure State’s prized aquatic species while wreaking untold havoc on its infrastructure and recreation economy.

So far, the traces of contamination are restricted to the Missouri River Basin, but the likelihood of mussels hitchhiking on the hulls of boats, in bilge water or cloistered away in irrigation equipment has risen to a fever pitch. The threat of mussel infestation hits especially close to home for those working to protect the waters of Flathead Lake and its surrounding network of rivers and creeks, and is now at the doorstep of the Columbia River Basin — the only major watershed in the West still believed to be free of quagga and zebra mussels.

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Glacier Park Breaks Annual Visitation Record Yet Again Amid Centennial Celebration

The National Park Service celebrated its centennial in 2016, leading to heightened popularity among the nation’s parks. Glacier was no exception as record crowds flooded the Crown Jewel of the Continent. Through November, more than 2.8 million people had visited Glacier, 500,000 more than all of last year. It took only nine months for Glacier to break its annual visitation record for the third year in a row. The year-to-date attendance is up 20 percent and is expected to settle around 2.84 million people. Each month from May through September set monthly attendance records in the park.

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JULY- Somer Treat is presented with an American flag during a celebration of life ceremony for Forest Service Officer and West Glacier resident Brad Treat at Legends Stadium in Kalispell. Treat was mountain biking near his home in West Glacier with a family member on June 29 when he came down a trail and collided with a bear, leading to a fatal attack. Approximately 2,500 people attended an emotional 90-minute service at Legends Stadium, where Treat was memorialized as an inspirational role model who dedicated his heart and soul to his job, his family and his entire community. “Brad was Superman to many of us, and while he would never admit that, he proved it to us multiple times a day,” said Kyle Johnson, Treat’s uncle and a longtime park ranger at Glacier National Park. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

JULY- Somer Treat is presented with an American flag during a celebration of life ceremony for Forest Service Officer and West Glacier resident Brad Treat at Legends Stadium in Kalispell. Treat was mountain biking near his home in West Glacier with a family member on June 29 when he came down a trail and collided with a bear, leading to a fatal attack. Approximately 2,500 people attended an emotional 90-minute service at Legends Stadium, where Treat was memorialized as an inspirational role model who dedicated his heart and soul to his job, his family and his entire community. “Brad was Superman to many of us, and while he would never admit that, he proved it to us multiple times a day,” said Kyle Johnson, Treat’s uncle and a longtime park ranger at Glacier National Park. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

West Glacier Man Killed by Bear While Biking

Friends, family and a large contingent of the law enforcement community gathered in Kalispell in July to remember Brad Treat, a 38-year-old U.S. Forest Service officer who was killed by a bear while mountain biking near Glacier National Park. Approximately 2,500 people attended an emotional 90-minute service at Legends Stadium, where Treat was memorialized as an inspirational role model who dedicated his heart and soul to his job, his family and his entire community.

Treat was mountain biking near his home in West Glacier with a family member on June 29 when he came down a trail and collided with a bear, according to state wildlife officials investigating the incident. The bear was later identified as a grizzly.

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GOP Sweeps Election, Except for Governor’s Race

Montana Democrats extended their legacy of control in the governor’s office to 16 years, a triumph that stands out as the lone bright spot for a party that lost all other statewide offices, while the GOP retained decisive control of the state House and Senate. The Republicans’ dominance allowed them to seize control of four out of five seats on the Montana Land Board, a feat the party achieved by winning campaigns for attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, auditor, and secretary of state. Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock won a hotly contested reelection campaign against GOP candidate Greg Gianforte.

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Meth Epidemic Sweeps the Flathead

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force confiscated as much methamphetamine in the first five months of 2016 as it did all of last year. Local law enforcement officials say the spike in confiscated methamphetamine reflects a rise in the drug’s use across the Flathead Valley and Montana, which has also resulted in a spike in theft in the valley, according to authorities. The spread of meth is also driving demand for foster homes. As the number of child protection cases in Montana continues to grow, there is a shortage of available foster families able to take these children into their homes. According to the Montana Department of Child and Family Services, there were 851 children in foster care in 2010 due to abuse or neglect resulting from parental substance abuse. In early April 2016, that number was 1,658.

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Whitefish Repudiates Racist Ideology of ‘Alt-Right’

The city of Whitefish on Dec. 5 repudiated the racist ideology of part-time resident Richard Spencer, a white nationalist leader whose views have recently been elevated by high-profile media reports that reference his ties to this mountain community.

Before a packed council chambers brimming with residents who raised signs reading “Love Lives Here,” Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld read a proclamation firmly declaring that Spencer’s views and those of the so-called “alt-right” are “a direct affront to our community’s core values and principles,” establishing a symbolic gulf between the inclusive spirit of the tiny resort town and Spencer’s vision of a racially exclusive white ethno-state.

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County Looks to Build Detention Center as Jail Crowding Continues

With a growing population and a persistent drug problem, Flathead County’s jail has been busting at the seams in recent months. Built to hold 60 inmates in the 1980s, today the detention center in Kalispell frequently holds more than 100 every night. In 2016, the county began to build an addition to the current jail that will add up to 40 beds, but Sheriff Chuck Curry said that is not enough. County officials are expected to look at building a brand new jail in 2017.

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After Years of Conflict, Libby Mayor Steps Down

Libby Mayor Doug Roll resigned in September after eight years as the community’s highest elected official. The decision to step down came after a tumultuous summer, when a group of local citizens and city council members tried to recall Roll, alleging that he had abused his power and violated his oath of office. A judge dismissed the effort, ruling the mayor had never violated the law, but Roll announced soon after that he felt he could no longer effectively lead the community. For years, Roll butted heads with other members of the city council, specifically Allen Olsen. City Council President Brent Teske was appointed mayor a few weeks after Roll stepped down.

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