As 2014 comes to an end, Beacon staff members have organized a recap of the most newsworthy events in Northwest Montana these past 12 months.
More Oil, Late Trains
The rise of oil trains on BNSF Railway’s lines through Montana caused big problems for Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train, which celebrated its 85th anniversary in June. That same month, the eastbound Empire Builder, train No. 8, had a zero percent on-time rate. In hopes of keeping the train on time, Amtrak adjusted the schedule in April, but now it arrives in Whitefish well before dawn and long after dusk, much to the chagrin of area businesses. Recently, Amtrak announced the Empire Builder would return to its old schedule.
Xanterra Sets Up Shop
Virtually overnight, Xanterra Parks & Resorts became one of the most important employers in the valley when it landed the Glacier National Park’s concessions contract in January. The 16-year, multi-million dollar contract includes the operation of all hospitality services within the park. In its first year as the concessioner, the Colorado-based company made some big investments, including establishing its headquarters near downtown Columbia Falls.
EPA Cleanup Continues in Libby
Fifteen years after designating Libby the largest Superfund site in American history because of a deadly asbestos contamination, the Environmental Protection Agency says that its cleanup efforts in Lincoln County are working. In December, the federal agency released its long-awaited human health assessment that states that the air around the community is 100,000 times cleaner than it was when the mine was running. Next year the EPA is expected to release its final record of decision that will serve as a roadmap for the rest of the cleanup.
The Rise and Fall of John Walsh
Democrats thought they had the perfect candidate in John Walsh, a seasoned military man who had the power of incumbency when Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him to the U.S. Senate in February. But in July, the New York Times published a story saying he had plagiarized a paper while at the U.S. Army War College in 2007. Within a few weeks, Walsh dropped out of the race against Congressman Steve Daines and was replaced by political newcomer Amanda Curtis, who lost to Daines in the November election.
Murder in Glacier Park
Jordan Graham, the 23-year-old woman who pushed her husband of eight days off a cliff in Glacier National Park in 2013 was sentenced to 30 years in prison in March. In October her lawyers filed an appeal arguing that federal prosecutors distorted and withheld evidence in order to convince the jury that Graham had planned to murder Cody Lee Johnson. Federal prosecutors are now preparing a response before the Ninth District Court of Appeals can issue a ruling or allow for oral arguments.
Lincoln County Commission Shakeup
An election and a resignation changed the makeup of the Lincoln County Commission this year. On June 3, incumbent and commission chairman Tony Berget, who had served on the board for six years, was bested in the primary election. Then the day after the election, Commissioner Ron Downey announced he would be stepping down for health reasons. In August Gregory Larson was selected to represent Troy and serve the rest of Downey’s term. In November, Mark Peck was elected to replace Berget and will represent Libby for six years.
Veteran Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus stunned the state and national political worlds when he announced that he would not run for re-election, and then threw another political haymaker when he was unanimously confirmed to become the next U.S. ambassador to China, a diplomatic plum capping his nearly 40-year career in Congress, 36 of which he spent in the Senate, making him the longest-serving senator from Montana and one of the longest-serving senators in U.S. history. To many, the nomination was as surprising as the retirement, particularly given the way in which it shuffled the political deck chairs in Washington. It gave Gov. Steve Bullock the rare opportunity to appoint a successor, which he found in his Lieutenant Governor, John Walsh, who suddenly had the power of incumbency in his unsuccessful run to defend the Senate seat from freshman U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who in the end handily won. On Capitol Hill, Baucus was best known for his role as longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a perch from which he crafted major legislation that overhauled health care, tax policy and the federal budget, as well as for his reputation as a centrist dealmaker.
North Fork Watershed Protection Act
More than four decades after local conservation groups began efforts to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River from energy development, Montana’s congressional delegation inched a bill to furnish permanent protections on the pristine watershed over the finish line. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act was signed into law Dec. 19, and bans future mining and drilling on 383,267 acres of federal land in the North Fork. The bill and seven other Montana land bills were attached to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, and supporters said the rare bipartisan collaboration and tireless local support of the measure is symbolic of a strong conservation legacy in the Crown of the Continent.
Republicans scored a stunning electoral rout in the Nov. 4 midterm elections, wresting control of the U.S. Senate after an acrimonious campaign season in which voters’ frustration with Washington gridlock and an unpopular president manifested itself in sweeping GOP victories nationally and across the state. In Montana and the Flathead Valley, state legislative and county commissioner races followed the same trend, and when the dust settled, the victors emerged with policy agendas and pledges to push back against the political current by focusing on policy rather than politicking. Montana’s 64th Legislature convenes Jan. 5.
A prominent white nationalist who has been living in Whitefish in relative obscurity while promoting his views on the Internet drew the ire of locals who petitioned the city council to institute a nondiscrimination ordinance aimed at groups like the National Policy Institute, Richard Spencer’s think-tank that is headquartered in the ski resort town. At a Nov. 17 council meeting, residents turned out in droves as more than 100 people packed the council chambers to decry Spencer’s residency and voice support for an ordinance prohibiting groups like NPI from converging on the community. The demonstration was organized by Love Lives Here, a Flathead Valley affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, and comes on the heels of renewed publicity for Spencer and NPI. The Whitefish City Council unanimously passed a good-faith resolution supporting diversity and tolerance in the community, taking a stance on an issue that has roiled local residents in recent weeks but stopping short of enacting anti-discrimination legislation aimed at so-called “hate organizations.”
With renewed plans to expand coal-mining operations in southeastern British Columbia’s Elk River drainage, located upstream from one of Montana’s world-class transboundary watersheds, researchers and government agencies are intensifying scrutiny on environmental hazards spanning the border. The concerns center on increasing amounts of coal waste byproducts leaching into the heavily mined Elk River and its many tributaries, which drain into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana – Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River – both of which are showing increased levels of mining contaminants like selenium in the muscle tissue of fish species. In response, the British Columbia government has approved a plan to address decades of coal-mining pollution in B.C.’s Elk River drainage. The Elk Valley Water Quality Plan was crafted by Teck Resources Ltd. to control selenium and nitrate dumped into the Elk River and nearby tributaries as the mining giant expanded through the years. Local researchers and agency officials expressed disappointment with the plan because it does not pay serious consideration to the degradation of downstream waters in Montana.
The long road toward determining what level of cleanup is warranted at the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant took another turn in December when the company walked away from negotiations with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, aligning the contaminated site for remedial action under the federal Superfund program. But the timeframe for listing and subsequent cleanup efforts remains unknown, and could follow years of additional studies to “fill in data gaps,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection agency, a delay that rankles members of the community who are concerned for their safety. Recent reports from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have shown the site is eligible for Superfund status, but the site’s owner, Glencore, a Swiss commodities firm, has never explained what it intends to do with the property. While CFAC officials said they favor a speedy and thorough investigation of the plant site, they oppose listing it as a Superfund site.
Agency on Aging
After years of trying to find a solution for the Flathead County Agency on Aging’s facility problem, the county commissioners agreed in 2014 to move the agency from its current, overburdened facility and into a new building. The South Campus project, originally expected to cost $6 million, will house Agency on Aging, a new dental office for the city-county health department, and space for the maintenance department. As of Dec. 29, the commission hadn’t awarded the bid for the project.
The Flathead County Commission went through several permutations when it came to supporting the proposed water compact between the state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, finally landing on sending a letter supporting an eventual compact, but outlining several concerns from the county’s perspective, including protecting local and municipal water rights. The 2015 Legislature is expected to take up the controversial issue.
With Flathead County taking jurisdiction of the planning area surrounding the City of Whitefish commonly referred to as the doughnut, it would seem that this particular saga was at an end. However, the work is just beginning for the county, which is in the process of amending various text regulations to fit in the new area, such as the lakeshore and lake protection regulations and interim zoning.
Flathead County decided to consolidate its recycling program in 2014, which includes removing the current blue recycling boxes from the Bigfork green box site. However, the county will move forward with a new green box site for Bigfork, which will include better recycling facilities.
In mid November, same-sex couples were allowed to marry in Montana after U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled the state’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The first formal ceremony inside the Flathead County Justice Center was held the morning of Nov. 20 for two local men, who asked to remain anonymous in the press. The two men became the first gay couple on record as officially married in Flathead County. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said he would appeal the judge’s ruling, and in all likelihood the issue will return to the U.S. Supreme Court in spring 2015 for a final decision that would impact the entire nation.
Glacier Park’s Record Summer
In its storied history, Glacier National Park was never more popular than this year. Between June and August, 1.7 million people visited the Crown Jewel of the Continent, whether it was locals enjoying their pristine backyard, out-of-state visitors vacationing to a world-renowned destination or international tourists enjoying one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. 2014 will go down in history as Glacier’s highest visitation year on record, breaking the old mark of 2,203,847 people, set in 1983 and nearly broached in 2010.
New Whitefish High School
After several years of planning and over a year of construction, a new era is underway at Whitefish High School. The community’s lone public high school has undergone a sizeable renovation that transformed the classic site into a state-of-the-art campus, featuring a newly refurbished gymnasium, a brand-new fitness center, new classrooms equipped with cutting-edge technology and a new Center for Applied Media Arts and Sciences wing, or CAMAS, which stands to become a college-level hub for theater, music and technology studies. While the campus itself is now significantly modernized, the school has also rearranged its curriculum to better prepare students for college and beyond.
Cahill Clinic Break-In
On March 4, All Families Healthcare in Kalispell, Northwest Montana’s only abortion provider and a clinic offering family care services, was broken into and significantly vandalized. The owner, Susan Cahill, has closed the clinic while a suspect, Zachary Klundt of Columbia Falls, stands charged with four felonies, including burglary, criminal mischief, theft and attempted burglary.