2015 News in Review

The most newsworthy events in Northwest Montana over the past 12 months

By Beacon Staff
Ivan Peters pushes a 1949 Studebaker flatbed truck to an open area on his property with the help of his grandson, Kasey Lee, as they prepare to evacuate Peters' home along Lower St. Mary Lake, where smoke from the Reynolds Creek Fire filled the sky on July 22, 2015. Peters built the house on his property in 1983 and has been living there since 2000. “When I see flames, I’ll boogie out of here,” Peters said. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

As 2015 comes to an end, Beacon staff members have organized a recap of the most newsworthy events in Northwest Montana these past 12 months.

Drought, Heat Wave Drive Tumultuous Wildfire Season

One of the driest springs on record in Kalispell transitioned into the driest summer on record, leaving Western Montana in the clutches of an historic dry spell with triple-digit temperatures. As a natural result, the threat of fire danger worsened. By the end of June, dozens of fires began wreaking havoc on the region in a three-month long stretch of smoky skies and volatile conditions. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation notice to the residents of Essex and the surrounding community as the Sheep Fire threatened homes and closed the highway. The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park was temporarily closed in the thick of tourist season, affecting thousands of visitors. In August, Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency. The U.S. Forest Service depleted its firefighting budget in August as the costliest fire season in U.S. history destroyed hundreds of homes across the West. Wildfires burned a near-record 15,000 square miles nationwide. In this corner of the state, it went down as one of the worst fire seasons in decades.

Montanore Gets Green Light As Poor Market Shutters Troy Mine

It’s been a year full of ups and downs for Lincoln County’s fragile mining industry. After more than a decade of work, regulators tentatively approved the Montanore Mine and it is expected to get its state and federal permits in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Revett Minerals was sold to the Hecla Mining Company, which decided to shutter the Troy Mine due to a weak copper and silver market.

»»» Click here to view the Beacon’s top news photos from 2015.


Plum Creek Merger to Create Global Timber Giant

In early November, the two largest owners of timberlands in the U.S. announced a major merger that will create a $23 billion timber, land and forest products company, the largest in the nation. Weyerhaeuser will purchase Plum Creek, the largest landowner in Montana, and the combined companies will hold more than 13 million acres of timberland across the U.S., including this corner of the state, where Plum Creek operates mills in Columbia Falls and Evergreen. What this means for the 750 Plum Creek employees in Northwest Montana, as well as public access, remains unknown and a large topic of concern.

Tribes Take Ownership of Large Dam Near Polson

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes became the first tribal government to own and operate a major hydroelectric facility in early September when they acquired Kerr Dam along the Flathead River. The CSKT paid nearly $18.3 million to NorthWestern Energy to acquire the dam. The facility is now called Séliš Ksanka Ql’ispé — pronounced SEH-leesh, k-SAHN-kah and q-leese-PEH — Dam. The CSKT announced they would not help offset the loss of more than $1 million in tax revenue to Lake County schools and services.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 3.54.22 PMLegislative Session Heats Up Over Water Compact, Medicaid Expansion

The 64th Legislative session had plenty of fireworks as lawmakers battled over lightning rod issues, from infrastructure funding to Medicaid expansion and even yoga pants. The House voted down a $150 million infrastructure bill in the final day of the session, killing an effort to invest in water, sewer and roads and building projects across the state. A bill expanding Medicaid eligibility to about 45,000 low-income Montana residents survived and went into law. One of the most prominent and significant topics of the session, the water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was passed into law after a series of divisive, heated debates. Gov. Steve Bullock signed Senate Bill 289 into law April 22 at the Capitol, calling the Montana Disclose Act a major step in making Montana elections among the most transparent in the nation. And last but certainly not least, Rep. David Moore of Missoula lost his war against “provocative clothing” when his bill seeking to strengthen the state’s indecent exposure law failed. The bill could have made it illegal to wear yoga pants in public.

Whitefish Voters Approve Resort Tax Hike for Haskill Basin Easement

In a watershed victory for conservation advocates and city officials who saw the need to permanently protect Whitefish’s municipal water supply while preserving recreational access to a 3,000-acre tract of land, voters overwhelmingly approved a 1 percentage point resort tax increase that will help finance the purchase of a conservation easement in Haskill Basin. The special election in April saw 83.6 percent voter approval to raise the city’s resort tax on lodging, restaurant food and drinks and retail items from 2 percent to 3 percent.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 3.55.49 PMCFAC Permanently Closes While Superfund Debate Lingers

Officially marking the end of an era, owners of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company announced in March that they were permanently closing their aluminum reduction plant on the banks of the Flathead River. The plant, located just north of Columbia Falls and closed in 2009, has been at the center of a debate over whether the facility should be listed as a Superfund site under the National Priorities List. In late November, Glencore said it would lead a comprehensive investigation into the environmental contamination in and around the site. Work is expected to begin in early 2016 with the instillation of wells to test the soil and groundwater.

Prominent Scientists Retire from Flathead Lake Biological Station

Two prominent scientists credited with world-renowned research at the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Yellow Bay retired this past year, marking the end of an era at one of the oldest active biological stations in the U.S. Bonnie Ellis, who led the development of a long-term monitoring program for Flathead Lake, retired in February after 37 years at the biological station. Jack Stanford, who has worked at the station since 1971 and became the director in 1980, spearheading the facility’s rise as a preeminent research center, retired at the end of the year. He will remain involved with graduate students at the site through next summer. James Elser is taking over as director of the biological station in Yellow Bay.

Whitefish Tears Down Old City Hall to Build New Downtown Landmark

After decades of debate and hopeful planning, Whitefish is building a new city hall in downtown. In late October, the 98-year-old city hall came down, making way for a new 21,000-square-foot facility with a parking structure and adjacent retail space in the heart of town. But as the building comes together, the city must look hard at how to fund cost overruns that are already emerging. An estimated $1.7 million in overages surfaced in the first two months of building the $14.95 million project that is slated to be completed in two years.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 3.56.48 PMIncreased Bear Activity Leads to Attacks, Delisting Debate

Grizzly and black bears roamed the Flathead Valley in greater abundance as they prepared to den up for the winter, and the potential for conflicts to become dangerous and even fatal was underscored in a spate of attacks, as well as a significant uptick in reports of bear-human conflicts. On Oct. 1, an elderly woman died from injuries she suffered days earlier when a black bear mauled her inside her home near Ashley Lake, where bears had been “extensively fed,” according to wildlife managers. The same week of the fatal attack, a hiker in Glacier National Park was grabbed and shaken by a grizzly bear, but managed to deploy his bear spray and haze the bear off. Then, on Oct. 3, a bow hunter was attacked by a grizzly northwest of Choteau, and staved off a more vicious attack by jamming his arm down the bear’s throat. Amidst this heightened activity, the debate over delisting grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act is heating up as populations near Yellowstone and in Northwest Montana continue to grow.

Environmental Cleanup Leaves Some Asbestos in Libby

In its long-delayed final cleanup plan for the contaminated mining town of Libby, where asbestos exposure has sickened thousands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on May 5 proposed leaving some of the deadly material in places where it presents minimal risk, including in the walls of houses and underground. The plan is more than 15 years in the making, dating back to early media reports that revealed widespread illness caused by asbestos exposure from the W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine and prompted the EPA’s response. Health officials estimate that more than 400 Libby residents have died of asbestos-related disease in the past several decades and thousands more are sickened from breathing asbestos fibers. Local officials are awaiting the next piece of a puzzle that will guide the final stages of a decade-long cleanup in that community.

Badger-Two Medicine Inches Closer to Protection from Energy Development

A pristine area south of Glacier National Park inched closer to being protected from development after the U.S. Interior Department announced in November that it plans to cancel the 6,200-acre energy lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area. Drilling has been mired in repeated bureaucratic delays, prompting the leaseholder, Solenex, to sue the government in 2013. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recommended canceling all the leases in an Oct. 30 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Following the flood of support for protecting Badger-Two Medicine, attorneys on both sides of the dispute announced they were working to resolve the case outside of court.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 3.56.17 PMBig Mountain Jesus Saved

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that a six-foot-tall statue known as Big Mountain Jesus can remain on the section of Flathead National Forest at Whitefish Mountain Resort, ending a years-long debate over the statue. The issue has made its way through the court system over the last several years. A lawyer representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked for the statue to be removed from U.S. Forest Service property, claiming it violates the constitutional prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion.

Massive Transportation Projects Move Forward in Kalispell

Over the next 12 months, one major transportation project will conclude and another will break ground in Kalispell, ushering in significant changes that could ripple throughout the community. The final phase of the long-awaited bypass broke ground in October and crews have been busy constructing 4.5 miles of road from West Reserve Drive near Glacier High School to Foys Lake Road, connecting the new north route with the existing south section that was built from 2007 to 2010. While one transformative project approaches completion, another is preparing to launch. The Glacier Rail Park, an industrial park for rail-served businesses, is poised to break ground in spring. The rail park is moving forward at full steam following the announcement that Kalispell and FCEDA would receive a $10 million federal transportation grant to help drive a sprawling redevelopment plan through the city.

Columbia Falls Economy Picks Up Steam with New Hotel, Residential Growth

The “Gateway to Glacier Park” seems poised to take significant steps in development and growth as the economy strengthens. In the last two years, more than 100 homes were built in the city. Developer Mick Ruis is fueling the excitement by building a new 25,000-square-foot, three-story hotel that will include 64 rooms and a 3,000-square-foot convention center in the heart of town. Ruis also plans to build a steakhouse and restaurant, pie factory and more, while other small businesses are moving onto Nucleus Avenue. A community market hosted by O’Brien’s Liquor & Wine opened near downtown in spring, allowing for farmers markets and other events at the large outdoor events.

Man Freed After 18 Years in Prison for Best Friend’s Murder

While Barry Beach’s release from prison after three decades made more headlines across the state, Richard Raugust became a familiar name in this region after he was freed in Thompson Falls. In early December, a judge overturned Raugust’s deliberate homicide conviction and ordered a new trial in the 1997 death of Joseph Tash, whose body was found inside a camp trailer near Trout Creek. Raugust, who has maintained his innocence, was serving a life sentence after a jury found him guilty in 1998. He was released on his own recognizance during a bail hearing in Thompson Falls.

Heightened Contaminant Levels Raise Further Concerns for Lake Koocanusa

A growing body of research is raising grave concerns about the future of Lake Koocanusa, a sprawling reservoir basin that straddles the U.S.-Canada border and collects water from the upstream rivers of B.C., where hazardous pollutants like selenium are leaching out of coal mines and crossing the international border at an alarming rate. A research and monitoring group charged with determining how to manage the effects of toxic mining contaminants says Montana needs to do more to investigate the potential damages to the reservoir and its fish species.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.