News in review

From pot to floods, a look back at 2011's top stories



Buzz kill

A year ago, Montana's medical marijuana industry was booming. Caregivers were setting up shop all over the state. The number of medical patients was approaching 30,000. Caregivers had believed what the Obama administration said in 2008, that it would defer to state medical marijuana laws. That changed on March 14 when federal agents raided 26 medical marijuana facilities around Montana, sending shockwaves through the industry and scaring many into getting out entirely. The raids marked the beginning of an unannounced reversal in national policy, but it was state policy that dealt a near-fatal blow to Montana's pot industry.

The Republican-dominated Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 423, which sought to remove profit from the industry and drastically reduce the patient count. Some called it "repeal lite." In May, Gov. Brian Schweitzer let the bill become law without his signature. Medical marijuana advocates questioned the constitutionality of the law.

Right before the law was to hit the books on July 1, a district judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocked key components of it from going into effect. Meanwhile, advocates began collecting the more than 24,000 signatures they needed to place a referendum of Senate Bill 423 on the ballot in November 2012. In early October, the Secretary of State's office verified the referendum.

The court case is still pending, leaving the state's law in flux. By the end of November, Montana's medical marijuana patient count had dropped to fewer than 20,000.


On July 1, an Exxon Mobil pipeline running beneath the Yellowstone River near Billings burst, sending at least 1,200 barrels—or 50,000 gallons—of oil down the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. The river was at flood stage. Oil coated wetlands, wildlife, vegetation and crops along and above its banks for miles. Exxon Mobil said last month that it expects the cleanup to cost $135 million (1.3 percent of the company's $10.3 billion in third-quarter profits). Several affected landowners have sued the oil giant.

Red light, green light: megaloads meet Montana - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The spill ramped up scrutiny of TransCanada's proposed $7 billion, 1,711-mile, 700,000-barrels-a-day Keystone XL pipeline, which, en route between Alberta's tar sands and oil refineries on the Gulf Coast, would cut through eastern Montana and under the Yellowstone and several other rivers. Beyond the potential for spills, the debate over the Keystone XL weighs the importance of "conflict-free" oil, as Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has termed it, against the implications of tapping the second-largest pool of carbon on earth, which, according to NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen, would spell "game over" for the climate.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, President Obama will help to decide its fate. Thousands of activists have taken to the White House demanding that he reject it. Last month, as pressure from both sides mounted, Obama delayed his administration's decision until after the 2012 election. Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, a proponent of the pipeline, recently introduced a measure that would force Obama to make a decision on it within 60 days—a tactic that seems to be welcomed by both sides, once again putting the president at odds with the country.

UM says "uncle"

All year, controversy over a proposed biomass boiler plagued the University of Montana. The school's intentions were good: It sought to reduce its carbon footprint and burn a locally sourced fuel. But in the spring, opponents of the $16 million project, led by the WildWest Institute's Matthew Koehler, conducted an open records search and found that UM officials had misled the public about the boiler's projected emissions and costs.

In May, workers at UM's existing natural gas-fired heating facility also came out against the proposal, claiming, in part, that UM brass would "not let facts get in the way of the agenda." The open records search also revealed that Vice President Bob Duringer had written this in an email to those writing the project's environmental assessment: "We all need to remember that what we are constructing is a public relations story, not a scientific analysis. We need to be straight with the facts but tilt the story towards our perspective."

Still, UM insisted that the boiler would pencil out despite plummeting natural gas prices. And in November, Duringer said that some of the project's opponents were engaged in "a lower level of eco-terrorism."

On Dec. 2, UM pivoted 180 degrees: It called an impromptu press conference at which President Royce Engstrom announced that the school was suspending its biomass plans indefinitely, citing the very reasons—cost and emissions—that critics had argued for months.

Loads will roll

Imperial Oil appeared primed to move forward with its proposal to move hundreds of oversized loads through Idaho and Montana to Alberta's tar sands this spring. And they weren't alone. ConocoPhillips moved two loads up Highway 12 and through Missoula in early March, drawing scores of protesters who tried everything—even sitting in the middle of Reserve Street—to stall the heavy haul. But companies eyeing the corridor from the Port of Lewiston to the Canadian border hit a snag in July. Missoula District Court Judge Ray Dayton issued a temporary injunction against Imperial Oil's megaloads, leaving one load stranded in the parking lot at the Hot Springs Resort.

Missoula County jumped into the fray this summer, suing the Department of Transportation for violating the Montana Environmental Protection Act by approving Imperial Oil's proposal. Imperial Oil responded to repeated delays by chopping down the megaloads and transporting them via the Interstate. Idaho protesters decided to block the loads anyway, leading to several arrests.

As fall approached, some critics saw their worst fears realized when a load belonging to Washington-based Nickel Bros. held up a late-night medical emergency on Highway 287 between Augusta and Choteau. The Idaho Transportation Department—a supporter of the heavy haul—suspended Imperial Oil's shipments in December after one load collided with a van, only to lift the injunction two weeks later. No one was injured in the van incident, but it bolstered concerns critics have been voicing for more than a year.

Wet, wet, wet

Last winter's La Niña was a boon for Montana skiers, but ultimately it left many in the state wishing they were high and dry. The Clark Fork River in Missoula crested at 12.7 feet in mid-June, flooding the Tower Street neighborhood and forcing several evacuations. Dozens of volunteers showed up to help fill and transport sandbags, but significant damage had already been done. Across Montana, phone lines went down, flood debris littered roadways and rising water damaged bridges. In May, Gov. Brian Schweitzer deployed the Montana National Guard to the Crow Reservation, one of the parts of the state hardest hit by flooding. Schweitzer estimated flood damage of at least $8.6 million statewide by mid-June. Back on Tower Street in Missoula, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempted to save homes by building a temporary levee, which didn't work. The levee only further directed the current into the neighborhood, worsening the flooding for some. The waters finally receded by July, leaving homeowners and volunteers to clean up the mess.

On four legs

Nature's biggest struggles in Montana this year didn't take place in the backcountry but in courtrooms and Congress. Ten environmental groups reached a settlement with the federal government this spring allowing management of gray wolves to pass to state officials. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy rejected the settlement in April, but the ruling came too late. One day earlier, Sen. Jon Tester had successfully attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill congressionally delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho. The fall hunt was on, but Tester's move drew widespread criticism for setting a dangerous new precedent for political delisting of endangered species. Bison made headlines as well when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced plans to relocate quarantined bison from Yellowstone to two Indian reservations and two plots of state land. Controversy rained down on the state land proposals, but just when FWP issued a recommendation only to relocate bison to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap, Gov. Schweitzer slammed on the brakes. Now he's in a standoff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over genetic purity and efforts to relocate Yellowstone bison to the National Bison Range in Moiese; FWS turned down the proposal.

Missoula news

Elouise has left the building

Two years after winning an historic $3.4 billion settlement on behalf of thousands of Native Americans nationwide, Blackfeet heroine Elouise Cobell was still no closer this year to seeing the federal government financially rectify decades of Individual Indian Money account mismanagement. The payments seem primed to come through, but critics of the lawsuit temporarily derailed the settlement this spring by questioning the amount going to attorneys. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan finally put the matter to rest in June, though attorneys cautioned that an appeal could still be forthcoming. Sadly, even if the money at last makes it into the hands of plaintiffs, Cobell will never see the fruits of her 16-year battle. The warrior for Native American justice died Oct. 16 after a much more personal battle: with cancer. Hundreds turned out for her funeral on Oct. 22, lining the streets of Browning. The local radio station dedicated the entire day to tunes by Elvis Presley, Cobell's favorite musical artist, and the funeral procession blasted those songs in her honor.

Bread and water

On Dec. 22, 2010, Mountain Water Co. announced that it intended to sell Missoula's water supply to the world's largest private equity firm, The Carlyle Group. The news took just about everyone in Missoula by surprise. Mountain's owner, California-based Park Water Co., hadn't asked Missoula officials if they wanted to purchase the utility before the announcement, despite the fact that Missoula has made it no secret that it would love to call the utility its own.

Simply because of Carlyle's sheer size—the company manages $160 billion in assets across the globe—the deal seemed an odd match. Company employees have included political bigwigs such as former British Prime Minister John Major, former Secretary of State James Baker III, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Since its 1987 founding, the firm has invested in industries that include health care, defense and housing, and it's been fodder for the likes of liberal muckrakers such as filmmaker Michael Moore.

Throughout 2011, Garden City residents, including a group calling itself "Missoula Water Now," mobilized in opposition to the deal. Locals worried that Carlyle ownership would lead to higher water rates and that Missoula's plentiful water supply could be diverted outside of the community to benefit Carlyle.

In September, Missoula Mayor John Engen and local water watchdogs the Clark Fork Coalition agreed to support the sale of Mountain Water to the Carlyle Group. The agreement came after the city and the Clark Fork Coalition secured an agreement with the equity firm that, among other things, guarantees Missoula will get first dibs to buy the utility if it's sold apart from its parent company.

That agreement appeased some opposition. Montana's regulatory body, the Public Service Commission, approved the deal Dec. 13 with additional conditions that stipulate Missoula's water resources must stay in the community. "I believe that the best that we can do and protects Mountain Water ratepayers," said Missoula Public Service Commissioner Gail Gutsche.

The deal closed Dec. 20.

On your left

Progressive LGBT activist Caitlin Copple worked to keep her composure Nov. 8 as she digested the news that she'd been elected to serve as Missoula's Ward 4 city council representative. "Oh my God," Copple said. "I'm going to throw up."

Missoula news

Copple garnered enough votes to send conservative incumbent Lyn Hellegaard packing. Minutes after Copple got wind of her win, Mike O'Herron learned that he had ousted another right-leaning council member, Renee Mitchell, whereupon O'Herron had a less quotable response.

Their wins reflected a nearly clean sweep for the left during this year's citywide elections. In Ward 1, former Missoula County Democratic Party Central Committee chairman and council incumbent Jason Wiener beat challenger Mary "Maer" Seibert by more than a thousand votes. In Ward 3, progressive Alex Taft took home an easy win to secure Stacy Rye's vacated seat. Council president and Ward 6 representative Ed Childers was elected to serve another term. Ward 2 was home to the only liberal loss as a political newcomer, 26-year-old Adam Hertz, beat Pam Walzer by five votes in a politically schizophrenic district.

Meanwhile, locals, by a whopping 75 percent, supported Councilmember Cynthia Wolken's anti-corporate personhood referendum, which asks state and federal legislators to take a stand against corporate money in election campaigning, marking another progressive victory. All in all, progressives had a net gain of one on the 12-member city council. Freshly minted council members will take their seats in January to debate city taxes, whether talking on cell phones while driving should be legal and how Missoula should grow in the future.

Send in the clowns

The 2011 Montana Legislature's roster was stocked with Republicans, and they swung for the right-field fences. They hacked away at funding for education and social programs and revising the state's environmental laws. But what the 62nd legislature will be remembered for were the many confounding and frivolous bills floated by right-wing ideologues, which served as fodder for comedians like Stephen Colbert while failing to serve Montanans.

Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, proposed a "Code of Montana." It was based on the book Cowboy Ethics and would have directed Montanans to "Live each day with courage," "Ride for the brand" and "Talk less and say more," among other platitudes. The bill got Peterson on Fox News.

Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison, introduced a "birther" bill, a perpetuation of the unsubstantiated claim that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. He appeared on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN.

Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, introduced a bill declaring that "global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana." Colbert got a hold of that one and quipped: "Visitors will flock to Glacier National Park once it becomes Glacier National Water Park."

Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, aimed to legalize hand-thrown spear hunting. Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, advanced a bill to nullify federal laws. Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, proposes creating an armed "home guard." There were several more.

Fortunately, most didn't make it to Gov. Brian Schweitzer's desk. If they had, they most likely would have been part of a separate and equally memorable legislative sideshow from 2011: Schweitzer, ever the showman, taking a red-hot "veto" branding iron to bills outside Montana's capitol.


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