Montana Editorial Roundup
Posted April 19
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, April 13, on electing Montana's next representative:
The voter turnout last November was relatively low for a presidential election. It follows that there are at least some people out there who regret failing to cast a ballot.
Montanans, however, get a bit of second chance at participating in our representative democracy. On May 25, they will get to choose their sole delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. That election will decide who will fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, who was tapped by President Trump to head up the Department of the Interior.
But citizens will only get that chance if they're registered to vote. And time is of the essence. Less than two weeks remain for voters to register by mail. Voter registration application forms must be received by April 25. The form is available online at the Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder's election page website.
After that, voters will only be able to register by going to the clerk and recorder's office but inertia will likely prevent many from going to that much trouble.
Political analysts estimate that because of gerrymandering (the creative drawing of congressional district lines to favor one party), only 37 of the nation's 435 congressional districts are competitive, meaning a candidate from either party has a chance of winning. Since a single-district state can't be gerrymandered, Montana is one of those competitive districts. That means your vote actually counts for something. And because of the competitive nature of this contest, it's getting national attention, along with a handful of other special elections around the country.
We will be electing a newcomer this time around. Neither candidate from the major political parties has held office before. Democrat Rob Quist, a long-time Montana musician, is facing Republican Greg Gianforte, a software entrepreneur. Learn about these candidates and make your choice. But that will only be possible if you're registered to vote.
Get online, print out the form, fill it out and get it in the mail — today.
The Missoulian, April 16, on management of the National Bison Range:
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke should follow up on his baffling announcement last week concerning "changing course" on the National Bison Range with some actual leadership on this critical issue.
That means he will need to explain exactly what his opposition is to the plan to transfer management of the range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and explain what actions he is taking to stop the proposal that is currently wending its way through the federal system.
Most of all, Zinke will need to articulate to Montanans and especially to members of the tribe whose lands completely surround the range, in meaningful detail, what steps he will be taking to ensure the Department of Interior takes better care of the National Bison Range because right now, his agency is failing on that count.
The National Bison Range covers 18,500 acres within the heart of the Flathead Reservation, and offers the public the unparalleled opportunity to witness wild bison roam one of the most beautiful landscapes in the state. The bison range is actually part of a larger complex that includes four wildlife refuges and a wetland management district. In addition to open grasslands and aspen groves, countless species of native plants and animals call these acres home.
But more than 200,000 visitors come from all over the world each year mainly to see the range's primary attraction: a herd of more than 300 adult American bison, the largest mammal on the continent and the United States' official national mammal.
The range was established more than 100 years ago when President Theodore Roosevelt authorized the land purchase to establish it. Essentially, the U.S. government "bought" land that was never for sale, and at a fraction of its value.
Of course, the history of the bison in this area goes back much, much farther, to the days when millions of these animals once roamed freely. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are among the many American Indian tribes whose history, traditions and culture are inextricably linked to bison.
The United States has too often failed to respect that link, choosing instead to repeatedly trample on the rights of Native peoples to manage these animals. While the CSKT has repeatedly sought to take a stronger hand in managing the bison range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drug its feet, changed plans numerous times and ultimately left the range without the resources it needs to do right by both the bison, the people who live on the reservation and the American people, for whom the bison are held in trust.
That lack is evident in the maintenance backlog and unfilled positions at the National Bison Range. Earlier this year, the range's managers put out an unprecedented call for volunteers to help officials prepare for the upcoming calving and tourist seasons. The range has several full-time staff positions open, some of which have been left open for almost five years.
Tribal management of the range, on the other hand, is not unprecedented. For some 20 years, off and on, the CSKT and FWS shared management through funding agreements that were often challenged in court, with the most recent agreement pulled in 2010 by a federal judge. The ensuing years brought no further substantial action on the part of the federal government.
That is, until about a year ago, when FWS announced that it would support a legislative effort to transfer the range out of the National Wildlife Refuge system to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which would hold the range in trust for the CSKT and allow the tribes to assume management. The Interior Department oversees both FWS and the BIA.
Again: the proposal, which has been entered in the federal register but not yet introduced in Congress, would transfer the National Bison Range from one federal agency to another federal agency, within the same federal department. It would not mean selling or transferring public land out of federal ownership in any way.
So when Zinke says "I have said I will not sell or transfer public land" in the same statement in which he announces his decision not to support the range's transfer to CSKT management, he is confusing two unrelated issues. Far from benefiting the range in any way, his statements last week darkened the clouds over its future.
President Trump's proposed budget includes a 12 percent reduction for the Interior Department — a loss of $1.6 billion. Notwithstanding his donation of $78,333 from his presidential salary to the National Park Service, that leaves a lot of funding to make up for, and the bison range is already struggling.
How is Zinke going to provide the range with the money it needs to hire a sufficient number of staff? Without a plan for the tribes to assume management or even a shared management agreement, how will he ensure that the CSKT have a significant voice in future management decisions?
Without answers to these urgent questions, Zinke's vague opposition to the draft legislation released by CSKT does nothing to help the bison range.
The range is facing an uncertain future. It lacks adequate funding, is understaffed, and the continued rejection of tribal authority over land and wildlife in the heart of their own reservation is a national embarrassment.
For some still-unexplained reason, Zinke doesn't like the solution that was proposed to fix these problems. So what is his solution?
Montanans, tribal members and the American public deserve more than platitudes and recycled campaign boilerplate. It's time for Zinke to provide some definite answers, come up with substantial solutions - and show some real leadership.
The Livingston Enterprise, April 13, on keeping public informed of government budget woes:
The Livingston City Commission made a disappointing and unusual decision last week when it shut the public out of discussions about next year's budget.
Those in attendance at the meeting, including a reporter from The Livingston Enterprise, were asked to leave the meeting, and the commission went into a closed executive session to discuss the possibility of eliminating one or more positions within the local government.
Government entities — at the local, state and federal level — often discuss the possibility of losing positions when there's red ink on the upcoming budget.
Normally, the public has an opportunity to weigh in on these matters and voice their support or opposition.
After all, these are public agencies staffed by public employees in offices operating with public money.
Yet the Livingston City Commission apparently believes the possibility of eliminating a public position is a private matter.
Chairman James Bennett read a short statement during Tuesday's meeting wrongly claiming that "the demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure."
If you're scratching your head, you're not alone.
We believe the commission knew better, and that the four commissioners in attendance were well aware that these matters should not be discussed behind closed doors. Commissioner Sarah Sandberg was absent.
The public clearly and undeniably has a right to know and weigh in on what jobs the local government is considering for the chopping block as it works to eliminate a $131,000 shortfall in the annual budget.
Are we talking about eliminating police officers? A firefighter? Plow truck drivers? Unfortunately, the public has no idea what's on the table, if anything. That's not fair to taxpayers, the public or the employees of the city of Livingston.
Furthermore, there was no mention on the agenda about the possibility of an executive session. All of this sounds hypocritical of a commission that frequently touts its commitment to transparency.
The decision to shut out the public could have consequences if the commission ultimately cuts a position based on its discussion during the closed executive session, according to Mike Meloy, an attorney with the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline.
"A court certainly could void the decision to eliminate the position because the closure of the meeting to the public was illegal," Meloy told The Enterprise on Wednesday.
When a reporter from The Enterprise asked about the decision to close the meeting Tuesday, the acting city attorney cited the state's open meeting laws.
If you haven't read the state's open meeting laws, let us assure you they are pretty straightforward.
These laws state in part that "public boards, commissions, councils and other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business."
The law goes a step further — perhaps Montana lawmakers wanted to make their intent very clear — stating that this part of the law "shall be liberally construed" to favor openness.
Montana's 1972 Constitution and its right-to-know sections sought to cement the public's right to attend meetings, inspect public documents and participate in the decisions of the local government.
The commission should be commended for working to balance the budget, but future discussions on the possibility of job cuts must be in accordance with state law and open to the public that it represents.