Montana Editorial Roundup
Posted September 13
Daily Inter Lake, Sept. 10, on Montana's fire season:
The fires of 2017 are consuming more than our desperately dry forests and grasslands. They're eating away at all of us, physically for our brave firefighters and emotionally for the rest of us.
Even those who had never hiked to Sperry Chalet in Glacier Park felt the loss of that grand historic structure. It was a blow to all of us. The loss of so many buildings, like the dozens of structures at the Amish community destroyed in the Caribou Fire, weigh on us.
Other neighborhoods are threatened as well. Pre-evacuation orders have gone out in several areas; hundreds of people have been evacuated in various Western Montana locales. The smoke is choking and we're likely not through the thick of it.
But we will persevere; that is the Montana spirit.
Tempers flared in the wake of the Sperry Chalet loss. There have been questions and accusations. Could more have been done early on to save the 1913 backcountry chalet?
Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow has defended the park's initial response to the Sprague Fire that consumed the chalet. He said all the lightning-caused fires from the storm that started the Aug. 10 blaze were treated as full suppression fires.
U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke has requested a full outside investigation of the fire. We're glad to hear that an outside team will study what happened. There perhaps will be lessons learned for how future fires are managed.
Of course the big picture of forest management in the West will be at the forefront again once all the smoke clears.
Montana Sen. Steve Daines last week took to the Senate floor to raise awareness of the fires burning in the Big Sky State. He did some finger-pointing, blaming "radical environmentalists" as obstructionists who have prevented the proper management of federal forests.
There will be plenty of time for forest-management politics later, but we agree with his key assertion: "Either we manage the forests, or the forests are going to manage us."
Hang in there, Flathead folks, and keep praying for rain. There will be better days ahead.
Billings Gazette, Sept. 10, on Gov. Steve Bullock's incorrectly filed reports on state plane:
Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.
But fool us five times — that's completely and totally on you, Gov. Steve Bullock.
Last Friday, Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices settled a complaint with the governor's re-election campaign, which failed to report Bullock's use of the state plane in connection with election-related stops. Bullock and his campaign chalked the matter up as "an error."
But not filing the reports correctly didn't happen once or twice. Or three times. Or four. It happened five times.
Once is a mistake, five times is a pattern. At best, it shows a bumbling incompetence for a man who has run successful statewide campaigns for years. We doubt that Bullock's campaign was really that clueless.
Instead, we think this is part of a calculated political game Bullock played to use a state resource to fit his own agenda, knowing that by the time the reporting caught up to him, the matter would be much ado about something in the past.
In simple terms, he duped us and the leftover cash paid what amounted to a minor slap on the wrist — $3,000 — for the very rich convenience of jetting around in a state plane.
Bullock didn't just use the state plane on a couple of trips. He used it on 36 — that's right, three dozen — trips in which he scheduled fundraising or campaign events after some pretty questionable official business trips. In one case, that official business meant coming to Billings to make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with middle schoolers. In another case, he went out, looked at a bridge, then went to a campaign event. Surely Montana's fate doesn't hinge on Bullock's ability as a sandwich artist.
In other words, some of those events look contrived so that he could reimburse the state a pittance for the use of a plane which he couldn't otherwise afford. And that's important because it seems to be a repetition of a pattern with Bullock: He uses the state plane when he can get away with it, not because he needs to. And, he accepts a slap on the wrist from Montana's top political cop because the token fine and amount of cash was a lot easier than the public scrutiny those trips would have raised during the campaign.
While the practice of combining campaigning with state business is not illegal, its appearance is terrible. It looks contrived and sneaky. Remember, the problem was in the reporting of the trips by the campaign.
On one hand, a careful reading of the settlement by Jeff Mangan, the commissioner, would seem to be some technical violations of campaign law. But when you realize that Bullock has previously used the plane to fly from Helena to Deer Lodge (a short trip by Montana standards in a car) or flown to Missoula to see a Paul McCartney concert, we're left to believe that Bullock feels that he's entitled to the perk.
Bullock's spokeswoman said that Bullock "was happy to correct the error."
Of course he was — after he won and after getting the discounted convenience of campaigning in part with state property. Who wouldn't be happy? After all, his campaign wound up paying less than $4,600 for 36 flights. Try booking 36 round-trip, on-demand flights anywhere in Montana for that amount.
The spokesperson also tried to paint Bullock as a champion of transparency and information, which seems laughable when the exact reason for the fine is because of repeatedly (five times) failing to file a report correctly. That's about as transparent as the smoke-filled skies over Montana this summer.
Keep in mind that it is Bullock's office that continues to fight and stall when it comes to releasing email and texts of the governor and his senior staff. When we see things like incorrectly filed reports on the state plane, it makes wonder if there's a more calculated and sinister reason for the stalling and delays.
We can't figure out what's worse: That Bullock, the state's chief executive and former top lawyer, couldn't master election rules, or that he continued to use the state plane for political purposes even after he'd been repeatedly criticized.
Montana Standard, Sept. 8, on upstream water storage as the key to Big Hole River's future:
Last month's meeting in Wise River about plans to poison more than 60 miles of creeks in the French Creek drainage in order to provide exclusive habitat for Westslope cutthroat and grayling was well-attended, contentious at times, and long overdue.
We applaud and understand the landowners' passion for their "pieces of heaven," which are in fact exactly that - among the most beautiful and idyllic places in America. We also understand the argument for taking proactive steps to protect both cutts and grayling.
We can only imagine how we'd feel if a state agency announced plans to poison the creek where we took our children and grandchildren fishing — a creek we grew up with, that burbles only a few yards from our front porch, that is healthy and full of trout — not just the natives but the "non-native" Browns and brookies and rainbows.
A public comment period last year attracted very few comments — the FWP Region Three Supervisor's letter of decision in favor of the project quoted only two — but some residents say they were blindsided by the project.
None of us on the editorial board is a fish biologist. But all of us enjoy and revere the Big Hole Valley. We find ourselves in great sympathy with the landowners, many of whom are elderly and may never see the successful fruition of this project - even if everything goes right, the fishery will be decimated in the short term, and far from what it is now for several years, if not longer.
But we believe there is a larger question implicit in today's world - for FWP, and for Big Hole Valley landowners. The Big Hole this morning is running at somewhat less than 300 cfs. That's not enough. The extreme low-water conditions - in a year where the mountain ranges had well above average snowpack - bodes ill for this magnificent river, not just a fishery and an agricultural resource but home to a stunning variety of wildlife and "home water" to many of us in southwest Montana.
We believe that some upstream water storage can come to the rescue of the Big Hole in the hot Augusts of the future much as Silver Lake came to the rescue of the upper Clark Fork this very week. And we believe careful planning and execution of that project is the most responsible thing the state, landowners and the federal government could do for the fish and for the river. If done right, small upstream impoundments and wetlands would not spoil the wild, free nature of the river and indeed would provide a lifeline for trout and other aquatic species in times like these.
As Dr. Paul Siddoway wrote on these pages last year at this time, "The logical solution is off-stream storage, both structural and non-structural, allowing us to hold onto some of the millions of gallons of water that leave the drainage every spring and end up in reservoirs hundreds of miles downstream."
We believe he is right, and that therefore it is time for the sportsmen, conservationists, land owners, and governmental agencies to come to grips with the fact that our changing climate - and conditions caused by pivot irrigation as opposed to flood irrigation, for instance - have created circumstances far different from those that existed the last time such a plan was seriously considered in the Legislature.
This is not to denigrate the great work the Big Hole Watershed Committee has already done. But clearly more needs to happen.
Saving the Big Hole is essential to southwest Montana and to the state as a whole. We are glad that the state is so concerned for the Westslope cutthroat and the grayling. But the crisis we face on the river transcends such niceties.