HELENA – Public lands in the backyard are being credited with a strong economy in Montana.
A new report, “West Is Best,” looks at jobs, income and population changes in Montana and other western states - against the backdrop of National Forests, parks and other public spaces.
Ben Alexander, associate director at Headwaters Economics, which issued the report, says Montana’s biggest growth in jobs and income has been in high-wage service industries – such as health care and professional services – with companies relocating here because of the outdoors values.
“The state has grown its employment twice as fast as the rest of the U.S., and has grown personal income twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. over the last decade,” he said. “That’s a tremendous story for a state that is largely rural and micropolitan.”
The report finds that Montana and other western states, home to the largest share of public lands, have seen their economies fare better than the nation over the past 40 years.
Lance Trebesch owns TicketPrinting.com and related companies in Bozeman. He says outdoors recreation has long been a recruiting tool for his businesses.
“When you live in a great place that has hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands – skiing, hunting, fly-fishing, mountain-biking, running – you can attract great people and furthermore, you can retain the great people you already have in the state.”
Last Updated on Thursday, 20 December 2012 11:34
Montana State University Billings is a place of teaching and learning. But elements of both often happen outside of the classroom.
One recent case in point involves seemingly incongruous elements: A handful of college students in a communications class; a group project assignment; a local plumbing supply company; and a South Billings church where only air was coming from the hot water faucets.
The MSU Billings students learned how to pull together for a cause and the church learned the power of community.
“At first we thought this was an impossible task,” said Amanda Grubbs, a junior communications and theater major from Billings. “But once you get a certain number of people together and focus on reaching a goal, you can get it done in no time.”
It all started a few weeks ago in a 200-level communications class that deals with group dynamics. As part of the class, the groups were told to find a local need that could be addressed with a collaborative, solutions-oriented process. The group of Grubbs and fellow juniors Steve Joiner, Chase Robertson, Leah Jones and Lisa Sobolewski teamed up and were determined to find something that would be different from efforts already under way in various social service sectors.
After running through some ideas that didn’t gain traction, Jones, who moved to Billings in May with her husband to serve as pastor of the Heritage Christian Center, noted the church has been operating without hot water.
Jones said she was hesitant to even bring up the need because it would appear self-serving. But Grubbs said the group decided working to provide a hot water heater for a congregation of 65 people and a church that serves as a gathering point on that part of town only made sense. It was an easy decision to make, she said, since the group would be able to relate the idea to the class assignment and meet the needs of a specific part of the community.
The church has potluck dinners and the multipurpose room serves as a place for potlucks or other events as well as for two dozen children every week for Sunday School. The problem was, water had to be microwaved in one-gallon increments for five minutes at a time to get any hot water to clean things up.
More recently, the church was hit by vandals and nearly every outside window was broken. Money needed to be directed to get new windows, which made getting a professionally installed water heater – quoted at about $2,000 – was out of the question.
Still, Jones didn’t want to come across as pushing her own agenda.
“Then she missed class one day so that’s when we decided we would do Leah’s project,” Grubbs said, smiling broadly.
That got the ball rolling in late November. One person in the group had some plumbing background and contacted various vendors about parts that would put a new water heater in the church basement. Others in the group worked to find a business to donate a water heating unit.
“The problem was we were approaching Black Friday (the post-Thanksgiving day of sales bonanzas) and nobody wanted to take this on,” Grubbs said.
Then, after a late-November inquiry, Mountain Supply Co., a plumbing wholesale/retail company in Billings, stepped forward. The company donated a 40-gallon valued at $465 to the students. With another $130 in parts from another donor, the water heater was installed this month in a tight space on the western edge of the basement.
Now, as the Joneses plan for this year’s Christmas play, hot water will arrive via the tap and clean-ups will be easy and any extra funds can be channeled into much-needed roof repairs.
Last Updated on Saturday, 29 December 2012 11:35
“We have not gotten our fair share of the federal resources,” said Don Youngbauer, head of the Yellowstone River District Council, at a five-hour meeting last week at Montana State University Billings.
Mr. Youngbauer wants at least $1 million in federal money to complete the first Cumulative Effects Study - a study designed to anticipate serious water shortages that was supposed to be completed five years ago.
“There has never been a study of this magnitude that has ever been done on any river in the world,” said Mr. Youngbauer. “We must look at the river, see how much water can be used and not compromise the people and communities downstream. It’s a travesty what we did to Mexico.”
Water in the Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico has been all used up for agriculture, he said.
“We have not been very good to our neighbors to the south,” he said. “That river is just a dribble by the time it gets to the ocean now.”
He added, “Dang, when that oil spill happened on the Yellowstone, we got calls from India, France, England, and more. Everyone in the world knows how important the Yellowstone River is.”
Indeed, the meeting, hosted by MSU Billings, attracted the attention of Rebecca Wodder, a deputy assistant secretary to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who heads the agency that includes the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Ms. Wodder attended the Dec. 6 meeting and announced that she would relay the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council’s request for the funds to complete the Cumulative Effects Study to Mr. Salazar as soon as she returned to Washington, D.C.
Other studies of the Yellowstone reveal the importance of ecological, socio-economic and industrial aspects of the river, Mr. Youngbauer said. The river provides water for wildlife like ducks and geese, people and industry.
MSU Billings Professor Susan Gilbertz played a key role in the completion of the socioeconomic study, complemented by a summer tour of the river. Of the roughly 19 studies done on the river, the avian and the socioeconomic ones are complete, but many others languish, still unfinished, including an important economic study that was originally a pilot study, according to Mr. Youngbauer.
“Where would we be if we had not started these studies 15 years ago?” asked Mr. Youngbauer, in a telephone interview. “Oil people are buying water rights from cities, farmers” and others, he said. He explained that hydrologists, mainly in Sidney and Glendive, are drilling wells that eventually reduce water pressure. There are also water depots, where truckers transport millions of gallons of water to fracking locations.
“There is absolutely not enough water for the magnitude of development in the oil industry – right now, the oil industry could use all of the water in the Yellowstone and more,” he said.
A new federal program designed to protect rivers and watersheds is the Blueways Designation from the Department of the Interior, the focus of the Dec. 6 meeting. Encouraging diverse federal agencies to communicate with each other more effectively, the Blueways Designation identifies so far only the Connecticut River and its New England watershed as a federal Blueway.
During the five months of that river’s enjoyment of Blueway status, no significant reports have been released.
The primary federal agencies involved are the Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey and BLM. The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet found a representative role in this effort.
On the state level, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation are involved. Mr. Youngbauer said more cooperation is needed between state and federal agencies, especially the Army Corps of Engineers, which helps protect rivers from erosion and builds levies to stave off floods.
Although the council does not know how much funding the YRCDC effort will receive, the council, via Mr. Youngbauer, said that the federal agencies have already contributed $6.5 million over five years and that there is now a cost-sharing mechanism through which Montana contributes 25 percent and the feds 75 percent.
Montana has invested way beyond its original obligations, said Mr. Youngbauer. Besides leading the YRCDC, Mr. Youngbauer is also a dentist and cattle rancher with about 500 head in Forsyth, 28 miles north of the river.
The public is invited to the meetings of the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council. Call 223-5702 or 247-4411 or check yellowstonerivercouncil.org for information.
Last Updated on Friday, 14 December 2012 18:31
MISSOULA - Work experience is required to get a job, but you can’t get that experience without a job. It’s a tricky situation for Montana’s teens and young adults, with a new KIDS COUNT reportfrom the Annie E. Casey Foundation showing that 22,000 Montanans ages 16 to 24 are not working, and they’re not in school. Thale Dillon, director of Montana KIDS COUNT, says a tight job market is one reason positions are scarce.
“The jobs go to older workers who have experience. Young workers today have many fewer opportunities to gain the experience they need.”
She points to research showing that the brains of young adults need positive work experiences early on in order to develop properly. First jobs are about more than paychecks; they instill work ethic skills and self-management techniques that aren’t usually taught in school, she adds.
The report says there are many ways to help young people, and it’s not all in the hands of the government. Businesses have a role to play, too, Dillon says, and it’s in their best interest to invest in a workforce.
Multiple pathways would help, the report says, including finding ways to engage high school dropouts and exploring options to help Montanans afford higher education – as well as sticking with programs until graduation.
The full report can be found at at www.aecf.org.
Last Updated on Friday, 14 December 2012 17:59
MISSOULA – Montana farmers and ranchers are watching closely as Congress gets back to work.
While the so-called “fiscal cliff” is garnering the most attention, an expired farm bill is also still sitting on the “to-do” list.
Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, says rumors have been flying about the timing of a final bill, and he’s optimistic.
“There’s still a chance that it will be done before the end of the year. The key issue here is not just when it gets done, but that it gets done well.”
Hassebrook notes key differences in the versions passed by the House and Senate, and calls the Senate version more friendly to Montana and other rural states.
“The Senate bill invests in small business development in rural America; the House bill does not. And the Senate bill invests more in beginning farmer programs. So, doing the farm bill right is every bit as important as getting it done soon.”
Even though the bill expired, funding is being continued for federal crop insurance and the food stamp program, Hassebrook says, but some conservation programs are in limbo, as well as disaster programs, and funding was severely limited for rural entrepreneurship initiatives.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 November 2012 10:24
With the approach of Thanksgiving, the season for harvesting a Christmas tree is right around the corner. Christmas tree permits went on sale this week November 13 on both the Custer and Gallatin national forests.
Christmas tree permits are available for purchase at all local ranger district offices, including Big Timber, Livingston, Gardiner, Bozeman and West Yellowstone on the Gallatin National Forest and Ashland, Red Lodge, Billings and Camp Crook, S.D., on the Custer National Forest.
“Cutting a Christmas tree around Thanksgiving or leading into December is a popular and longstanding family tradition for many,” said Mariah Leuschen, public affairs specialist for the Custer and Gallatin national forests. “It’s a great way to spend time outdoors with those close to you and possibly start a new tradition.”
Permits are $5 each with a limit of three permits per family. Permits can be purchased at Forest Service offices during regular business hours, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Additionally, the Beartooth Ranger District will be open to sell tags on the four Saturdays immediately following Thanksgiving starting Nov. 24 and continuing on Dec. 1, 8 and 15 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Maps, forest road access updates and tree species identification guides are available at all offices.
Those with a permit may cut a Christmas tree anywhere on the Custer or Gallatin National Forest except in campgrounds, trailheads, designated wilderness areas, developed recreation sites, posted timber sale units, recently planted locations and administrative sites. Permits are also valid for any national forest in the Northern Region, which includes all of Montana, northern Idaho and portions of North and South Dakota.
No tree cutting is allowed within 100 feet of any stream, lake, or wetland. Only trees 12 feet tall or less may be cut.
* Cut your tree as close to the ground as possible and below the lowest live limb. A remaining stump height of 6 inches or less is ideal.
* After cutting your tree, attach the purchased permit to a lower limb near the trunk for transporting home.
* “Topping” trees, or cutting the top off trees, deforms any future growth and leaves a visual eyesore. Take the entire tree or choose another one.
* Trees help protect watersheds, provide habitat for wildlife, and contribute to beautiful scenery. Keep these values in mind when selecting a tree.
For more information, contact any Custer or Gallatin National Forest office or online at www.fs.usda.gov/custer and www.fs.usda.gov/gallatin.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 November 2012 10:20
Officials in Montana’s most populous counties were reporting heavy turnout Tuesday night, with long lines of waiting voters and those still hoping to register. In some places, officials predicted people were voting long after the polls closed.
That was the story in Cascade, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Yellowstone and Flathead counties.
Ross Cavosos, a volunteer at the Yellowstone County office, said late Tuesdays afternoon that the turnout in Montana’s largest county was overwhelming.
“Everyone is surprised we have so many people trying to vote,” he said, adding that many of those in line appeared to be young voters. He said some would-be voters waited three and a half hours for late registration and he expected lines to remain long for most of the evening.
Across the state in Missoula, county election official Anne Hughes reported a strong turnout, which meant long lines for some hoping to register and vote.
“We always hope for a high turnout, even if that means a crazier time for us,” she said.
In Bozeman, a local TV station reported that some polling places had run out of ballots.
Heavy voting was the trend in Flathead and Cascade counties too. Flathead County elections supervisor Monica Eisenzimer said officials there expect to see their last voter vote an hour or two after the polls close.
Shantell McGraw from the Cascade office said doors may close at 8 tonight, but the voters could be casting ballots after 10.
“We have a crazy amount of people in here, probably about 200 people in late registration line right now,” said McGraw.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 November 2012 16:58
It may not be surprising that in a state that did not cast its electoral votes for President Obama that news of his re-election drew mixed reaction at the party headquarters Tuesday night.
News of networks’ projections of Obama’s win drew cheers from Montanans who had spent most of the night waiting for results in the closely fought statewide races.
“I voted for him and because I feel like it means good things for our country,” said Hannah Berglund, 21, a Helena student at the University of Montana. “He sees things the way I do when it comes to civil rights issues and I think that’s what’s most important overall.”
Others at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena echoed Berglund’s optimism.
“I think it takes us in the right direction. It means that middle class people will have a chance to improve their access to opportunities. Most of the economic programs that he’s been pursuing will come to fruition. Economically, America will be stronger in four years,” said Randy Fuhrmann, 52, a professional mental health counselor.
But across town at the Republican party near the state Capitol, Obama’s re-election sent a far more chilling message.
“I’m disappointed. I fear for our country,” former gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone said Tuesday night, expressing deep concerns that the Senate would remain in Democratic hands.
“The country’s very divided. This campaign has been very divisive,” Livingstone added.
Results were incomplete at press time, but the Montana Secretary of State website showed Mitt Romney winning Montana with 55 percent of the vote. In Yellowstone County, Romney had nearly 59 percent of the vote.
In other national races, Steve Daines was declared the winner over Kim Gillan in their race for the U.S. House.Mr. Daines had 53 percent of the vote at press time.
The Senate race between incumbent Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg remained unresolved. Sen. Tester was shown leading Rep. Rehberg, with 49 percent of the vote to 45 percent.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 November 2012 16:56
Heath Robinson, 36, a medical marijuana patient with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, is a burly young man, his build belying the physical afflictions he suffers. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a medical marijuana T-shirt with text barely visible reading “Code of the West,” he holds a container of balm in one hand and a bottle of tincture in the other.
He looked the part of perhaps an off-duty medical corpsman or nurse. In those containers, active cannabis ingredients help him to relieve muscle spasms, pain and the constant neurological damage caused by MS.
“These bottles get me off seven prescription drugs for MS that have terrible side effects,” he said, citing nausea, restless leg syndrome, chronic muscle pain, tremor and severe nightmares.
He said he dissolves a few drops of the tincture into tea or juice. The drink relieves his pain, discomfort from muscle spasms and other neurological pain that the body’s immune system causes while attacking itself.
In MS, the body’s immune system receives erroneous messages from a gene. Those erroneous messages cause the body to attack healthy muscle and nerve tissue. The attacks result in pain, numbness and neurological tissue damage, according to the National Institute of Health website.
As of press time, Senate Bill 423 remained blocked by a temporary restraining order issued last Friday by Judge James P. Reynolds. Judge Reynolds held that immediate and irreparable harm could fall upon an unreasonable number of the most vulnerable Montanans in the medical marijuana registry.
In support of returning to Initiative 148, the original 2004 voter-approved plan for medical marijuana, Lori Burnam, featured in the film “Code of the West,” wrote a letter to The Billings Gazette, expressing her difficulties in dealing with lung cancer. In her letter to the editor, she said she is too sick to manage her own cannabis crop, one of the requirements that SB423 would likely impose upon her and possibly about 5,500 other medical cannabis patients.
The ability of most medical marijuana patients to cultivate their own medical marijuana is limited. Elderly patients and those with terminal illnesses – such as cancer – may lack the physical strength as well as the mental acuity to be vigilant of molds, spores, aphids, mites and other curses that can decimate a marijuana crop. The complicated schedules of lighting demanded by young plants in order to flower properly require an advanced knowledge of specialized horticultural practices.
“It is not easy to grow your own,” said Mr. Robinson.
After SB423 canceled his and Ms. Burman’s ability to buy medical cannabis from an approved provider, they both were despondent. The medical cannabis roller coaster-like track of legislation continues at least until Nov. 6, when voters can choose SB423, a plan that allows providers no more than three patients and doesn’t allow patients to give anything of value to their providers in exchange for medicinal cannabis, including balms, salves, tinctures and baked goods containing the cannabis. Or they can strike the bill down and return to provisions of the original initiative.
Mr. Robinson said he is off drugs because of the availability of those cannabis products. He is waiting for the results of the Nov. 6 election, before deciding what to do.
He and Ms. Burman said cannabis is the only medical alternative that relieves their pain and does not make them overly fatigued or otherwise impaired by the side effects of pharmaceuticals prescribed by doctors.
Team of doctors
Mr. Robinson said he has a team of about eight doctors at Billings Clinic, none of whom can serve as his prescribing or co-physician for him to receive legal medical marijuana. He said he thinks the law should be changed to allow for more research into MS and the healing effects of cannabis on that disease.
Currently, numbers of medical marijuana patients are now down from a high of 30,000 in Montana in 2009 to today’s number of about 8,500.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 13:08
Montanans can’t escape the television and radio ads attacking the two candidates for U.S. Senate. Paid for by official groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and murkier organizations like Crossroads GPS, the ads generally assault Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Dennis Rehberg as being out of touch with normal Montanans.
The deluge often leaves Montanans wondering who the candidates are and where they stand on major issues.
This has become a battle of who is the most authentic Montanan, with Rehberg’s website stressing he is “a fifth-generation Montana rancher and small businessman” and Tester’s emphasizing he is “a third-generation Montana dirt farmer who brings Montana values with him to the U.S. Senate.”
Despite these differences, the two agree on many contentious issues facing the state.
Both Tester and Rehberg call for creating jobs in Montana by deregulating small business and cutting taxes, though they often spar vehemently over exactly what taxes and regulations need to be targeted. Both voted for the Keystone XL pipeline and seek to develop more coal and oil resources in the state. And both say they have fought for gun rights in Washington.
Where do the differences lie?
But they pull no punches when describing the other.
“Rehberg is not willing to do the work,” Tester said. “It’s lip service versus getting stuff done. Right now, I’m leading the charge on a sportsman’s bill, and we’re going to stay here until it’s done. I have a record of accomplishment.”
Congressman Rehberg agreed that voters should examine their records but disagrees with what they will find.
“I’ll always put Montana first, standing up to leaders from any party as a check and balance. Senator Tester votes with President Obama’s liberal agenda 95 percent of the time,” he replied via email.
The two also disagree over federal health care reform, women’s reproductive rights, and the extension of tax cuts first implemented by President George W. Bush.
“I support a complete repeal of the Tester-Obama health care act so we can replace it with a bill that actually reforms health care to reduce costs and improve access,” Rehberg wrote. “All the Tester-Obama law did was add more people to a failing system. Costs continue to rise, and the problem keeps getting worse. Montanans deserve better.”
Tester voted in 2009 to pass the Affordable Care Act which aims to expand the number of Americans with health care insurance by increasing the availability of Medicaid, allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until 26 and requiring others to purchase some form of insurance or pay an additional tax.
On reproductive rights, Rehberg voted in 2011 to revoke federal funding to Planned Parenthood and argued for reducing accessibility to abortions. While in the Senate, Tester supported funding for Planned Parenthood.
Both candidates also voted with their party on the extension of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, also referred to as the “Bush Tax Cuts.”
Tester sought to amend the bills by “limiting the tax cuts to the first $200,000 of income for individuals and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly.”
Rehberg voted to keep the cuts the same, reducing the tax rate for households making over $250,000 per year.
Staying on message
Throughout the campaign, Tester has sought to distance himself from the president and national Democratic Party. He did not attend his party’s national convention in Charlotte this summer and has several ads out highlighting ways in which he voted against President Obama.
Attack ads from conservative groups outside Montana and Rehberg accuse him of “voting with Obama 95 percent of the time.”
Still, Tester said the Democratic Party is a party that endorses many Montana values.
“We support the middle class, the working class,” he said. “Support for working families, for farming families, is real. We also support affordable education, not only K-12, but higher education, and veteran’s services.”
For his part, Rehberg argues that his policies represent Montana values of less regulation and lower taxes.
“If they want to bolster job growth and economic recovery by reducing the senseless burden of government, they should vote for me,” Rehberg said in an email. “If they want to just be left alone to go about their lives without the federal government directing everything they do, they should vote for me.”
Come Election Day Montana’s choice may resonate far beyond the Treasure State, according to political scientist James Lopach, a University of Montana professor.
“Montana is (the) state that could give Republicans control (of the Senate),” Lopach said. “Achieving that goal in Montana is far cheaper than achieving that goal in an urban area. I think that’s why we’re seeing so much money coming in on both sides. It’s coming from the party, from the contributors of the candidates and coming in from Political Action Committees.”
The result has been a record number of ads. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Montanans were hit with nearly 45,000 ads in the Senate race by early September, 16,000 more than the next nearest state.
Both campaigns admit the air war of campaign ads from the candidates and outside groups will only intensify as Election Day nears. Tester urged voters to remember that the campaign “is about Dennis Rehberg and Jon Tester and what’s best for Montana.”
But Lopach suggested the struggle is bigger than that. “I think it has less to do with Tester and Rehberg and more about control,” he said. “It’s about setting and enacting an agenda for the nation.”
Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 13:05