Email The Flathead County Animal Shelter has reached crisis overpopulation levels and will no longer accept owner-surrendered cats until it has more space.Director Cliff Bennett asked valley residents for patience as the shelter attempts to reduce its population through adoptions, rescue organizations and foster homes. But he also noted that turning away surrendered pets is a move of the last resort.“Flathead County pet owners surrendering their animals are being asked for patience and understanding as we attempt to relieve our overpopulation with pet adoptions, rescue organizations, and temporary foster homes,” Bennett wrote in a prepared statement.Bennett said the shelter currently has an “unmanageable overpopulation of cats, and is currently out of housing space.”The shelter will not euthanize animals for space, Bennett wrote; as a shelter with a low-kill policy, only animals that are critically ill, critically injured, or extremely vicious can be euthanized. In late November, the county animal shelter was already at full capacity and actively searching for foster families or permanent homes for the animals already at the facility. The cold weather prohibits the shelter from keeping dogs outside, county health officer Joe Russell said in November. He also urged owners not to abandon their animals in the cold.Bennett asked pet owners to thoroughly explore other possibilities if they need to re-home their pet and to contact professionals such as trainers or veterinarians about behavioral or health concerns. The shelter will be available to help answer questions and offer suggestions for owners at 752-1310. Pet owners can also visit Flathead Shelter Friends’ website for a list of links for resources about pet concerns: www.flatheadshelterfriends.com.RELATED: Flathead Animal Shelter at Full CapacityUPDATE This story was updated to reflect a note from shelter Director Cliff Bennett, who said the shelter is full for cats but does have room for dogs at this time. Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.
Email City Manager Jane Howington put Kalispell’s 30 firefighters on notice Tuesday that they could face major ramifications in the form of layoffs following a recent arbitration decision favoring the local firefighters’ union. “The decision came out and there’s a significant financial impact,” Howington said. “We’re trying to determine how we best can handle this impact.” The Feb. 22 decision by professional arbitrator James A. Lundberg ruled in favor of the union on 14 points of dispute, settling a years-long impasse over contract negotiations between city officials and the Local 547 chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Issues ranged from pay and benefits packages to the number of clothing articles provided as part of a uniform. But Howington said the fiscal impact to the city from the decision would necessitate “comprehensive” changes to the way in which Kalispell delivers ambulance service and fire protection.“This means we have to change the model of emergency services – the way we provide emergency services,” she said. “We have to look at figuring out how to consolidate services.” As of Tuesday afternoon, Howington said city staff were still at work determining how much implementation of the contract under the union’s terms could cost Kalispell. In August, the city projected a difference of $300,000-$400,000 between its position and the union’s. Now, she believes the presentation awarded by the arbitrator could be more.“I would assume it has grown beyond that amount but I don’t know yet,” Howington said. Impacts to the Kalispell Fire Department could range from layoffs to privatizing the ambulance service to shuttering Fire Station 62 on the city’s north side. Howington said her goal in distributing the notices to firefighters was to let them know the city plans to figure out the impact on the department within the next two months. “I’m hoping that we won’t take 60 days to come up with that,” she added. “This is playing with people’s lives and livelihoods and that’s not an easy thing to do.” F. Ray Ruffatto, secretary of the IAFF Local 547, confirmed that Kalispell firefighters were receiving letters Tuesday informing them of the potential for impending layoffs.“At this point we just need to take that information into consideration,” Ruffatto said. “We’re just hoping that it doesn’t come to pass that they’re going to have to get rid of anybody.” The decision to take the fire department contract dispute to an arbitrator was reached after city officials and union negotiators determined they could not reach an agreement in August. Arbitration proceedings occurred over a five-day period in January. Prior to Howington’s attempt, interim city manager Myrt Webb had previously put negotiations on hold after his predecessor, Jim Patrick’s move to extend the contract for a year following its termination in June 2008. According to Howington, the arbitrator must side completely with one party in a dispute, and cannot offer compromises of the two positions. The 80-page arbitration decision itself is in many ways a summary of the issues plaguing Kalispell over the last three years, from plummeting finances to high turnover at the Fire Department. But Lundberg was highly critical of the city’s rationale for its positions, calling its calculation of hours and wages, “incorrect and incomplete.” He also described the city’s explanation for how it has attempted to improve retention at the fire department, “either not supported by the data or nonsensical.” Since firefighters do not work a typical workday, determining the annual hours they work is inherently complicated, with the city and union differing on the average number. Additionally, the formation of new ranks, cost-of-living adjustments, adding longevity pay, putting wages in line with Montana cities of similar size and maintaining “Kelly Work Back Days,” all compounded the difference between what the city and union estimated their wage schedule would cost. Howington said the provision for Kelly Days, where a firefighter can volunteer to work extra days for straight pay, could cost the city as much as $170,000. In her view, the difference between the union and city over budget projections and the cost of wage schedules and benefits were the crux of the dispute.“There’s always been a difference between the union’s interpretation of the budget numbers and the city’s interpretation of the budget numbers,” Howington said. “We tried to inform them that the numbers they were using were not accurate numbers and they weren’t taking into account some of their benefits.”“They felt that we were trying to pad our numbers and we weren’t,” she added. “We were trying to be realistic.” But the arbitrator clearly sided strongly with the union’s wage demands, noting that it proposed no retroactive increase in fiscal year 2010, and is within the city budget for fiscal year 2011. In 2012, the base wage will not increase, though additional longevity pay (aimed at increasing retention) will pay each firefighter an additional $616.86 per year. The union proposes a 2.4 percent base wage increase in 2013, which is equal to economic growth forecasts for Kalispell overall. “Put simply, Local 547 performed a detailed analysis of its wage offer following Montana’s primary statutory criteria. The City did not,” Lundberg wrote. “The City has been improving its financial position and it is reasonable to expect that the slight improvement in financial position will result in some slight improvement in the wages of the Fire Department where very deep cuts have been made to meet budgetary problems.” Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.
Click the image or use the arrows to see more photos of the Cody and Dave Morris during the Blue Moon rodeo.COLUMBIA FALLS – Sitting in the bleachers at the Blue Moon rodeo arena, Dave Morris grins and casually recalls the time when a raging bull ripped apart his sternum. “I got horned in the chest,” Morris says. “It broke my sternum completely off and folded me up inside. The doctor cut me up and put me back together.” Morris tells this story as if remembering a family picnic. It’s a moment nestled sweetly in his memory, an enduring reminder of his bullfighting days years ago. He gets giddy just thinking about taking on a bull. That’s why he quit going to rodeos after retirement. He’d sit in the stands and start feeling the itch. “I wanted that adrenaline rush again,” he says. “It’s an adrenaline rush you can’t quite explain.” Today, the itch is fulfilled vicariously and he couldn’t be happier about it. His 21-year-old son, Cody, is carrying on the family’s bullfighting tradition and the proud father is right there on the arena’s sidelines, helping out when needed but no longer dodging bulls. Dave Morris likes to go to rodeos again. “To see Cody out there – it makes a papa proud,” he says. “I don’t know of any other father-son bullfighters around.” If you’ve ever wondered who those crazy guys are at rodeos who jump in front of a bull to distract it after the rider is bucked off, here they are. They are Dave and Cody Morris, father and son. They are passionate about what they do. And they are bullfighters, not rodeo clowns. Years ago, a single person often played both the bullfighter and rodeo clown roles – as protection for the bull rider and entertainment for the crowd. But today, the Morrises said, if a rodeo has a clown, entertainment is his sole job. A bullfighter has his own job, and it’s vital. He saves the bodies, and occasionally the lives, of vulnerable riders who have been flung from their bull. “You sacrifice your body to save theirs,” Dave said. “Hence the scars.” If it weren’t for his heritage, Cody Morris might be an unlikely candidate for bullfighting. In 2008, he graduated from Whitefish High School where, he says, “there aren’t many cowboys.” He played football and wrestled, but didn’t participate in rodeo. Whitefish, Dave notes, isn’t much of a rodeo town. “We’re one of the last ranching-farming families in the town,” Dave said. But Cody was born with bullfighting in his blood, even if his father had already been retired for years by the time the boy got interested in rodeo. Cody recalls being enthralled with a videotape called “Wrecks of ’96,” a compilation of bulls throwing riders, with bullfighters undoubtedly playing a prominent role. “I watched it over and over,” Cody said. The summer after high school graduation, Cody started hanging out at Blue Moon rodeos as often as he could, dropping hints that he was interested in bullfighting. Two experienced bullfighters – Mike Anderson and Zack Lytle – got the hint and “took Cody under their wing,” Dave said. When Cody’s time came, Dave wasn’t sure if the boy was ready, or maybe just wanted an excuse to get back out there. Either way, Dave decided to suit up and help Cody out, jumping back in the arena “for the first time in 20 years.” “It went well, but then I broke my ribs later that summer,” Dave said. Battered and bruised, Dave retired once again. But Cody was just getting started. Surrounded by longtime bullfighters like his father, Lytle and Anderson, young Cody quickly made a name for himself in the Northwest Montana rodeo circuit. Within a couple of years, stock contractors were seeking him out, knowing he could handle himself around their bulls in the heat of the moment. They traded in one Morris for another without missing a beat. “Every time I went to a rodeo, everybody talked about how good dad was and they asked why he quit so early,” Cody said. Cody now works every weekly Blue Moon rodeo as the lone bullfighter. For bigger weekend rodeos around the region, he often teams up with one other bullfighter. Cody is requested for rodeos at the Majestic Valley Arena, in Hot Springs, Eureka and Browning. “The contractors are all talking about his abilities,” Dave said. “One contractor told me Cody doesn’t have to stay here at the Blue Moon. He can go anywhere he wants to.” Dave takes comfort in knowing that Cody is armed with excellent coaching and modern protective gear. Even if he likes to tell his own war stories, Dave doesn’t want Cody to have to visit a surgeon. “When I started, I had no formal coaching,” Dave said. “All I had was people telling me to go out there and stand in front of the bull.” Bullfighting is a labor of love and, frequently, pain – “you get stepped on all the time,” Cody said. In the winter, Cody has worked rodeos until 11 p.m. only to wake up at 2 a.m. to begin plowing snow. But Cody has bigger ideas in store. Someday, he hopes he’ll make enough money from bullfighting that he won’t have to wake up early to plow snow, or do anything else for that matter. Someday, he’ll be a professional. “I’d like to see if I can make it that far,” he said. “You take small steps along the way.” Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Email
Email Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. GREAT FALLS – The cleanup of an estimated 840-gallon oil spill in northwestern Montana is finished after six weeks, with federal regulators planning to inspect the site this week.Cleanup contractor Indian Country Environmental Associates completed the work on Sunday, owner Gabe Renville said.The crew collected 20 55-gallon barrels of oil and water by cleaning oil from soil, pools of water and rocks down a steep ravine where the oil spread from a broken line on an oil field on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to the Cut Bank Creek nearly a mile away.The Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the cleanup, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which regulates oil and gas development on the reservation, will inspect the cleanup Tuesday or Wednesday, said Don Judice of the BLM’s Great Falls office.“I’m thinking the tribe and EPA will be pretty satisfied, too,” Renville said. “I don’t anticipate any problems.”Hays Griswold, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA’s Emergency Response Program, said the EPA will approve the cleanup if the tribe is satisfied.“We enforce the cleanup but the property owner has the last word,” he said. “We checked it all along and it’s just fine.”The spill happened June 12 when a 3-inch flow line connecting two small oil wells broke on the oil field operated by Salt Lake City-based FX Energy. The company shut down the line and fixed the leak that day, but oil flowed down the ravine to the Cut Bank Creek and it was not discovered until July 12.FX has informed the BLM that the company plans to abandon several wells in the Cut Bank Creek drainage as a result of the spill, Judice said. The BLM is considering requiring the company to replace aging flow lines.The collected oil and water mixture will be recycled by an on-site separator and bags of oil-soaked soil will be taken to a landfill near Conrad that’s certified to take hazardous waste, Renville said.
BILLINGS – A failed Exxon Mobil pipeline that spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River was expected to restart operations Saturday after getting approval from federal officials.Changes made during repairs to the Silvertip pipeline have made it less likely to fail again, Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper said. The line broke July 1 after flooding scoured the river bottom and exposed the 12-inch pipe, which was buried just five feet deep in some areas.A replacement segment was installed by drilling a new passage for the pipeline an estimated 60 to 70 feet beneath the riverbed.“There were a lot of eyes on this from our federal partners,” Opper said of repairs to the line. “It was done right. It’s a lot safer pipeline now, at least crossing the river.”Company spokeswoman Rachael Moore confirmed Friday that pipeline safety regulators had approved the resumption of operations along the pipe that runs beneath the river near Laurel.The flow of oil will resume once integrity checks have been completed on the line, Moore said. She declined to say when that would be, but Opper said he was told Saturday.Two more of the line’s river crossings, at Rock Creek and the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, also will be replaced with segments installed through direction drilling. That work is to be completed by next March, Moore said.“Prior to completion of the new crossings, (Exxon Mobil) will monitor daily stream flow conditions and institute shut down and isolation procedures if flow conditions exceed agreed upon thresholds,” Moore said in an emailed statement.Cleanup of the spilled oil continues. Dozens of miles of riverbank were fouled by oil, and at the cleanup’s peak more than 1,000 Exxon Mobil contractors were involved in removing contaminated vegetation and mopping up crude.Only about 10 barrels of crude oil, or 420 gallons, were recovered, according to federal officials. Exxon Mobil and the DEQ are negotiating terms of the remaining work.Silvertip is the main crude source for Exxon Mobil’s 60,000-barrel a day refinery in Billings, which had been forced to scramble to find other sources of oil while the line was down.The company in July estimated the spill could cost it more than $42 million, although that was only a preliminary figure and final costs could be higher after the cleanup proved more difficult than first expected.The cause of the pipeline’s failure remains under investigation. Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Email
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Email BEAVER LAKE – A peculiar scene unfolded along the shore of Beaver Lake, just west of Whitefish, on a recent Monday morning. As the sun burned through the early fog, a pair of boats slowly followed a steady stream of bubbles. All eyes were trained on the diver producing the bubbles. Suddenly, Sara Wilkinson emerged from the murky water with a fistful of green weeds.“How far is it?” someone on the boat asked. “It’s dense,” Wilkinson responded. Officials and scientists from local government agencies and nonprofits had gathered at the Beaver Lake fishing access to try to remove a small patch of Eurasian Watermilfoil that had been discovered a few weeks earlier on the lake bottom. The aggressive, non-native aquatic weed was first spotted in Washington state in the 1970s and has become a major problem in the Midwest. Up until a few years ago, lakes and waterways in Montana had not seen the weed, which can choke out native aquatic plants, destroy fisheries and inhibit recreation.The patch found at the bottom of Beaver Lake – which was estimated to be about 25 square feet – was the first to be discovered in the Flathead Basin of Northwest Montana. Previously some had been found along the Missouri River and in a body of water near Thompson Falls. Addressing the issue while it is still small is crucial, according to Erik Hanson of the Flathead Aquatic Invasive Species Workgroup.“It chokes out everything in small lakes,” he said. “It can cover everything, prevent recreation and kill fish.” Hanson said property along lakes infected with the plant lose value, sometimes up to 15 percent and, because of that, those who live nearby should be vigilant in their preventive efforts. The most common ways Eurasian Watermilfoil gets into a lake are either from a boat that has recently gone through an affected area or by people dumping their aquariums into the water.The aquatic weed looks like a long, green vine and when it breaks apart, small “wisps” can root into the water bottom and, depending on the conditions, can multiply into millions of new plants within a few years. Hanson said it’s unknown when or how the plant got into Beaver Lake, but considering the conditions it was likely a few years ago. “That’s one of the scary things – where did this come from?” Hanson asked. “Was it a dumped aquarium or someone’s boat that was in an affected lake?” Gordon Jewett, head of the Flathead County Weed, Parks and Maintenance program, said the weed patch was first discovered by a Department of Natural Resources and Conservation crew that was working near the lake. After confirming it was Eurasian Watermilfoil, the county – along with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the invasive species workgroup and the Whitefish Lake Institute – devised a plan to pull as much of the weed as they could before covering it with a mat to confine it to one area. Jewett said they were lucky to have been able to find it when they did and respond so quickly. “In Flathead County we want to keep it in one spot. Our goal is to eradicate it,” he said. “It doesn’t belong here and we don’t want it here.” Hanson said Montana has had very few problems with invasive plants and, because of that, it is important to address outbreaks as quickly as possible when they do appear. It was an opinion backed up by Thomas Woolf, the aquatic plant program manager for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.Woolf said Eurasian Watermilfoil has been a major problem across the Northwest, especially in Washington and Idaho. Since 2006, the state of Idaho has treated more than 10,000 acres of water affected by the plant and spent $9 million during that time. Woolf said the plant is a problem that can quickly get out of hand and is a danger to the public. He referenced an incident a few years ago when someone was trapped in a patch of the weed and drowned. However, he said the problem has been larger in the Midwest, where he went to graduate school. “I’ve seen lakes that have been dominated by this (plant),” he said. “It looks like you can walk across it.” Hanson said all of the groups involved with last week’s operation to pull and cover the weeds at Beaver Lake had the same goal: Prevent what has happened in other states from happening in Montana.“The good thing is that we got here and dealt with it when it was small,” he said.
Email Chris Tweeten speaks during a Ronan water rights meeting. Then earlier this month, the tribes, Bureau of Indian Affairs and FJBC released a draft agreement to solve disputes over consumptive uses pertaining to the irrigation system, as well as in-stream flows and minimum reservoir pool elevations.Salomon described the importance of the irrigation project succinctly: “It’s the economic driver for the Mission Valley.”“We couldn’t raise the crops and we couldn’t raise the animals without the irrigation,” he said. “That’s why it’s such a huge issue around here.”The draft agreement notes “there are significant legal disputes among the Parties as to essentially all the water delivered and affected by the FIIP and every characteristic of water rights, including but not limited to their existence, ownership, priority dates and quantity.”“The uncertain outcome of litigation as well as the cost in time, money and social disruption inherent in adjudicating those legal disputes and implementing the results has inspired the Parties to compromise their legal claims and enter into this Agreement,” the draft states.Public comments on the draft agreement are due in writing and should be mailed to FJBC, P.O. Box 639, St. Ignatius, MT 59865 or emailed to [email protected] The agreement can be viewed at dnrc.mt.gov/rwrcc/Compacts/CSKT/2012/DraftAgreementToSettleProjectWR.pdf.As part of the compact negotiations, the tribes have asked to withdraw up to 128,000 acre-feet of supplemental water each year from the main stem of the Flathead River, which would require the release of 90,000 acre-feet of water from Hungry Horse Reservoir. In a letter last January, the compact commission’s staff attorney, Jay Weiner, wrote that the state is prepared to accept the proposal with certain modifications.Another key element in the negotiations is the tribes’ proposal for a single administrative body to oversee on-reservation water rights.At a recent town-hall meeting at the Ronan Community Center, concerned citizens questioned whether tribal water rights would trump their rights. Reserved Rights Compact Commission Chairman Chris Tweeten told the crowd that failure to reach an agreement would put the legal burden of solving claims on individual residents.“If we don’t settle out of court,” he said, “many of you have some very difficult decisions to make about how you’re going to hire a lawyer when your water rights claim goes to water court.”Terry Backs, an organizer of the June 21 town-hall meeting, said she’s worried the public has become disengaged as negotiations have dragged on for more than a decade. As a property owner, she said she’s also concerned about the compact’s potential impact on property values and future development.“This is truly a big deal for western Montana,” she said. “It’s very large in scope and people should be paying attention to what’s going on in these negotiations.”If the Legislature and Congress approve a compact, a large amount of money could be allocated to address water issues on the reservation. The Crow Tribal Water Rights Settlement Act of 2010 authorized $460 million, including $131.8 million for improvements to the Crow’s irrigation project and $246.4 million for the design and construction of a “municipal, rural and industrial” water system.Salomon said significant amounts of data have been compiled and will now play an important role as negotiations hit the stretch run. He acknowledged “there’s a lot left to do.”“All of these proposals are coming fast and furious,” he said. “A tremendous amount of technical work has been done and now hopefully we’re at the point where we can negotiate with all of that technical data. “We want to get it done. And I think the tribe wants to get it done too.”For more information, visit dnrc.mt.gov/rwrcc/Compacts/CSKT/Default.asp or www.cskt.org. After more than a decade of water rights negotiations, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, state of Montana and federal government are trying to reach a settlement that will have implications across much of western Montana.Everyone from officials in Lincoln County to farmers on the Flathead Indian Reservation have questioned how the agreement might impact their access to water. The negotiating parties are hoping to finalize the settlement – called a “compact” – in time for the 2013 Legislature.“This affects most of western Montana, from Canada down to Butte,” said Dan Salomon, a Republican state representative from Ronan and member of the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission.A compact is a negotiated agreement that forever settles the reserved water rights of tribes and federal agencies within the state of Montana. Since 1979, the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission has completed compacts with multiple federal agencies and tribes on each of the state’s other seven reservations.Only the tribes of the Flathead remain without a settlement and they are looking to once and for all quantify their water rights – both their “time immemorial” aboriginal rights and federally reserved rights. Negotiations seek to protect existing uses and find an equitable balance between tribal and non-tribal interests represented by the state. The federal government serves as the trustee for the tribes.With the 2013 legislative session set to begin in January, tribal spokesman Robert McDonald said last week negotiators are working diligently to meet that deadline. From there, the settlement would move on to Congress for consideration.“That’s still the goal, to have something ready for the 2013 Legislature,” he said.Water rights are inherently contentious, as they involve that most fundamental necessity of life, used by municipalities for drinking, ranchers and farmers for agriculture, the general public for recreation and wildlife for survival. In the spectrum of tribal water rights, there are two options to resolve disputes: litigation or negotiation. Montana tribes have all chosen negotiation.Negotiations with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are uniquely complicated because of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, in which the Bitterroot Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai tribes ceded more than 20 million acres of their aboriginal homeland and retained the 1.3 million acres that form the modern Flathead Reservation. The treaty also established the tribes’ fishing rights on their aboriginal territory – rights that require the protection of their traditional fisheries. That aboriginal territory extends across much of western Montana and is an important factor in the current negotiations, with city and county officials as far away as Libby making efforts to ensure that their future water uses aren’t adversely affected. Last July, the state released a proposal to resolve the tribes’ off-reservation claims for the Kootenai River, Swan River, Bitterroot River, Flathead River system above Kerr Dam and the upper Clark Fork River. In January, the state released a follow-up document for the Kootenai, Swan and Clark Fork. The state has agreed to recognize the tribes’ in-stream water rights in the Kootenai and Swan and has proposed restrictions on new water uses in those basins.The state is proposing a number of co-ownership plans between the tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Among the proposals are co-ownership of water rights claims for in-stream flow and fish and wildlife within the Flathead River system; public recreation and reservoir contract rights on the Bitterroot; Milltown Dam water rights for the upper Clark Fork; use right claims on two Kootenai River tributaries; and in-stream flow and recreation right claims for the Blackfoot and Clearwater rivers.On May 15, the tribes released a response to the state’s proposals, noting “areas of concurrence” and areas where the tribes “propose refinements or expansion.” The response sought to clarify issues of liability and obligations in co-ownership, as well as target stream flows and other details.“Recognizing that these points form the basis for furtherance of this topic, the Tribes are prepared to work with the State of Montana to develop the details of what a co-ownership relationship will look like for the water rights enumerated in the Proposal,” the tribes’ response stated.Another major component of the compact negotiations is the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, established in 1908 to deliver water to irrigable reservation lands. Today non-tribal landowners account for the vast majority of water consumption through the irrigation system, which includes 17 reservoirs and more than 1,300 miles of canals.In 2010, a first-of-its-kind agreement was signed to create the Cooperative Management Entity, bringing together representatives from the Flathead Joint Board of Control (FJBC) and tribes to manage the irrigation system. The agreement came after years of bad blood and lawsuits between the tribes and FJBC. Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.
District Court Judges Katherine Curtis, left, and Stewart Stadler reminisce about their time in the legal system while sitting in Court Room Two at the Flathead County Justice Center in Kalispell. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. At the end of the year, about 30 years of judicial knowledge and experience will walk out of Flathead County District Court with judges Katherine Curtis and Stewart Stadler and into retirement. Their seats – Curtis in Department 2, and Stadler in Department 3 – are up for grabs in an open election, which will be decided in November. But since they are judges, they did not have the liberty to let up off the gas once they announced their respective retirements. In fact, they’re only going to get busier before January.Stadler and Curtis sat down for an interview with the Beacon last week, and Stadler, who would have preferred to leave without any fanfare, poked fun at himself all the while. Anyone who has watched Stadler work as a judge would recognize the dry sense of humor; it crops up occasionally and appropriately in the courtroom, where he is otherwise quiet and to the point. “He has the perfect judicial temperament and disposition,” Kalispell Municipal Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht, who is one of the candidates running for Stadler’s seat, said. “He doesn’t show tremendous emotion on the bench.”Kalispell attorney Vanessa Ceravolo is also running for Stadler’s seat. Before joining district court in 2000, Stadler was a justice of the peace for Flathead County. He took that bench in 1985 after a career as an attorney. Stadler also owned the Rainbow Bar in Evergreen for 10 years, bartending five nights a week. Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan has been working with Stadler for 26 years, and describes him as “very even-keeled, fair to both sides; sometimes lets common sense play a bigger role in his decisions than perhaps what the strict letter of the law may require.”Curtis is perhaps more formal than Stadler, Corrigan said, and she’s an outstanding jurist.“I’m comfortable going before her because I know her decisions are going to be well reasoned,” Corrigan said. “In some jurisdictions, there’s quite a gap between juries and judges. There’s a lot of good communication between the defense bar, my office and these two judges,” he said. “They’re going to be missed; it’s going to really be quite the change.”Before beginning her district court career in 1995, Curtis served as the city attorney for Columbia Falls, and also had a private practice. Preceding her Montana career, Curtis worked for the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., focusing on anti-trust cases.Bob Allison, an attorney in Kalispell who is running for Curtis’ seat against Justice of the Peace Daniel Wilson, said Curtis has been an excellent judge, “demanding, reasonable, fair and impartial.”While Stadler tends to look more at the big picture of cases, Allison said, Curtis is more detail-oriented on the bench. They may have different styles in the courtroom, Stadler and Curtis agreed, but the end results tend to be the same. Consistency among the four district court judges is a must if the court wants to maintain some of its efficiency-enhancing innovations, such as having one day a week designated for criminal case issues. The judges rotate who works that day each week, allowing for flexibility. “I think we’re both pretty proud of the part we’ve played and tried to help things run as efficiently as possible,” Curtis said. Losing two of the four judges currently seated in district court is a major transition in itself, but Curtis’ and Stadler’s exit is compounded by the retirement of tireless court administrator Bonnie Olson, who has been in the position for 12 years, and has worked with the Flathead court system since 1978.Adding Olson’s experience to the total, over 50 years of district court experience hits the road in December. That’s quite a change for the court to handle come the New Year, Curtis and Stadler remarked, and will add a new challenge to the already-taxing work. “I think the biggest challenge is Bonnie’s leaving,” Curtis said. “Obviously if we were all staying and she was leaving we’d figure out how to get around it, but for there to be a 50 percent turnover in the judges and you have to find someone with her qualifications and experience is just going to be really, really tough.”Another challenge for the new judges will be taking a seat with an already-full caseload instead of starting from the ground up like they would if it were a newly created judgeship.“I’m not trying to demean any of the candidates, but they’re going to have culture shock when they get here,” Stadler said. “I don’t think any of them realize that you sign 20 files a day, that it’s just constant.”The ceaseless nature of the work takes its toll. Both judges said they feel worn out from the amount of work and the stress it causes, and are ready to step down. The only motivation to stay on is the staff they work with, Curtis said, “but that only gets you so far.”“It’s a stressful job and there’s a lot to it, both the quantity and the type of thing that you deal with all the time,” she said. “And you just get to the point where you think, ‘Well, maybe someone with more enthusiasm should pick up the reins.’”Despite their lengthy careers, both judges said their most memorable cases occurred last year: Curtis sat on the bench for the Justine Winter double homicide trial and Stadler worked the Tyler Miller double homicide case. Winter’s case stood out because of its massive size and scope, Curtis said. Stadler said Miller’s case was different for him because it was a death penalty case requiring a lot of legal gymnastics for both the prosecution and the defense. But while these cases offer a break from their normal routine, they also exponentially increase the jurists’ workload, which averages about 4,500 cases total for all four judges annually. “The thing that a lot of people don’t understand is, that’s just one case in our caseload,” Curtis said. “It’s not like when he gets the death penalty Miller case or I get the Justine Winter case that somebody else picks up the slack for me. You’re still expected to do all the rest of your work but all of a sudden you have this one statistical case that consumes all of your time.”Stadler and Curtis said they both regretted that civil cases tend to fall to the back of the pack when criminal cases take precedent, but that’s the reality of how a judge has to work. “Both of us have attempted to do justice and to follow the law and I think we’ve been probably fairly successful with that,” Stadler said. “There’s people that will disagree with that; I mean, every time you rule on a case somebody’s probably not going to be real happy. In fact, sometimes it’s everyone who’s not happy.”In her time on the bench, Curtis said the most emotionally trying cases are typically the juvenile criminal cases, because the court cannot give these children all the help they need to have a chance at a decent life.She remembered one case in which she had a 6-year-old boy who had set a fire in a Lakeside marina appear before her in court.“He’s done something really bad, but you can’t blame him; I mean, it’s not his problem, it’s his parents, it’s his community,” Curtis said. “It’s not a legal problem; it’s a societal thing.”Stadler agreed, noting that he started the county’s Accountability Court to help give kids a better chance of staying with their parents. This court is volunteer run and not mandatory for those who appear in it, and works as a check-in system once every three weeks to help keep people on track. “I think you’ll find that if you can get parents to do the right thing and parent their own children, we’re all better off,” Stadler said. Curtis has also worked to help children in the Flathead, by prioritizing cases that deal with kids and helping bring Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) to the valley in the late 1990s. Both Curtis and Stadler are committed to clearing any backlog in cases they may have before the new judges take over in January, which means there will be plenty of long days and working weekends in the next few months. But it will all be worth it, they said, once retirement sets in and they can do all the fun things they didn’t have time for before, such as hiking, gardening and taking their time on errands.Olson, the retiring court administrator, said Curtis and Stadler are some of the hardest-working judges across the state, and she has enjoyed working with them for so many years. “They work very hard, they’re very professional; they’re very respectful of our staff and the people that appear before them regardless of what brings them before them,” Olson said. “And I think that’s pretty important.” Email
When O’Brien Byrd looks down Nucleus Avenue in the heart of the community that raised him, he sees a time capsule of his childhood.The old movie theater burned down and some of the storefronts have changed, but the quaint city center near Glacier National Park mostly appears as it always has. Quaint.“Having been born and raised in Columbia Falls, I look at the last 40 years and not much has changed here,” he said. “We still don’t really have a vibrant downtown area. You look at towns like Bigfork and Whitefish and they are thriving because they have found a way to capture the tourists. So what are we doing wrong?”This is a rhetorical question. Byrd knows firsthand what’s gone wrong in Columbia Falls, but right now he’s much more focused on what the community is doing right.A decade ago, Byrd opened O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine in downtown Columbia Falls, but then closed his doors a year later due to a lack of business. He and his wife, Melanie, relocated to a storefront off of U.S. Highway 2, on the main drag of town.Business took off, and after 10 years of steady growth the Byrds recently moved to more capacious digs on the corner of U.S. Highway 2 and First Avenue West near the city center. They hope to strengthen the town’s pulse by ushering visitors toward the heart of the community, where they say it’s challenging to survive as a small business because visitors pass it by.“When we opened 10 years ago, we couldn’t survive in downtown,” he said. “That’s about to change. Things are different in Columbia Falls now. There is a new energy. People are getting excited again. I think because of that people are starting to look toward Columbia Falls and go ‘Wow, something’s happening here.’”O’Brien Byrd recently moved his business near downtown Columbia Falls and will host a community market on the property this summer. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead BeaconTo spur that change, and as a testament to Columbia Falls being poised on the cusp of a potential renaissance, civic leaders and entrepreneurs are stepping up and standing in solidarity to promote the community.Don Bennett, president of Freedom Bank in Columbia Falls, recently launched the Gateway Pride Project to help local businesses improve storefronts and enhance the appearance of the community.The bank is offering unsecured loans of up to $5,000 with zero percent interest, no fees and a flexible, four-year payment schedule. The bank set aside $200,000 to facilitate the program, Bennett said, and recipients receive a 10 percent discount from Hanson’s Hardware and a contractor’s discount from Columbia Nursery for project materials.“We’ve got about eight businesses that have indicated they are willing to take part in the program. It’s really been taking off and turning into a buzz in the community,” Bennett said.Bennett launched the project as an incentive for business owners to give the downtown core a facelift and embark on outdoor improvement projects throughout the canyon, as far as West Glacier, a concept that plays to Columbia Falls’ brand as the “Gateway to Glacier National Park.”The downtown area has already had some upgrades in the past year, with Xanterra Parks and Resorts – the concessioner for Glacier National Park – moving into and refurbishing the old First Citizens Bank building, converting what was previously a prominent gap in the community corridor into an active business.City officials are also developing an urban renewal plan that would include a tax increment finance district, which is a mechanism used to spur economic redevelopment. If established, the TIF district would allow the city to direct property taxes that accrue with new development to urban renewal or redevelopment activities. Kalispell and Whitefish have successfully established TIF districts to help fund sizeable revitalization projects.Two new auto stores – Auto Zone and O’Reilly’s – have also taken up residence on U.S. 2, resulting in a $1 million tax base increase for the city.Darin Fisher is preparing to open a new microbrewery in Columbia Falls, called Backslope Brewing, with plans of opening in July or August, and The Palette Café will relocate to the new building to serve lunch and dinner. The Three Forks Grille also expanded, adding an old-style Italian deli with paninis, sandwiches, and specialty meats and cheeses. Up the road, Basecamp Café has been slinging breakfast downtown, while the new Teakettle Cafe is offering Asian cuisine.Rep. Zac Perry, D-Columbia Falls, grew up here, and when the freshman legislator returned home from Helena after the Legislature’s transmittal break he said he was amazed at the new developments.“I was in awe of all the positive developments taking place,” Perry said.Kat Barwikowski writes the daily specials on a board at Three Forks Deli in Columbia Falls. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead BeaconCasey Malmquist, the founder and general manager of the Columbia Falls-based SmartLam, a cross-laminated timber (CLT) facility, is preparing to expand his manufacturing plant at the Columbia Falls Industrial Park north of town. When complete, the facility will be the largest CLT plant in the world.The Gateway-to-Glacier trail group has also been instrumental in establishing Columbia Falls as a destination for tourists who visit Glacier National Park. The group working to build a seamless bike path connecting Columbia Falls to Glacier, and the nonprofit was recently notified that it was on the short list of programs eligible for funds through the Federal Land Access Program, which is providing $635,000 with a 13 percent match from the Montana Department of Transportation.Sarah Dakin, president of the nonprofit group, said the Flathead National Forest and MDT offered enormous support, while residents from West Glacier to Coram and Columbia Falls have been backing the project in droves.“It’s truly been a collaborative effort because everyone recognizes the many benefits of this trail system,” Dakin said.At their new location, the Byrds have opened for business in a 5,000-square-foot building while refurbishing the old Western Building Center lumber shed, where they’ll host a new community market that will accommodate 60 vendors and seven farmers.And while Byrd is confident his new location near the city center will evolve into a community hub, he sees a reservoir of untapped potential.“We’ve got 2.2 million tourists coming through Glacier National Park every year, and 95 percent of them are coming through Columbia Falls,” Byrd said. “But they look at us like we’re a pit-stop, and that’s not very flattering.”To capture more of that tourist traffic, Byrd and Columbia Falls city officials have been advocating paving a section of the North Fork Road to Camas Road and into Glacier National Park to boost traffic through town and rebrand it as a true gateway community.Whether to pave the Inside North Fork Road has been debated for years, but Glacier Park officials and residents along the North Fork of the Flathead River oppose the project, saying the Camas Road is not designed for the volume of traffic it would draw if it were to become a main entrance to Glacier.Byrd said paving the road would be a game-changer for Columbia Falls, which could better showcase its new amenities, restaurants and shops.Stacey Schnebel, president of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said numerous pieces are falling into place for an economic resurgence, including the rise of a new, younger demographic buying homes, educating their children and starting and supporting new businesses.There has also been a considerable increase in residential building activity in Columbia Falls, which issued more building permits last summer than all of the previous year, said Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia.A new bike and pedestrian path from Columbia Falls and West Glacier will also provide a new conduit for tourism traffic while providing a safe and fun means of commuting, Schnebel said.“The implication of a new trail is huge for tourism, but it would also improve the quality of life for residents. We are the new demographic. We are raising our families and we want to have these kinds of amenities in our communities, not just for us but also as a great draw for people visiting from other places,” Schnebel said.But to say Columbia Falls’ future is brightening doesn’t change what it’s lacking in infrastructure. A downtown hotel has been a priority for years, and the city’s urban renewal plan, which lies the ground for a TIF district, will help meet that and other goals.“We have these small businesses that are popping up that are very service-oriented, which indicates that there is discretionary income in and around Columbia Falls. It indicates that Columbia Falls is doing really well,” Schnebel said. “Here is this wonderful place at the front door of Glacier Park where you have this new family dynamic, where people and businesses are supporting one another, and hopefully that will attract that bigger industry.”In Columbia Falls, it’s nearly impossible to utter the word “industry” without evoking opinions about the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, which recently announced it was permanently closing its plant. The announcement was followed immediately with a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take steps to list the contaminated property as a Superfund site.The site is years away from being cleaned up, but as a suite of new and innovative businesses converge on the community, there’s an air of optimism about the site’s potential to spur a groundswell of development.Sen. Jon Tester greets Don Bennett, president of Freedom Bank, as he visits with Columbia Falls officials and community members regarding the CFAC site on March 20, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead BeaconU.S. Sen. Jon Tester worked tirelessly to reboot the aluminum manufacturing plant when CFAC’s owner, Glencore, closed it in 2009, citing high electricity rates and poor aluminum market conditions.When it became clear the plant would not reopen, Tester took a stand in support of Superfund listing, calling the site a “diamond in the rough” that investors and developers have been showing interest in for years.Last month, Tester met with community and business leaders, including Byrd, Bennett and Schnebel, and encouraged them to maintain their commitment to and enthusiasm about the city.“You are sitting by a wonderful piece of God’s infrastructure called Glacier National Park,” Tester said. “If you can get them to stop because of your storefronts, you’ve already won the battle.”Byrd said he’s never seen the community in a better position, and after 38 years of watching its economy either decline or plateau, he’s ready to shoot for the moon.“It’s about to happen,” he said. “This town is ready for a change and people are really excited about it. I feel like we have been able to put our fingers on the pulse of the community and it’s strong.” Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Email
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is again urging the Obama administration to address pervasive concerns surrounding transboundary water-quality issues on Lake Koocanusa, the sprawling reservoir that straddles the border with Montana and British Columbia, where coal mines are leaching hazardous contaminants into the downstream watershed.Scientists and researchers from a multitude of agencies are in the process of developing a site-specific plan for Lake Koocanusa as they continue to monitor the influx of selenium leaching out of upstream Canadian coal mines located on the Elk River, which rushes into the Kootenay River — spelled Kootenai on this side of the border — and converges in Lake Koocanusa.Following a visit to Libby last week, Tester, a Democrat, wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the administration to furnish protections on Lake Koocanusa, a major driver of Northwest Montana’s economy and home to a suite of native aquatic species.In the letter, Tester urged the administration to take steps to protect the Kootenai River watershed, which is threatened by the expansion of coal mining in the Elk River Valley of British Columbia.“Montana and British Columbia share abundant natural resources and each of our respective economies depend on world-class opportunities for fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation,” Tester wrote. “The long-term health of the Elk River and Kootenai River watersheds is critically important, and we must address the full scope of potential impacts to Montana’s water quality.”Tester said he sat down with local leaders in Libby last week to discuss the potential impact that the pollution of Lake Koocanusa would have on the region’s economy.In 2014, Montana Department of Environmental Quality and U.S Geological Survey officials found increased levels of contamination in Lake Koocanusa, including selenium, nitrates, sedimentation, and other impairments associated with coal mining in Canada.Last year, Tester was approached by local organizations and American Indian tribes to express concern that increased coal mining in British Columbia would further put the fish and habitat of Lake Koocanusa at risk, and last summer he relayed those concerns to Secretary Kerry, along with a call to action.“As the state of Montana and British Columbia continue to work to address basin-wide water quality issues, we need to also have a coordinated focus at the federal level, increased involvement from impacted Indian tribes, and continued engagement with the government of Canada,” Tester wrote.There are currently five coal mines in the Elk River Valley causing toxic pollution, all of which have launched expansion proposals that are in the exploration, permitting or development stage. Operated by Teck Resources Limited, the world’s second-largest exporter of metallurgical coal, the mines produce approximately 70 percent of Canada’s total annual coal exports and directly employ more than 4,500 full-time workers.In May, the British Columbia Auditor General released a two-year audit chastising provincial mine regulators for “a decade of neglect in compliance and enforcement,” highlighting the coal mines above Lake Koocanusa as particularly egregious examples.“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the (Ministry of Energy and Mines) and the (Ministry of Environment) were not met,” B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer wrote in the introduction to the report.In February, leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes formally requested that the federal government refer the impaired watershed to the International Joint Commission, joining with the Ktunaxa National Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in making the request. Email