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News Year in Review
A review of the top stories of 2013
It’s official: 2013 is history, fated to the archives and soon to be replaced by new headlines. Before it completely recedes from view, it’s worth reflecting on the past year and the events and newsmakers that defined it.

There was the federal government’s bungled launch of its online insurance marketplace, the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it’s now known. There was perpetual — and ongoing — fighting on Capitol Hill over seemingly every decision, including sequestration, the nation’s budget and the government shutdown. Neither a farm bill nor a highway bill — fundamental pieces of legislation that are expiring — emerged due to the divisive political climate.

Here in Montana, at times the news was just as dramatic.

The 63rd Legislature convened in Helena in January with incoming Gov. Steve Bullock. At the conclusion in April, House Majority Leader Rep. Gordon Vance, of Bozeman, said he was disappointed with measures that increased spending and didn’t cut enough in taxes, but he considered the failure of the Democratic governor’s Medicaid expansion a win for the Republican Party.

The Associated Press’ annual poll of state newspaper editors pinned down U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ abrupt retirement announcement as the unanimous top story over the past 12 months. One of the nation’s longest-serving U.S. senators, and also one of the most powerful, the 71-year-old six-term Democrat announced in April he would not run for re-election in 2014. The decision shook up the political landscape overnight and sparked a sudden free-for-all to fill the vacant seat, one of two Senate seats in Montana and significant to which party could wield the most power in Washington, D.C. after this year’s midterm elections.

Another top news story, freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines jumped into the hotly contested Senate race, instantly taking over as the front-runner for the GOP nomination and kicking off a competition to take his place in the House.

Another twist occurred two weeks ago when President Barack Obama nominated Baucus as the nation’s next ambassador to China, inviting speculation over how that move could impact Democrats’ positioning in the Senate race.

In late February, the U.S. Postal Service’s Kalispell processing center joined a long list of closures across the nation and was consolidated with the facility in Missoula.

Gregory G. Rodriguez, a popular television show personality, was fatally shot in early March in a Whitefish home by Wayne C. Bengston of West Glacier.

A pair of Kalispell runners, Jill Hinrichs and Richard Briles, returned home safely from the Boston Marathon in April after two bombs erupted near the finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260.

The tense, emotional wrangling over the county’s Agency on Aging reached a fever pitch in April after Flathead commissioners Pam Holmquist and Gary Krueger declined to seek a grant that would help fund a new building and address mounting safety and health issues at the current facility. The controversial decision sparked outrage and accusations of betrayal from those who rallied in support for the agency that serves area residents 60 years and older with a variety of programs.

The investigation and subsequent trial of Jordan Linn Graham garnered widespread attention as the young newlywed bride faced murder charges for pushing her husband, Cody Lee Johnson, of Kalispell, off a cliff in Glacier National Park in early July. The bizarre saga reached a climactic finish in December when Graham admitted pushing Johnson to his death and pleaded guilty in federal court to second-degree murder. She will be sentenced in March.

Glacier Park saw a few significant changes during one of its busiest years on record. In late August, Jeff Mow took over as superintendent of the Crown Jewel of the Continent. The 54-year-old arrived at a pivotal point in Glacier’s history: rehabilitation work reached its final stages along the Going-to-the-Sun Road while an extensive study into managing the busy Sun Road corridor kicked off. In a significant shift, in August the National Park Service awarded a new 16-year concessions contract for Glacier Park to Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Xanterra is replacing Glacier Park Inc., which has held the concessions contract since 1981.

The 16-day government shutdown in October drove visitation at Glacier Park to the lowest total in October since at least 1979, when monthly records were first kept. Visitation sank 52 percent compared to the previous year. Glacier still finished the entire year with a slight increase in total visitors, with more than 2.18 million, the fourth most on record.

Thanks to a steady improvement in the timber market, Plum Creek Timber Company announced it was restarting production at its Evergreen sawmill, breathing life into a facility that sat idle for almost four years.

In late October, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls, the oldest family-owned lumber company in Montana, celebrated another milestone by unveiling its $22 million biomass plant, which will generate enough electricity to power up to 3,000 homes in the Flathead Valley through a partnership with Flathead Electric Co-op.

Political turmoil on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation spilled into the streets in 2013 when opponents of the tribal council tried to overthrow the government in September. The attempted takeover resulted in seven arrests and since October, the council has remained split. Among the factions is councilman and Democratic state Sen. Shannon Augare, who pleaded guilty to drunk driving in federal court late this year.

Kalispell teacher Bree Fuqua accomplished a rare and impressive feat in August, hiking more than 2,600 miles along the entire Pacific Crest Trail. She completed the journey in 110 days without taking a single day off since starting in early May and was the second fastest female finisher on the PCT this year at the time.

More than 60 men and women in the local Montana Army National Guard 495th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion experienced an emotional homecoming on Sept. 21, returning after spending nearly 10 months in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Kalispell residents rejected the city’s proposed upgrades at the municipal airport on Election Day. Mark Johnson earned his place as Kalispell’s next mayor after running unopposed. Heather Knutson won the race as Polson’s mayor. Doug Roll eked out a victory to retain his place as Libby’s mayor.





Troy Mine
The copper and silver mine in the heart of Lincoln County has teetered on the brink of ruin due to a string of setbacks that began a year ago with sizable underground rockslides. Officials from Revett Minerals were hopeful that production could resume in 2013, but an inspection discovered one of the primary haulage routes remained unstable. This spring the company laid off more than half of its workforce.

Today about 65 people are working at the mine and the company has said it will spend $12 million and nearly a year building a new drift to gain access to the ore.

Kalispell City Airport
After years of fiery debate inside City Hall, voters issued the final word inside the ballot box. A hotly contested referendum passed by 351 votes, rejecting a list of proposed upgrades at the 84-year-old airstrip on the south end of town. Now it’s back to the drawing board for city staff and the new-look council that are turning the chapter on an age-old quarrel.

Kalispell Bypass
The end is finally in sight for the valley’s prolonged alternate highway route. Progress restarted in 2013 on the final stages of the U.S. 93 bypass and the momentum is expected to continue this spring at Three Mile Drive. The state transportation commission has vowed its support by adding the final phases of construction to its list of priorities for the next five years. That means the entire roadway could open to traffic by 2017. That is unless, of course, D.C. lawmakers keep up their stubborn ways and stall the nation into yet another traffic jam over a new highway bill.

Flathead Lake Water Compact
Who has ownership rights to the water flowing in and out of the Flathead Reservation? The debate rages on more than ever between neighbors, lawyers and state and tribal officials. Tensions spiked this year after the 2013 Montana Legislature rejected a negotiated compact for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the first time a deal from the Montana water rights commission was rebuffed since 1979. Last week the state commission released a new report addressing questions raised during the legislative session, aiming to resolve any uncertainty surrounding the complicated and controversial issue.

The commission plans to resubmit a proposed compact to the 2015 Legislature for approval.

Big Mountain Jesus
The Jesus statue atop Big Mountain held its ground after the U.S. District Court ruled in June that the Flathead National Forest was not endorsing a religious shrine by issuing a permit for the statue, which is perched on a 25-by-25 foot patch of public land alongside a ski run at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The issue goes back to a complaint filed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., which claims the statue violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of the federal government sanctioning any religion. District Court Judge Dana Christensen disagreed, saying Big Mountain Jesus “neither offends nor inspires,” and also has historical significance as “one of the only vestiges that remains of the early days of skiing at Big Mountain.”

The fate of the 58-year-old statue is not sealed, though. The FFRF was slated to file an opening brief last week to the Ninth Court of Appeals in San Francisco. In the next 7-8 months, the federal court will decide whether the inevitably statue stays or goes.

CFAC
The once-prominent aluminum plant in Columbia Falls has sat shuttered and in limbo since 2009, despite efforts from Montana’s two Senators to negotiate a power agreement with Bonneville Power Administration and Glencore, the facility’s owner, to restart operations. With nothing in the form of progress, frustrations spiked in 2013 and Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester sent a letter to the EPA asking the agency to study whether the grounds should be declared a Superfund site. In a story published in the Beacon in March, Tester said Glencore strung him and BPA along during negotiations and has proven to only care about maximizing profit, not providing jobs.

Following the story, Glencore sent representatives to the Flathead Valley to meet with local and state officials and affirm its commitment to restarting the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant. Nevertheless, the EPA has agreed to conduct a site assessment that could lead to some form of resolution.

Whitefish Doughnut
The battle for jurisdiction over Whitefish’s planning “doughnut” went round and round in 2013 as the legal saga continued to unfold, and in December the Montana Supreme Court weighed in on a case that will ultimately determine whether the city or Flathead County should have control of the two-mile planning district that girds the city’s outer edge.

Following a state district court ruling in July that returned planning authority to Flathead County – a decision the city of Whitefish appealed – the final determination of who retains control of the planning doughnut remains up to the high court, which could take a year or more to issue a ruling, according to attorneys and city officials.

Lake Trout Management
State and tribal officials navigated this year as the roiling debate over management of nonnative lake trout in Flathead Lake continued and the rift between the state of Montana and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes widened.

In the past two years, the tribes have developed a draft environmental impact statement with alternatives calling for varying degrees of gill-netting to suppress the invasive fish population and promote the recovery of native bull trout and cutthroat trout.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks declined to participate in a co-management strategy because of what they have called a problematic public review process used by the tribes. The agency also raised concerns about the consequences of widespread gill-netting.

The state and the tribes have also clashed over a co-management plan that expired in 2010.
 
On 01-03-14, Craig moore commented....
There is a major story missing from this list.  http://www.kcet.org/news/rewire/wind/sdge-montana-wind-company-in-flap-over-eagles.html ====quote==== A pair of lawsuits filed in the past week marks heightening tension between San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and a Spanish-owned wind turbine facility in Montana. The utility says it’s backing out…
 
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