- Associated Press - Monday, December 28, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho wildfire season just wouldn’t end in 2015.

When it finally did it had lasted two months longer than normal, scorched six times the number of acres compared to the 20-year average, and put Idaho taxpayers on the hook for $60 million in firefighting costs.

Along the way some 50 homes burned in northern Idaho, hundreds more had to be evacuated, and a giant rangeland fire in southwest Idaho torched grazing areas and important sage grouse habitat.

“There was a lot of fire on the landscape,” Idaho State Forester David Groeschl said.

The devastation was just one of the top stories that shaped the Gem State over the past year.



State officials also offered 15 salvage logging sales on state endowment land, the most such sales state officials could recall.

That’s about 88 million board feet, but it will produce only about 50 to 60 percent of the revenue of what would have been expected had the trees not burned.

Here are some of the other stories that defined Idaho in 2015:

INSTANT HORSE RACING TURMOIL

Known as instant horse racing terminals, the machines were hailed as the saviors of Idaho’s declining horse racing industry. Yet the machines’ spinning animations and music resembled too much like illegal slot machines and Idaho lawmakers passed legislation to repeal them. While Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter attempted to veto the bill, the Idaho Supreme Court eventually ruled that Otter failed to reject the bill on time. The machines are now illegal and the future of the state’s horse racing industry is unknown.

PUBLIC DEFENSE REFORM

Idaho lawmakers had been warned for years: Reform the state’s public defense system or risk a massive legal battle. That warning became a reality when the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho dropped its lawsuit against the state earlier this year. With the case hanging over lawmakers’ heads as they prepare for the 2016 Legislature, it’s still unknown what - if any - changes will be made.

SAGE GROUSE NOT LISTED

The federal government decided sage grouse didn’t need protection under the Endangered Species Act in September. It was a decision Idaho ranchers had hoped for years, but the decision included new restrictions on mining, energy development and grazing that led Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to file a federal lawsuit. According to Otter, federal officials wrongly ignored local efforts to protect the bird. “We didn’t want a (threatened or endangered) listing, but in many ways these administrative rules are worse,” the Republican governor said.

ISLAMOPHOBIA

It started with a former Muslim turned Christian pastor meeting with a dozen lawmakers in the Idaho Capitol to call for limiting Islamic immigration and blocking refugees from settling in the state. From there, fears over Sharia law and Muslim culture became a common theme in Idaho for 2015. Lawmakers were forced to gather for a special legislative session to pass federal compliance legislation after a handful of legislators warned child support laws were connected to Sharia law. Meanwhile, a Twin Falls refugee resettlement center has been criticized by hose fearing the refugees would be radicalized Muslims.

TERRORISM TRIAL

As fears over refugee vetting increased across the country, a federal jury in Idaho convicted an Uzbek refugee of three terrorism-related charges in one of the state’s most high-profile cases of the year. Prosecutors said Fazliddin Kurbanov worked to support a terrorist organization and gathered explosive materials in his Boise apartment. Kurbanov, a Russian-speaking truck driver who fled Uzbekistan in 2009, was arrested two years ago by federal authorities who said he was determined to carry out an attack on U.S. soil.

RANCHER KILLED

Rancher Jack Yantis was shot and killed by Adams County sheriff’s deputies in November after a car hit one of his bill, which then charged emergency crews. The deputies planned to shoot the injured bull when the rancher arrived with a rifle. Investigators say all of them fired their weapons. From there, details from law enforcement become scarce. Both Idaho State Police and the FBI are conducting investigations. Meanwhile, Yantis’ family says the death wasn’t justified.

NUCLEAR DEVELOPMENT

The U.S. Department of Energy in October canceled a research shipment of 100 pounds of spent fuel to the Idaho National Laboratory worth an estimated $20 million annually to the state after the federal agency and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden couldn’t make a deal on a waiver to a 1995 agreement between the state and federal agency. The sticking point is 900,000 gallons of radioactive waste that the Department of Energy has failed to convert into a solid form as part of the 1995 agreement, and doubts have emerged about a $600 million waste-treatment facility ever being able to get the job done. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy announced plans to build a $1.6 billion facility at the Idaho National Laboratory to handle spent fuel from the nation’s fleet of nuclear-powered warships. The Navy and U.S. Department of Energy are working on a draft environmental impact statement for the jointly operated Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program at the eastern Idaho facility.

BROADBAND FALLOUT

Ask any Idaho school official and they’ll likely agree that providing broadband Internet to students is critically important. Yet the service came to a halt after a district judge deemed the $60 million contract that created the state’s broadband system was illegal. The ruling was a turning point for state lawmakers, who called for a massive review of Idaho’s contracting laws as well as find the best way to maintain broadband in Idaho’s schools. Recommendations from those reviews are expected to be hot topics during the 2016 Legislature.

BOISE TRIPLE KILLING

A triple killing in Boise that authorities described as among the most violent they’d seen left residents in Idaho’s capitol city on edge in March for several days before law enforcement officials gave the all clear following the arrest of a 22-year-old southwest Idaho man. Adam Dees in August received three life sentences after pleading guilty to killing a former Arizona power company executive, his wife and their adult son at a Boise home. The judge who sentenced Dees called the murders of 80-year-old Theodore M. Welp, 77-year-old Delores Elaine Welp, and 52-year-old Thomas P. Welp cold blooded. Dees shot the victims and beat them with a baseball bat, and later told officials his addiction to first-person shooter video games made the crimes easier.

BOWE BERGDAHL

The U.S. Army decided to proceed with a military trial for 29-year-old Bowe Bergdahl that could result in a life sentence in prison rather than follow a hearing officer’s recommendation of a special court-martial, which is a misdemeanor-level forum. The Hailey, Idaho, native walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He was released in late May 2014 as part of a prisoner swap, in exchange for five detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Bergdahl said he walked off his base to cause a crisis that would alert military brass about what he believed were serious problems with leadership in his unit. Bergdahl’s attorney says politicians and others have been using Bergdahl as a talking point to push their own agendas for months.

PRISON RAPE LAW

In a surprise announcement, Otter informed the U.S. Department of Justice in mid-December that Idaho’s prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers would work to come into compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act after refusing to do so for two years. The move comes after the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections was hit with several lawsuits from nearly a dozen juveniles who say they were sexually abused by staffers at a detention center in Nampa.

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