- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Billings Gazette, Sept. 26, on the impact of sage grouse decisions on Montana:

If we had a nickel for every story we’ve printed about the sage grouse, we’d probably have saved enough money to buy the birds all the habitat they need.

Two key decisions about the birds came out earlier this week.

First, the Interior Department announced that it would not seek to have the birds protected as “endangered” or “threatened” species, which could have triggered a number of draconian measures that could have, in turn, threatened or endangered oil and gas or agriculture.

The second decision was the acknowledgment that federal agencies have shifted some firefighting priorities in the West to help preserve sage grouse habitat.

Both of these have consequences for Montana.

On one hand, both decisions tell a story of trying to work together before the heavy hand of the federal government forces a change. The response to the sage grouse proves that conservationists, biologists and industries can come together to help reverse the troubling trend of a species in decline. It’s also the recognition that these species can indicate larger troubles in an ecosystem we all share. This proves that folks can work together without having protections placed that could cripple a region’s economy. Moreover, Montana itself should be given plenty of credit for pulling together folks to work together - folks who, it should be pointed out, don’t often agree. When is the last time you saw petroleum organizations and wildlife conservation programs issue joint press statements? It’s great to prove it can happen in a place like Montana and believe it will happen more.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell pointed to Montana’s quick action and Gov. Steve Bullock for his work.

That being said, we can’t help but also wonder about the priorities of the federal government. It should be said at the outset that federal firefighting priorities in the West put loss of life at the highest level. That’s as it should be.

But in this extreme fire season of 2015, we’ve also seen firefighting resources at all levels - federal, state and local - stretch thin across the Western United States. If sage grouse habitat protection moves up on the priority list, then where does that leave the property in some of these areas?

In Washington and California, smaller communities have been decimated or damaged by fire. In many respects, these fires have been epic enough that we should question how many resources are needed to fight these fires, our Forest Service policies and whether placing habitat conservation for the sage grouse should be given more funding. As far as the Forest Service should be concerned, the needs are many and the funding is inadequate.

Spending more money on sage grouse habitat restoration and protection may be a good thing. But lawmakers would do well to remember that firefighting is an expensive proposition, especially in the West. And if we’re going to spend more on protection of habitat, let’s also up the protection for the people in those habitats.

John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and public lands expert, put the question best: “If there’s a habitat issue versus property, how do they reconcile that? How do they allocate resources when, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, those resources are limited?”

We’ve seen fires destroy property closer to home - in Columbus last weekend. This was not a matter of federal firefighting. It wasn’t a matter of firefighters being unavailable because of sage grouse.

However, it’s a reminder that fire is a reality for nearly half a year here in the dry West. People lose property and are sometimes lucky to escape with their lives. We can’t quibble with trying to conserve the sage grouse habitat. Clearly part of those efforts have been working. But, the Forest Service - and elected congressional leaders - need to make sure the priorities include more funding for the wildfire problem in the West.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1O8hRQl


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Sept. 24, on certifying rural telecommunication companies:

Last week, Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman suggested that the commission reject the recertification of rural cell phone and Internet service providers, a move that would have jeopardized some $100 million in federal funds needed to provide those services to rural Montanans.

At that meeting, Commissioner Travis Kavulla made a procedural motion to certify the providers. When none of the other four commissioners seconded the motion, Koopman said: “Mr. Chairman, if the motion fails for lack of a second, well then I guess that ends the discussion, otherwise, I would make a motion to reject the certifications for this year.”

He went on to say that “maybe we need to bite the bullet and take a principled stand” against the program, adding that the 26 rural communications providers should be like Verizon and AT&T;, which provide services without subsidies.

Except that they don’t in unprofitable rural areas. Hence, the federal program.

Koopman says that his position changed by the end of that meeting, and this week, in the face of objections from phone company officials and their rural customers, Koopman emphasized that he never intended to decertify the providers. “I simply made an initial statement on the matter, questioning the long-term wisdom of these anti-market subsidy programs,” he said in an email to the Chronicle.

Whatever the case, it seems apparent that Commissioner Koopman was grandstanding last week just to draw some attention to his unworkable ideas.

This type of behavior echoes the kind of counterintuitive actions we saw from the rightwing fringe in the last Legislature where ideology trumped ideas, leading to the demise of a badly needed infrastructure repair bill because it relied in part on borrowing historically cheap money. They turned their nose up at interest rates below the return the state gets on surplus money invested - in other words, borrowing that would have profited the state.

Had it come to fruition, Koopman’s initial argument to turn away these federal subsidies would have seriously harmed his rural constituents in the name of slavish adherence to the free market, even when that free market fails and would deny essential services.

PSC staff said such a move would have been catastrophic and could have eliminated cell phone or Internet service - or both - to one in five Montanans.

In the end, Commissioner Koopman and the other members of the PSC rightfully voted to re-certify the telecommunication companies. Next time, let’s hope they can do so without the stumping for 19th century ideals.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1YOYmj2


The Missoulian, Sept. 30, on teen suicide:

The latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey contains a disturbing message - consider it a cry for help - from Montana’s teens. More of them reported experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts.

The Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a joint effort by the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Centers for Disease Control, is conducted every two years. Students voluntarily answer personal questions in a variety of health and behavior categories.

This year’s survey revealed that more than 29 percent of teens in Montana have had feelings of sadness or hopelessness that lingered for two weeks or longer, an increase from 26.5 percent in 2013. And nearly 9 percent said they had attempted suicide at least once during the past year - up a full percentage point from 2013.

This is not the direction we want to be going.

Fortunately, there is much we can do in Montana - as individuals and communities - to reverse the trend. Some promising efforts are already underway.

For one, the 2015 Montana Legislature approved a bill that ensures all public school employees will receive special training in suicide awareness and prevention. House Bill 374, Montana’s Suicide Awareness and Prevention Training Act, requires the state Office of Public Instruction to develop suicide awareness and prevention training materials and make them available to all school district employees, and recommended that these employees receive at least two hours of training every five years.

Schools are a logical place to encourage education about suicide, but the discussion needs to happen out in the community as well.

At a recent workshop organized by Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative, founded last year by United Way of Missoula County, speakers and experts urged attendees to talk more openly about suicide and depression. It’s a common misperception that talking about suicide will plant the idea in someone’s head - when in fact, asking others for honest answers about how they are feeling, and listening to them without judgment, is one of the surest ways to help prevent suicide.

Although the workshop in Missoula was geared to workplace situations involving adults, the same is true for school situations involving teens. Parents, peers and others must help create an environment in which youth know their feelings will be taken seriously.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of American adults are affected by depression; however, the vast majority - more than 80 percent, according to the CDC - of those who receive treatment consider their treatment successful. Montanans can help by making sure that those experiencing mental illness get the treatment they need to get better.

And while the rate of suicide is higher among older age groups than it is for teens, earlier intervention could help set more Montanans on a preventive path that will last a lifetime.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1YOXn2k


The Livingston Enterprise, Sept. 28, on the fragile nature of mankind’s dependence on technology:

The lights went out in Livingston Saturday night, big time.

Unlike many previous power outages that have affected only small portions of the city, this one snuffed out most of the town. If you had climbed the hill overlooking Livingston, the eerie sight of a whole lot of blackness would have greeted you.

It was a sobering reminder that modern civilization is, at any given moment, one power outage away from the Stone Age, or at the very least the mid-1800s, when we packed in our firewood and hauled water from the creek. Our entire society is built around the assumption that electricity will be there, all the time, any time we need it.

We forget that when the power goes out, we not only have no lights - there’s also no television; no refrigeration; no heat, unless you have a fireplace (most gas furnaces need electricity to function); and eventually, no wheeled transportation, since when the gas in your car runs out, you can’t refill it because gas stations need power to pump fuel.

That effectively puts you back to 1850.

Fortunately, our institutions of critical importance, like hospitals, have backup generators to get them through. But most individuals are totally unprepared to be hurled back centuries to where darkness covered the earth at sundown and everything was done by hand.

So, it’s a reminder to be prepared for far longer power outages than we experienced Saturday night, such as ones caused by major winter storms, earthquakes or other disasters. Have more than flashlights and extra batteries on hand - include also a battery-powered or hand-cranked radio to get emergency reports; in winter, a way to keep warm; and enough food on hand to get you through at least several days.

We were in the dark Saturday, but we don’t need to stay that way for any future emergencies.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1VrqTGT

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