- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Missoulian, July 3, on the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project:

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project was bundled together with two other collaborative initiatives from western Montana and introduced into the U.S. Senate as the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act for the first time in 2009.

Although it was cleared by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2013, the proposal has never received a full Senate vote and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has yet to reintroduce it this session.

Thankfully, Tester has been unwavering and unequivocal in his support for these homegrown forest management solutions. His stance falls in line with the results of a recent poll from the University of Montana that shows three in four Montanans embrace public lands as the treasure they are, and approve of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project specifically.

The poll results are bipartisan, with 73 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Independents in favor of the project. Yet among Montana’s congressional delegates, support remains split along partisan lines.

The BCSP steering committee is pushing hard to bridge the divide and secure congressional approval at last, for their portion of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act at least. They continue to gather endorsements from a growing array of supporters and have pledged to release a new video every month urging Montana’s entire congressional delegation to take the project to Washington, D.C.

The urgency comes partially due to timing - the BCSP is 10 years old this year, which happens to be the centennial of the National Park Service - and partially due to the fact that completed portions of the proposal have had a measurable effect, and project supporters are eager to capitalize on that momentum to implement the remaining portions.

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project is the result of years of discussion involving conservationists, timber interests, small-business owners, recreation groups, government agencies and many other stakeholders. The idea was to use a groundbreaking collaborative process to move past the entrenched opposition that had long thwarted meaningful progress on public lands while making enemies of members of the same communities.

In 2006, the project’s participants unveiled a proposal for the Seeley Lake Ranger District of the Lolo National Forest that offered new wilderness, habitat restoration, designated recreation areas and logging recommendations, all located around the towns of Seeley Lake and Ovando in the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys.

The project counts among its successes the establishment of the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative, which it helped launch in 2010. That collaborative has led to the creation or maintenance of 138 jobs and kicked off $19 million in federal investments, according to BCSP backers, resulting in more than 46,000 acres treated for noxious weeks, 130 miles of stream restoration and 2,000 miles of multiple use trails maintained.

Now, advocates of the project would like to see their vision completed. That vision includes the addition of 83,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountain Wilderness Areas and the establishment of the 1,800-acre Otatsy Recreation Area for snowmobilers. This is congressmembers’ part to do.

Given the fact that Congress has failed to make any headway with the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, proponents of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project are wondering if their proposal might meet with more success as a stand-alone piece of legislation. In any case, they are drumming up a crowd of endorsers to lean on Montana’s senators and congressman.

The recent poll, commissioned by UM’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative, follows on the heels of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission’s official endorsement, which itself comes in addition to a long list of supporters throughout the state, from Missoula County commissioners to Pyramid Mountain Lumber to Montana Outfitters and Guides Association to the Montana Wilderness Association.

Despite this strong support, however, the project contained in Democrat Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act continues to get the brush-off from Montana’s Republican members of Congress. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke both insist that more public input is necessary before they’ll get behind the BCSP. Meanwhile, they have plenty of other land management issues to occupy their attention.

That’s no longer good enough. Daines and Zinke have been in Congress long enough - and the project has certainly been available to the public long enough - for them to have fully explored the idea and formed an opinion on it. If any lingering doubts remained about whether Montanans truly support the project, the UM poll results ought to put them to rest.

It’s time for Daines and Zinke to sit down with Tester and decide what to do about the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. If they aren’t ready to support the entire FJRA, they ought to at least support the piece approved by 75 percent of Montanans, the majority of those whose wishes they are sworn to represent in Congress, and who overwhelmingly support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/29lc6m0

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Bozeman Daily Chronicle, June 26, on funding early childhood education:

As the election season in Montana unfolds, an issue that will bubble to the surface again is that of publicly funded early childhood education. The Legislature in 2015 rejected a plan to fund a $37 million program that would enable school districts to voluntarily provide prekindergarten education for their constituent families.

It would be a big mistake to do that again. Reliable data has shown that access to early childhood education is a predictor of success later in education and that success leads to productive lives and careers.

The 2015 prekindergarten plan was a key component of Gov. Steve Bullock’s 2015 legislative agenda. In a way, that was unfortunate in that it delineated the proposal as a partisan issue. The Republican-controlled Legislature was unlikely to pass anything championed by Bullock, a Democrat.

But allowing early childhood education to devolve into a partisan issue is betraying the best interests of Montanans. Because this is an investment with a measurable payoff for us all.

The HighScope Perry Preschool Study found that kids who attended preschool went on to earn up to $2,000 more per month than those who didn’t. In another, Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return, a Federal Reserve Bank official estimated that investment in prekindergarten education yields a 12 percent return. The data is so convincing that 45 other states have adopted publicly funded early childhood education programs.

We need to join those states.

It’s no secret that Montana ranks low among all states on per capital income. On the plus side, Montana is one of the few states that can boast a budgetary surplus right now. The best way to boost per capita income across the board is to increase the quality of our workforce. And the evidence is clear: The prekindergarten years are least expensive years in which to get that done. Let’s use some of those budget-surplus dollars to invest in this modestly priced program.

As you listen to gubernatorial and legislative candidates speak over the coming months, hold them accountable. Ask them if they support funding for early childhood education opportunities for all Montana kids. If they do not, demand to know why.

This issue is too important to let slide in yet another legislative session.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/29tpBhJ

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Billings Gazette, July 5, on providing legal representation for low-income residents:

About 65 percent of litigants in Montana divorce cases don’t have a lawyer. Considering that 10,000 divorces cases are filed annually, and each case has two parties, that’s a lot of people trying to navigate the legal system on their own.

Family law - divorce, parenting plans, child support, orders of protection - is just the tip of the problem of unrepresented litigants in our state. Landlord-tenant issues, guardianship and other civil matters may confront people regardless of whether they can afford an attorney. It’s a problem that affects all of us as citizens and taxpayers.

Access to the court system is a fundamental right in the United States. But those who can’t afford an attorney are at a severe disadvantage. If they do manage to file a case in court, they don’t know how to proceed, and that slows down justice for other litigants who do have attorneys. Clerks and judges take extra time to provide information to the lawyerless, but they can’t advocate for one party over another. Here in Montana’s busiest judicial district, serving unrepresented litigants is a major challenge for the court system.

These are reasons why the Montana Supreme Court rules require and the Montana Bar Association encourages attorneys to provide pro bono - free or reduced fee - services to people who can’t afford to pay more. The 2015 Montana Pro Bono Report shows:

-1,799 attorneys reported providing 78,929 hours of free services to individuals or families of limited means or to organizations designed to assist people of limited means.

-705 attorneys reported providing 35,214 hours of service at substantially reduced fees to people or limited means or to organizations that help them.

At $175 per hour for free service and $80 per hour for reduced fee, Montana attorneys gave $16.6 million in legal assistance to people who could not otherwise afford representation, according to the report.

“Montana attorneys take seriously the professional responsibility to use their unique skills to assist those who cannot pay for legal assistance,” Chief Justice Mike McGrath said in comments about the pro bono report. “These contributions are vital to make our justice system fair and available to all and we are grateful to Montana’s attorneys for their very meaningful volunteer service.”

Montana Legal Services Association serves indigent clients, but its funding has been cut, said Patty Fain, state pro bono coordinator. The state funds a Court Help Program that includes a limited number of Self Help Law Centers that provide proper legal forms, but cannot give legal advice.

Over the past eight years, both the number of attorneys reporting pro bono work and the total number of hours donated has increased. Yet the average is below the 50 hours per year that Montana Rules of Professional Conduct says each lawyer should provide.

One hindrance to pro bono work is the rule that attorneys generally have to stay on a case till it concludes. Family law matters could easily require 150 hours of work, Fain said.

So five years ago, the Montana Supreme Court adopted an idea that is being embraced in other states: limited scope representation. The new Montana rule allows attorneys to agree to represent a pro bono client for certain matters, such as drafting a document or appearing at a court hearing - without being obligated to keep the case to the end.

The Yellowstone County Area Bar Association holds family law clinics every other week where local attorneys meet with about a dozen indigent clients, Fain said. Montana Legal Services screens applicants to assure the limited number of slots go to the neediest people.

“We want to serve the needs of litigants so they come to court more educated,” Fain said. “It’s helping everyone - judges, attorneys, paying clients.”

Fain said the bar association is exploring ways to increase the frequency of these family law clinics.

Meanwhile, Justice of the Peace David Carter and Fain have started discussing a pilot project that could improve the process for individuals needing to obtain permanent orders of protection from the courts.

Taxpayers and anyone with business before Montana courts have a stake in improving access and representation. Thanks to the Montana Pro Bono project and nearly 1,800 Montana lawyers, justice moves faster for everyone. When state lawmakers consider funding for the Court Help Program, they should know that there’s a tremendous return on this investment.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/29ioZsm

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