- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Missoulian, Nov. 5, on continuing to study climate’s impacts on Montana:

A changing climate is having a powerful effect on Montana.

From melting glaciers in the northwestern corner of the state to drought-stricken fields in the southeastern corner, and fires and floods seemingly everywhere in between, Montanans are facing rapidly evolving environmental conditions that present a host of urgent new challenges. In fact, Montana’s climate is changing faster than almost any other state.

Amid the chaos and climbing costs, a rising tide of political arguments is threatening to drown out the important work being done in climate science. Good, factual information is more important than ever. It is vital that the state get a firm grasp on the climate changes it is experiencing so that we can best position our limited public and private resources to mitigate harmful impacts and better prepare for whatever the future brings.

Fortunately, Missoula in particular is a center for environmental research and expertise, and just this fall, the Montana University System’s Institute on Ecosystems released the first-ever statewide climate assessment. The study set an important baseline; it is critical that Montana build on this information by supporting further climate assessments.

That’s not to underestimate the obstacles such an ongoing effort would face. Montana is currently struggling to overcome a state government budget crisis and does not have extra funding, let alone the clear political will, to call for such a study. On the national scale, a federal administration that appears at best indifferent and at worst hostile to climate science leaves Montana pretty much on its own.

Yet it should be obvious by now that a lack of solid climate information is bound to prove even more costly in the long run: in wildfires, public health, cattle and crops.

Just last week, the Missoulian reported that only a handful of scientists from the Missoula fire lab will be allowed to attend the International Fire Congress later this month. The nonprofit Association for Fire Ecology, which is hosting the conference, had expected at least 40 Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists to travel to the gathering in Orlando. In all, the association says more than 100 federal fire scientists have not received the required approval.

Some suspect that climate-related research is being suppressed. Their suspicions appear well founded, given that many of the scientists who will not be attending had planned to present their latest research on climate change-related studies.

Just last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prevented three scientists from sharing their work at a climate change conference in Rhode Island. And several of President Trump’s picks for federal appointments have been openly skeptical or dismissive of the scientific consensus on climate change.

The Montana Climate Assessment (www.montanaclimate.org) was released in September following two years of study funded through a federal grant from the National Science Foundation. It and studies done in other states were a direct result of the National Climate Assessment that came out in 2015 and which pointed to the need to do state-level studies.

It proved a valuable examination of the distinct factors affecting Montana, a large state with multiple climate zones and challenges unique to those zones.

The climate assessment examined the impacts of climate change on the state’s water resources, forests and agriculture. It crunched available data and found that average temperatures are increasing, the fire season is expanding and drought conditions are growing more extreme.

Across all sectors, stakeholders universally agreed that they were seeing climate-driven changes in their daily lives. They wanted to know how to respond to these changes, how best to adapt for the future.

Montana has been warming at a rate nearly double that of the rest of the United States. Between 1950 and 2015, Montana’s average temperature increased by between 2 to 3 degrees. As the number of extreme heat days increases, the duration and intensity of western Montana’s forest fires will also increase - along with the costs of firefighting, flood prevention and property damage.

The study’s writers were careful to use apolitical language and avoid any hint of advocacy in order to skirt an ideologically charged debate over the root causes of climate change and instead focus on areas of certainty and scientific consensus. This assessment avoided getting bogged down in political debate by looking at what Montanans can do - now - to adapt to the changing climate. By shifting the focus to what from why, they were able to tap into the real-world observations of the state’s farmers, ranchers and timber experts and offer them potential solutions.

The assessment’s writers talked to farmers about selecting new drought-resistant crops and planting earlier or later in the season. They discussed the elevating importance of smart forest management, including the often-overlooked realm of urban forestry. And they identified areas of additional focus, including climate-related impacts on outdoor recreation and tourism, wildlife, public health and energy development in Montana.

The next study should begin as soon as possible to expand on the foundation provided by this first statewide assessment, and concentrate even more on developing a toolbox of actions that can be taken to help the Montanans better handle the climate changes coming our way.

Next steps: Expand the statewide network of weather stations so even more detailed information can be collected in the future. And prepare for a second statewide climate assessment. So long as climate changes continue to dramatically shape the state’s fortunes, these kinds of thorough, fact-based assessments should be undertaken on a regular basis.

Check out the assessment online. As we continue to deal with the fallout from climate-driven weather changes, keep in mind that the best place on which to base decisions would be good, solid information. Such assessments should be an ongoing thing, so that Montanans have access to the kinds of fact-based, politics-free information we need to make informed decisions.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2hdLK5N


Billings Gazette, Nov. 5, on saving Montana kids’ mental health care:

Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch is caring for nearly 600 kids, but only 65 were living on the sprawling campus along 72nd Street West last week. The other children and teens receive YBGR’s help in their schools, their homes or foster homes. It’s that big group of kids who would be hurt first and worst if the state cuts its budget.

Youth in-home care and targeted case management are on the chopping block, even though they are key to helping emotionally disturbed youth stay safe in their own homes.

YBGR, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, serves Montana through community offices in Dillon, Livingston, Lewistown and Billings. Those services include 32 school-based treatment teams in Billings, Laurel and other Montana public schools.

Kids on the campus west of Billings suffer serious illnesses, including major depression and PTSD resulting from abuse. Many have engaged in self-harm, such as cutting or suicide attempts. About half have chemical dependencies or are at high risk for addiction.

The vast majority of YBGR services are provided through Medicaid. The fiscal year began with zero rate increases for Medicaid mental health care. YGBR and other Montana health care providers already were struggling to pay salaries that will recruit and retain professional staff.

“Medicaid does not cover our costs,” YBGR Chief Executive Officer Mike Chavers said in an interview last week. “Our donors and foundation help.”

Starting and resuming children’s mental health care isn’t like flipping a light switch on and off. If disturbed youth are cut off from treatment, they will regress; they may need a higher level of treatment because they couldn’t access the less expensive care when they needed it. If in-home work with parents and dysfunctional families suddenly ceases, problems will grow.

“Most cuts are focused on low-cost services that serve a lot of people and divert them from higher cost care, hospitals and juvenile detention,” Chavers said. “Cutting down in this area doesn’t save money, it drives costs elsewhere. Let’s figure out ways to drive kids to better outcomes and bring kids home.”

Of course, the state needs to control the costs of its high-end kids’ mental health care, too. It’s currently paying $327 a day for residential treatment, but that rate, which doesn’t fully cover costs of care, is under the budget axe, too.

DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan and division heads are “open to thinking creatively,” Chavers said. “The challenge is there is so much noise in the system, nobody knows what’s going to happen. There’s no easy way to make 10 percent budget cuts.”

The state absolutely can improve the system. Montana public health officials should work with in-state residential treatment centers to send fewer troubled kids out of state for care. Montana needs to invest enough in community-based services to prevent kids from deteriorating till they need to be hospitalized. DPHHS must step up engagement of providers, clients and their parents to plan better, more cost-effective services. But none of this will save the general fund the $100 million DPHHS could lose this biennium to balance the state budget.

As Chavers said, “There are ways we can improve the system, but it takes time.”

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2AtIXO6

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