- Associated Press - Friday, June 29, 2018

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, June 26, on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and power:

If the Trump administration were not mired in day-to-day chaos, the escapades of former Montana congressman and now Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be front page news almost daily.

Consider his travel faux pas, using a private charter to get from Las Vegas to Kalispell in 2017. The plane belonged to oil and gas executives who have a big stake in Interior Department federal land leasing policy. That flight came at a cost of more than $12,000 to taxpayers.

And then there was what appears to be a politically motivated reshuffling of senior professionals in the Interior Department - including Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk - with apparently little regard for the welfare of the natural resources those professionals are responsible for. Some in Congress are calling for an investigation into that.

And now we learn that a nonprofit foundation founded by Zinke and presided over by his wife has agreed to allow developers of a Montana hotel project - one financially backed by an oil-field service company Halliburton executive - to use some foundation-owned land adjacent to the project for a parking lot. And there could be possible financial benefit to Zinke if the deal goes through. Certainly, there will be yet another investigation.



Taken individually, each of these issues is disturbing. Taken together they suggest an arrogant abuse of power.

Zinke of course says he is innocent of any wrongdoing and has maintained that the media is raising issues where none exist.

There’s certainly a portion of the electorate who will believe that line of defense, but there is significant evidence of clear conflicts of interest at the expense of the people’s business. And no matter whether you support Zinke’s politics or his management of the Interior Department, we as a country should and must demand better.

After his stint in the Trump administration is over, Zinke is likely to be back here in Montana, and we won’t be surprised if he again runs for statewide office.

Memo to voters: Be taking notes on what’s going on now with Zinke in D.C.. And hang on to them.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2KmG9dL

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Billings Gazette, June 28, on the potential release of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana:

Nearly 40 years after federal law preserved Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have proposed legislation that would release hundreds of thousands of acres of public land from future possibility of being protected as wilderness.

Some parts of the eight Wilderness Study Areas managed by the U.S. Forest that both Republicans want to open up for other uses probably should be taken off WSA status. Some of the Bureau of Land Management WSA acreage that Gianforte also wants to release probably should be.

This editorial board doesn’t have current, scientific information to argue that all the WSAs should be abolished. Neither do these lawmakers. The recommendations they have cited for their proposals to end WSAs in Montana are mostly 20 to 30 years old. Would anyone argue that the value of other Montana land is the same as it was in 1988?

Montana’s population has grown, along with the nation’s. Demand has exploded for outdoor recreation, wilderness experiences and the quality of life provided by wildlife, clean rivers, natural forests and prairies.

Big Snowy Mountains

While much of the public land in the WSAs is west of the Continental Divide, The Gazette has heard from readers who value spectacular WSA landscapes in the eastern half of our great state.

“It’s easy to see why most of the Big Snowy Mountains was designated as a Wilderness Study Area,” Laurie Lohrer of Lewistown wrote in a letter to the editor. “It’s the most intact island range in Central Montana, and it remains that way primarily because of protection provided by WSA designation.”

Andrew McKean, of Glasgow, wrote about the Bitter Creek WSA, “some 59,000 lonely acres just south of the Canadian line . with unroaded, pristine viewscapes, and the opportunity to get away from modern contrivances such as powerlines and compressor stations.”

Karen Aspevig Stevenson, of Miles City, told us that she and her husband have led an annual group hike into the Terry Badlands and Natural Bridges, located just northwest of Terry for nine years. They have introduced Eastern Montana to people from all over the state and as far away as New York, California, England, and even Israel.

Mike Penfold, of Billings, a former BLM state director, and Tim Bozarth, a longtime veteran BLM manager, pointed out in a guest opinion that Gianforte’s bill “opens fresh threats to the Upper Missouri River Breaks. His bill strips protections from Cow Creek and Antelope Creek - both recommended for wilderness designation.”

Recommendations from these and other Montanans should be considered before Congress acts on outdated plans for our public lands.

House hearing

In a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on June 21, Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott testified at Gianforte’s invitation in favor of releasing all the BLM and Forest Service WSAs as the legislation proposes. Gianforte has said that the Montana Association of Counties as well as several county commissions and the Montana Stockgrowers Association support his WSA bills.

However, neither Gianforte nor Daines has held a meeting inviting public input. A recent scientifically valid Montana opinion survey conducted by a bipartisan duo of pollsters showed 77 percent of Montanans “strongly agreed” that “a wide range of stakeholders and local communities should have the opportunity to provide their input before decisions are made” about existing public lands. Only 3 percent said public input wasn’t important.

Tracy Stone-Manning, the other Montana witness at the House hearing, was invited by the staff of Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, of Hawaii, top Democrat on the subcommittee. Stone-Manning, who works for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, told the committee that a coalition of a dozen Montana sportsmen and conservation organizations has offered to convene a working group of diverse stakeholders to come up with balanced recommendations suited to each WSA.

“We urge the committee not to advance these bills until a collaborative group of stakeholders can bring recommendations, driven by current science, to Congress,” Stone-Manning said.

A public process that updates, debates and scientifically evaluates the best use of 800,000 acres of public lands in Montana won’t be easy, but it’s the right way to make decisions for the landowners - all of us Americans.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2lJpC5m

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Montana Standard, June 22, on change being required after meat-plant scandal:

The Montana Standard was pleased to do well in the Montana Newspaper Association’s annual Better Newspapers contest, the results of which were recently announced. Particularly gratifying was winning the investigative reporting award, for our series “Through the Meat Grinder,” which showed an astounding level of harassment of local small businesses by a federal meat inspection supervisor. Some of the harassment was admitted, in writing, by the agency after internal complaints were investigated, but no action was taken against the supervisor.

The purpose of this editorial is not to thump our chests with pride. Instead, we must report that in a very real sense, we have failed.

The agency involved, the Food Safety Inspection Service, is a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture. Despite our reporting, despite protestations and pressure from Montana’s congressional delegation, despite promised reviews and an internal investigation that appeared to be a whitewash, no action has been taken to relieve the situation for Montana small meat plants.

The local plants most affected by the agency’s outrageous misconduct in the past - Riley Meats and Truzzolino’s Tamales - are being left alone for the time being, presumably because of the well-founded fear of additional negative publicity. But the agency’s Montana and regional supervision has not changed; the supervisor most directly involved in this misconduct is still in place. Which is to say, the sword of Damocles remains over the heads of Bart Riley and John Truzzolino, who had the guts to publicly protest their treatment, and over the heads of every other small federally inspected meat-plant operator in Montana.

After the entire Montana delegation - Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte - sent a letter requesting the USDA’s Inspector General to investigate, it is thought that the IG is indeed taking a look, although that has not been officially confirmed, and the members of Congress have not yet received a response to their letter, more than six months later.

We do not refer to the agency’s own internal inquiry as a “whitewash” lightly. Indeed, when an agency spokesman orally briefed congressional staffers - the agency refused to put anything on paper - the response was arrogant and inaccurate. For instance, the agency accused Bart Riley of fabricating an incident for which there remains both physical evidence and eyewitness accounts. Riley was at one time told he had to build inspectors an office in his plant, which he grudgingly did at considerable expense. When through his own research he discovered that he was not in fact obligated to build such a structure, he took a sledgehammer to it and knocked it down. The agency says it can find no evidence this is true. The evidence remains to this day in the nail holes in Riley’s walls, and in the statements of former inspectors who saw both the office and the result of Riley’s demolition.

We are not philosophically inclined to criticize government for the sake of it. We believe there’s an important role for the federal government to play in protecting the health and well-being of all Americans. That’s precisely why we find these abuses so reprehensible.

Will the Inspector General finally take action in this matter? We hope and trust so, because the leadership of FSIS seems curiously and constitutionally unwilling to acknowledge the stunning level of wrongdoing and hold anyone accountable for it.

They are right, though, about one thing: The Montana Standard will stay on this as long as their own oversight is lacking.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2Kog4ro

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