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Horse News | Top News Stories Of 2011

Posted By: JR

A top news story for 2011 in the Hungry Horse News is likely thesame for every other newspaper – impacts of the continuingrecession. But locally there’s been some signs of improvement.

Other top stories include a deal to stop coal mining in theheadwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River, talk of tearingdown the historic Red Bridge, changing of the guard at City Hall,and a young wrangler whose stand against a grizzly bear got her aseat on The Late Show with David Letterman.

The economy

The three-year old credit crisis and high unemployment continuedto dog the local economy this year. Unemployment was 14.1 percentin January, tapering off to 10.6 percent in November, and thevolume of residential home sales fell a slight amount compared to2010.

With 14 homes in or near foreclosure in Columbia Falls alone,the city’s real estate broker recommended lot prices be lowered intwo subdivisions the city owns north of town.

Raw land and subdivisions were the hardest hit in the realestate market. Four of six subdivision plats in Columbia Falls haveexpired, and Glacier Bank sued this year to foreclose a subdivisionin Hungry Horse once slated for 900 units.

Hope turned to the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. smelter, whichhas been shut down since October 2009. In August, Bonneville PowerAdministration officials held an open house in Columbia Falls toannounce a possible power contract for the aging plant, but nodeals with Swiss-based owner Glencore have been forthcoming.

Meanwhile, skilled workers headed east to the Williston Basinoil fields for good-paying jobs. A Halliburton representative wasin the Flathead this summer looking for 300 more workers. BNSFRailway hired 415 new workers in Montana this year, although manyare on call awaiting assignments. Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley wasbullish on the timber company’s future, which plans to process thesame amount of locally harvested timber in 2012 as last year.

B.C. coal mine

Forty years after the Flathead Coalition formed to stop coalmining in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River,the British Columbian provincial government passed a lawprohibiting mining, oil drilling and natural gas extraction in thearea just across the U.S.-Canada border.

Efforts to protect the one of the wildest places in the Lower 48included baseline studies, lobbying by conservation groups andGlacier National Park, drafting of international memos andtreaties, retiring oil and gas leases, and finally buying offcompanies with exploration investments on 400,000 acres on theCanadian side of the drainage.

The Nature Conservancy of Montana and the Nature Conservancy ofCanada together agreed to come up with $9.4 million to compensatethe mining and energy companies.

Meanwhile, Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester encouraged companiesto voluntarily retire oil and gas leases on more than 200,000 acresof land on the U.S. side of the North Fork drainage.

Vets Home

Word in February that a legislative subcommittee was consideringprivatizing the Montana Veterans Home to save money drew a heatedresponse from both workers and veterans. The subcommittee alsorecommended cutting $2.2 million in cigarette tax money to the homeover two years.

Flathead’s Republican legislators, including Sen. Ryan Zinke,R-Whitefish, and Rep. Bill Beck, R-Whitefish, both veteransthemselves, quickly banded together in opposition to the proposal.By March, as the state budget was being finalized and veteransorganized marches, the $2.2 million was restored.

Red Bridge

The start of fundraising efforts to restore the 100-year-old RedBridge in Columbia Falls was announced by the First Best Placenonprofit in February after the group lined up $500,000 in federalCommunity Transportation Enhancement Program (CTEP) money for theproject, funneled through the county.

But by May, with restoration estimates climbing from $843,000 to$1.9 million, the county commissioners had questions about thefundraising effort. Commissioner Jim Dupont suggested restorationcosts might reach $2.5 million and questioned whether First BestPlace could come up with the required CTEP match.

By September, the commissioners had “unencumbered” the $500,000from the bridge project and developed a stricter trail fundingpolicy for the whole county.

That’s when discussion switched from restoring the Red Bridge totearing it down, as First Best Place and other locals pointed tograffiti and decay and labeled the structure blight. The countybegan to line up bids for tearing down the bridge.

City Hall

A changing of the guard at city hall began in May when longtimecity manager Bill Shaw announced he was departing to head upKalispell’s public works department. Shaw was city manager here for10 years, pulling double duty toward the end as the cityplanner.

Susan Nicosia, who has served as councilor, mayor, city clerkand city finance director over the past 13 years, was the loneapplicant for interim city manager and the city council’s unanimouschoice to replace Shaw in June.

Bear wrangler

Erin Bolster, a wrangler with Swan Mountain Outfitters, not onlysaved an eight-year-old boy from harm when a grizzly bear chargedinto her horse party on July 30 – she also landed a stint on TheLate Show With David Letterman.

As first reported in the Hungry Horse News on Aug. 10, Bolsterguided Tonk, a big white Percheron horse, between the young boy andthe bear, which had turned its attention from a white-tailed buckit had been chasing to the boy’s horse. Either Bolster’s yelling orTonk’s size convinced the bear to move on.Bolster later purchasedTonk, who received five-star treatment as he was transported to NewYork for the TV show.

Stop signs

The idea that a four-way stop at Sixth Street and Nucleus Avenuewould improve pedestrian safety and boost the local economy didn’tattract any supporters to a Jan. 3 public hearing. A 3-3 citycouncil vote two weeks later temporarily stalled the proposal.

On Feb. 7, the council approved the stop signs on a trial basiswith a 4-3 vote. Councilor Dave Petersen, a supporter who owns abuilding at Sixth and Nucleus, said the stop signs would informpassersby “we’re open for business.”

By October, a Montana Department of Transportation traffic studyconcluded that traffic volume did not warrant the stop signs and afour-way stop would decrease the level of service at theintersection. Petersen’s motion to lobby MDT for the stop signs wasdefeated 4-3, but he vowed not to give up the idea.

Library move

Members of the Columbia Falls Library Association in Januaryannounced their opposition to a proposal to move the library fromCity Hall to the Glacier Discovery Center. The First Best Placegroup, which managed the center, counted on the library as thecenter’s anchor tenant, and county library director Kim Crowleysupported the move.

The library association was concerned about how much room wouldbe available at the center, what would be the additional costs andif library books and other resources would be protected duringpublic events held at the center.

Mtn. deaths

A 16-year-old foreign-exchange student at Columbia Falls HighSchool died following a skiing accident at Whitefish MountainResort. Niclas Waschle fell in a tree well on Dec. 30 and lostconsciousness. He was transported to Kalispell Regional MedicalCenter, where he died several days later.

An avalanche on Jan. 8 near Beta Lake, on the east side ofHungry Horse Reservoir, killed Bruce Jungnitsch, 53, of WestGlacier. He was snowmobiling with seven others when the avalancheoccurred.

Gregory Seftick, 31, of Columbia Falls was backcountry skiing inGrand Teton National Park when an avalanche ran over the tent hewas in on April 16. He and Walker Kuhl, 27, of Kalispell, werekilled.

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