Following their meeting in late July on wildfire, Governor Greg Gianforte urged President Joe Biden to support the bipartisan Resilient Federal Forests Act.

“Introduced by 70 members of Congress in July with the backing of 90 organizations, this bill will support proactive, science-based forest management at a pace and scale that match the urgency of the forest health crisis we face,” the governor wrote in a letter to the President.

Outlining the benefits of the bill, the governor continued, “It gives the U.S. Forest Service additional tools to manage millions of acres of federal forest and reduce wildfire risk. It also addresses a concern raised in our conversation by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, which I was encouraged to hear you share, by helping to end frivolous lawsuits that delay essential forest management projects from moving forward.” 

In his meeting with President Biden and other governors last month, the governor called for meaningful forest management to improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfire. Several other governors joined him in that call.

At the state level, the governor has set out to more than double the number of acres treated this year as compared to last year in Montana.

In late July, the governor announced signed project agreements for 14 cross-boundary, active management projects associated with the Montana Forest Action Plan.

Two companies are applying for tax abatements from the county and city.

Montana Sun LLC is seeking abatements for its $100 million, 80 megawatt solar generated power facility that will begin construction in October on Alkali Creek Road. The project is that of Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company, which will sell power to NorthWestern Energy.

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country is also seeking tax relief for a $50 million investment in a bottling plant on Harnish Road.

There are two programs under which the county and city have historically encouraged economic growth and development by reducing property taxes for a period of time on an investment a company makes to expand or establish itself. Dianne Lehm, Director of Community Development for Big Sky Economic Development, explained that the county commissioners will decide under which of two available options to make the abatement decision.

The 10-year program, called the New & Expanding Industry Tax Incentive Program, allows the taxable value of the real property to be reduced by 50 percent in the first 5 years. In years 6-10, the tax obligation incrementally increases by 10 percent a year and the savings decreases until the full 100% liability is required and the abatement expires in year 10. The state legislature recently allowed local government the discretion to reduce taxes by 50 percent or by 75 percent with an incremental 15 percent increase over the last five years.

Another available option of the program is a five abatement which allows tax reductions on remodeling, reconstruction, and/or expansion of existing real property when a project makes improvements exceeding $500,000 to the property.  Property taxes on the value of improvements may be reduced by 100 percent for the first five years, after which property returns to its full taxable value.

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country hopes to expand its operations in Billings in a facility to be built on 10.5 acres south of I-90 near the Zoo Drive Exit, the Harnish Trade Center. They have requested that the City of Billings annex the area and to help pay for 4,300 feet of extended utilities to the site. Big Sky Economic Development has offered a grant of up to $250,000 from its Opportunity Fund to help pay for the extension of lines, which would also assist other future development.

The City Council will take up the issue, in a few weeks, of spending another $250,000 to help support the project, while most of the $1.5 million cost for the installation of water and sewer will fall to the company.

The project proposal is for a 110,000-square-foot distribution center with a 30,000 square-foot manufacturing facility. Joe Easton, director of property development for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country, explained that the expansion would mean that Billings would become a bottling plant from which their products will be distributed to the region they serve which besides Montana includes Minnesota, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah. Currently their 450 products are bottled elsewhere and distributed to Billings.

Coca-Cola High Country is a Rapid City -based company, owned by the third generation of the Messenger Family. The company acquired the Billings center in 2014, which has had a warehouse on 1st Avenue South in Billings since 1959.

Right now, the Billings center employees 60 full-time workers, but with the expansion, the number of employees is expected to increase by 50, including 40 manufacturing jobs, paying $24/hour, and other management jobs paying $100,000-plus benefits.

Montana Sun expects to start construction in October with the aim of being completed in about a year. The company believes the construction will create about 200 temporary jobs.

The project is one of many throughout the country owned by Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company, a company launched in by Robert Hokin, in 2011. Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company is a publicly reporting, non-traded limited liability company that acquires and manages income-generating renewable energy and other energy-related businesses. The company has over a billion dollars invested in solar facilities in a number of states.

Small nonfarm businesses in 18 Montana counties and neighboring counties in Idaho and Wyoming are now eligible to apply for low interest federal disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, announced Director Tanya N. Garfield of SBA’s Disaster Field Operations Center-West. These loans offset economic losses because of reduced revenues caused by drought in the following primary counties that began July 6, 2021. 

Primary Montana counties:  Carbon, Gallatin, Madison, Park, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Treasure and Yellowstone;

Neighboring Montana counties:  Beaverhead, Big Horn, Broadwater, Golden Valley, Jefferson, Meagher, Musselshell, Rosebud, Silver Bow and Wheatland;

Neighboring Idaho county:  Fremont;

Neighboring Wyoming counties:  Big Horn, Park and Teton.

“SBA eligibility covers both the economic impacts on businesses dependent on farmers and ranchers that have suffered agricultural production losses caused by the disaster and businesses directly impacted by the disaster,” Garfield said.

Small nonfarm businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and most private nonprofit organizations of any size may qualify for Economic Injury Disaster Loans of up to $2 million to help meet financial obligations and operating expenses which could have been met had the disaster not occurred.

“Eligibility for these loans is based on the financial impact of the disaster only and not on any actual property damage. These loans have an interest rate of 2.88 percent for businesses and 2 percent for private nonprofit organizations, a maximum term of 30 years and are available to small businesses and most private nonprofits without the financial ability to offset the adverse impact without hardship,” Garfield said.

By law, SBA makes Economic Injury Disaster Loans available when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture designates an agricultural disaster. The Secretary declared this disaster on July 12, 2021.

Applicants may apply online, download applications at Applicants may also call SBA’s Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 or email for more information on SBA disaster assistance. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing may call (800) 877-8339. Completed applications should be mailed to U.S. Small Business Administration, Processing and Disbursement Center, 14925 Kingsport Road, Fort Worth, TX  76155.

The deadline to apply for economic injury is March 14, 2022.

The FBI conducted more background checks for firearms purchases in March — a month in which several prominent mass shootings reignited America’s conversation about gun control — than they have in any month so far this year.

About 4.7 million Americans initiated gun background checks last month — a 36% increase from February, according to the FBI. More than 2 million of those checks were for new gun purchases, according to the National Shooting Sports Federation, the firearms industry trade group that compares FBI background check numbers with actual sales data to determine its sales figures.

The new guns purchased in March make it the second highest month on record for firearms sales, according to NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva, who said the threat of looming gun control legislation was the catalyst for last months sales surge.

NSSF data shows last month’s sales were surpassed only by the estimated 2.3 million guns sold in March 2020.

“It is clear that firearm sales in March were driven by gun control calls from politicians to ban entire classes of firearms and enact onerous gun laws,” Oliva told CNN Business.

This year, an ongoing surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans has also led to an increase in first-time firearms purchases among this demographic group.

“The face of today’s gun owner no longer fits in the neat little box that some would like to put gun ownership into,” Oliva said. “The fact is gun ownership in America looks more like the country than it ever has.”

The House of Representatives passed the pair of gun control bills on March 11. Five days later eight people were killed in Atlanta, including six Asian women, in a series of shootings at spas. A week after that, 10 people, including a local police officer, were shot dead in a Boulder, Colorado grocery store. Biden urged the Senate to pass gun control legislation in the aftermath of both shootings.

There have been at least 20 mass shootings in the three weeks since the Atlanta attack.

Firearm sales fell slightly in February after a January surge, which had been fueled in part by the Capitol Hill insurrection. January and March are the only two months in which FBI gun background checks surpassed 4 million since records were first kept in 1998.

The Keystone Pipeline System was supposed to create 11,000 American jobs in 2021, but President Joe Biden revoked the permit for the project. Now the company in charge is suing the U.S. government for $15 billion.

The massive pipeline project’s first three phases run from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Illinois and Texas, and to oil tank farms and an oil pipeline distribution center in Cushing, Oklahoma.

The proposed phase IV would have connected the existing pipeline terminals in Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Nebraska, by a shorter route and a larger-diameter pipe.

But on the day of his inauguration, Biden signed an executive order to revoke the permit granted by President Donald Trump to TC Energy Corporation.

TC Energy estimated the 11,000 jobs would have totaled more than $1.6 billion in pay, and supporters touted the pipeline as a big step in American energy independence.

“TC Energy will be seeking to recover more than US $15 billion in damages that it has suffered as a result of the U.S. Government’s breach of its NAFTA obligations,” the company said in its July 2 press release.

In his executive order, Biden said in revoking the permit that “approving the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the U.S. national interest” and would “undermine U.S. climate leadership by undercutting the credibility and influence of the United States in urging other countries to take ambitious climate action.”

Beyond costing Americans jobs and energy independence, this move may also cost taxpayers $15 billion.

When a shortage of truck drivers to deliver fuel to the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport resulted in no available carbon-based fuel there were no energy alternatives and airlines had to cancel flights. Planes were forced to land in neighboring cities and states to fill up with jet fuel.

A similar story has been reported in Billings by gas stations which have run out of gasoline because there are no truck drivers available to deliver fuel. With no alternatives to gasoline the gas stations have referred drivers to other gas stations.

Placing greater pressure on the availability of jet fuels is fire suppression efforts in the state for which aircraft has a priority for the fuel. Airlines are responsible for acquiring their own fuel and supplies come from petroleum production in Great Falls, Billings, Utah, and Wyoming. 

Also, placing pressure on gasoline for vehicles is a booming tourism business which is seeing a 40 percent increase over 2019 visitations.

There were no alternatives to fossil fuels last weekend when airlines at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport had to cancel flights due to a shortage of jet fuel.

Multiple flights out of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport were delayed, rescheduled, and canceled due to a fuel shortage. 

Over the weekend, planes were forced to land in neighboring cities and states to fill up their fuel tanks. 

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport Director Brian Sprenger said there is a combination of events that have resulted in the scarce fuel supply. 

“Some of it is the lack of available trucking drivers to haul fuel across the state, limited fuel supply from the projections that were earlier expected and then now we are battling fire suppression season where we have aircrafts that have priority for fuel as well,” Sprenger said. 

Montana’s fuel supply comes from Great Falls, Billings, Utah, and Wyoming and each airline is responsible for their own fuel. 

Sprenger said this summer’s travel is 40% over 2019 numbers for both inbound and outbound passengers. 

For community members flying this summer, it is important to show up early and check your airline website for updates and flight statuses. 

Trade and tourism across the Canadian border is a very important part of Montana’s economy, which means the border closure over the past year has been greatly detrimental to our economy.

Governor Greg Gianforte, the governors of Idaho and North Dakota, and the premiers of two Canadian provinces have called on U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to immediately open the border between the two countries.

On Wednesday, July 21, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it was extending its temporary restriction prohibiting non-essential cross-border travel from Canada through at least August 21.

In response, Gov. Gianforte, the governors of Idaho and North Dakota, and the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan urged Biden and Trudeau to work together to reach an agreement allowing for the immediate movement of citizens, goods, and tourists between the two nations.

“Our relationship is one built on mutual respect and friendship. As we continue to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and work together on joint initiatives to provide vaccinations to more and more of our citizens every day, the time has come to allow our citizens to move safely and securely across our shared border,” the leaders wrote in a letter to Biden and Trudeau.

Gov. Gianforte and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have worked together to combat the pandemic. In addition to encouraging Montanans to get the free, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Gianforte announced on May 7 that Montana and Alberta signed a Memorandum of Understanding whereby Montana would provide vaccines to Albertan commercial truck drivers and their families at a rest stop near Conrad, Montana. On May 20, the governor visited the vaccine clinic off I-15. Over the course of four weeks, Montana administered 1,235 vaccine doses at the clinic.

The U.S. governors and Canadian premiers concluded their letter to Biden and Trudeau, writing, “Our two nations, and the states and provinces along our shared border, have a long history of secure, safe and free flow of goods and services across the border, as well as citizens traveling between our countries for business, shopping and tourism. We request our federal governments return to this symbol of friendship once again by securely opening the northern border.”

Governor Gianforte signed the joint letter with Idaho Governor Brad Little, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.

Every year billions of dollars go up in smoke as the West battles forest fires. Every year that’s between $10 billion and $20 billion federal dollars.

A recent issue of PERC Reports claims that such losses are unnecessary and the reason it’s so high is a mix of perverse incentives for property owners and local governments, complicated regulations, overlapping bureaucracies, ineffective strategies that continue to get funding, and poor policies.

“Wildfires are getting bigger and more devastating, and muddled incentives are making a bad situation worse. The root of the problem is the idea that the federal government will show up virtually anywhere, anytime, to ty to put out wildfires, regardless of the cost or effort required,” states the article “When the Government Makes Wildfires Worse,” written by Tate Watkins, a fellow at PERC (Property and Environment Research).

PERC is a Bozeman-based think tank founded in 1980, which focuses on property rights, markets and innovation to encourage environmental stewardship.

Watkins makes the point that “government wildfire policy often seems to promise the wrong kind of help, given how much of the spending aimed at putting out large fires is ineffective. Even if there’s been little appetite to reform the blank check approach to fighting wildfires, various private actors are taking matters into their own hands, from companies providing insurers with sophisticated risk models, to financial innovators decreasing the likelihood of catastrophic fires breaking out in forests, to individual residents deciding to make their homes more firewise.”

PERC advocates for regulatory reforms and for other innovative approaches that would expand and expedite forest restoration and reduce fire risks.

Bureaucratic obstacles need to be “flattened,” and communities need to be better positioned to invest in forest management themselves, the article recommends.

Wildfires have become such a problem, even political adversaries like Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have reached across the aisle to get more done to proactively manage forests. They have co-sponsored a bill to speed up efforts to decrease fire risks such as prescribed burns and mechanical thinning.  Their aim is to streamline such requirements and cut red tape that the Endangered Species Act sometimes imposes.

Federal spending in fighting wildfires has doubled over the past decade and grown fivefold since the late 1990s. Unrestrained spending is a philosophy that signals to residents that its “perfectly fine to build and live in fire-prone areas.” It encourages high-risk choices increasing the potential for catastrophe.

For over 50 years there has emerged a philosophy, including that of the federal government, that all forest fires should be put out no matter what— not always a good policy. “….fire is often a positive force…” Fire is sometimes necessary for some species to rejuvenate.  Timber owners in the Southeast have understood this fact and have routinely carried out controlled burns as part of managing their timber.  But states the article, “Decades of suppression have left many western forests choked with dense stands of small-diameter trees, underbrush, and other growth,” contributing to high fire risks in the West and “partially accounts for why wildfires in the west are getting worse over time.”

Before 2000, wildfires destroyed a few hundred structures in the US each year. From 2000 to 2010 that rose to between 3000 and 4000 structures annually. In 2018 nearly 25,000 structures burned.

Economic damage has been surging year after year – now totaling between $10 billion to $20 billion annually.  In 2020 fires in the West – especially California, Oregon, Colorado and Washington, killed 47 people and cost $3.6 billion in suppression efforts and caused $16 billion in damages.

Fires are no longer considered a seasonal issue, but a concern year round.

The biggest reason for an increase in fires is that people are building more homes in “harm’s way.” They encroach more and more into areas at greater risk. By 2010, “wild-land-urban interface” areas had more than 43 million homes in it. The expansion doesn’t just put more property at risk but the human activity increases the risk of fires.

PERC economists – Dean Lueck, Indiana University and Jonathan Yoder, Washington State University —  report that the “federal government has essentially had a ‘blank check’ to suppress wildfires since the 1908 Forest Fires Emergency Act. They describe wildfire fighting today as a ‘highly structured, hierarchical, military style’ effort.”

“This network comprises a bewildering array of laws, policies, and contracts that crate a complicated mix of incentives and outcomes,” they claim, which result in inefficiencies in the system that often make suppression efforts ineffective.

For example, tanker drops of fire retardants have little effect on large fires, as do “backfires,” but still the tactics continue to be funded. In many cases, the cost of suppression far exceeds the value of the protected resources.

The situation is one in which, “…Homeowners don’t pay for the government’s all-out efforts to put out fires and protect their lives and property; tens of millions of taxpayers do.”

“Prices contain information,” states the article.    

The government’s expenditures are “implicit subsidies to property owners,” which can be more than 20 percent of a home’s value. “In Montana and Idaho, the subsidies exceed the total value of the federal transfers to those states for the Temporary Assistance for Needy families program.”

The subsidies also undermine incentives for property owners to take preventive actions such as reducing undergrowth that fuels fires or to use fire resistant building materials or for local governments to enforce codes for defensible space regulations. They likened the policies regarding wildfire to those created by federal flood insurance.

The government’s policies create “distorted incentives.” They reduce the cost of insurance premiums for home owners, who if they had to pay the cost for the real risks, might find their choices less affordable and less desirable.

It was further pointed out that most of the subsidy benefits do not fall to low income citizens but they actually subsidize the high income.

The significance of “price signals” are lost on California, where in 2018 the state legislature prohibited insurance companies from cancelling or refusing to renew policies for up to a year after a wildfire emergency. “Choosing to risk having your home destroyed by a wildfire is one thing. But other policy holders or even taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize you to take that risk,” states the article.

 Recommendations made by Lueck and Yoder includes two reforms: one, to let more fires burn more widely, especially in areas where few structures are at risk and to concentrate resources on protecting life and property… and two, to set funding at a base level and to let agencies “bank” unspent funds from year to year, which would encourage homeowners and insurers rather than “far-flung taxpayers” to foot the bill and support incentives to make better decisions.

Other actions that could be taken to try to reverse the situation is to reduce ignition risk and to limit the intensity of wildfires when they do break out, such as prescribed burns and selective harvesting.

The author concedes that there are often much political and environmental opposition to such efforts and “when they do get off the ground bureaucratic and legal obstacles often limit their scope.”

The Center Square

Airports throughout the West are experiencing a shortage of jet fuel complicated by supply chain issues and a need for firefighting aircraft to battle raging wildfires in several states.

State and federal lawmakers in Nevada say they are investigating a possible shortage of jet fuel that could greatly impact the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in the coming days, delaying cargo delivery and passenger travel.

The Reno-Tahoe airport, Nevada’s second-largest metro area, is slowing operations because a lack of jet fuel could potentially restrict the delivery of essential goods into the northern part of the state, a popular gambling and outdoors destination near Lake Tahoe.

On late Saturday, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, and U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei issued a statement expressing their concern.

“To be clear, further failure to secure adequate fuel supplies is unacceptable,” they said. “We are currently speaking to all responsible parties to understand how this situation occurred and prevent future shortages, but our immediate focus is on ensuring resources to combat Western wildfires are not impacted and that there is as little disruption as possible for Nevadans and visitors who depend on reliable air service.”

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority said the airport’s jet fuel shortage was partially caused by not having enough tanker truck drivers to deliver fuel. A spokesperson said, “There’s just nobody available to drive the trucks of fuel in here,” adding that it was hard to predict how long the shortage would last.

Lack of fuel shortage is also complicated by construction at the airport. Because its longest runway also is under construction, planes are limited by how much extra fuel they can carry on inbound flights because the heavier the plane, the longer stopping distance it requires.

Other western states are feeling the pain as well.

Flight delays have already been reported at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana, and at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California, popular tourist and vacation destinations.

In Wyoming, Gov. Mark Gordon authorized truck drivers to work longer hours to deliver fuel to help firefighting aircraft.

The Montana Department of Livestock is still concerned about feral swine entering the state. The department recently issued an alert that as the feral swine population continues to grow it is bringing a high risk to Montana.
The state isn’t seeing much activity right now but there has been an increase in sightings in surrounding areas and the Department is asking everyone to be aware.
Nationwide it is estimated that there is over six million feral swine, and Montana is seeing an uptick along the high-line, as Canadian officials are reporting expanded ranges of these swine just north of the border.
Feral swine carry diseases that can negatively impact livestock, people, and wildlife, which is why the MDOL is telling people to watch out for specific signs.
According to state law, feral swine includes any hog, boar, or pig that appears to be untamed or in a wild state.