Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Top 5 local headlines from 2023

by Daily Inter Lake
| December 17, 2023 12:00 AM

A look back at some of the top local stories in 2023 and what lies ahead in the new year:

Homelessness takes center stage

The Flathead County commissioners penned a letter to the community in January callously describing homelessness as a “lifestyle” choice, and that residents should not support groups providing services for those experiencing homelessness. 

Regrettably, the commissioners took this baseless and misplaced position without fully understanding the complexities of the issue. Had they spent meaningful time with the valley’s nonprofit leaders, they would have learned the varying reasons a person might end up on the streets, including mental illness, addiction, a disability, an abusive relationship, or simply the valley’s soaring cost of housing and scarcity of affordable rentals. They would have learned that people utilizing the valley’s shelters are often local residents facing hard times or personal obstacles, not outsiders looking for freebies. 

Instead of placing blame, the commissioners should be working for positive change alongside our dedicated nonprofits.

It’s encouraging for the year to end with momentum building toward a homelessness summit of sorts spearheaded by Kalispell City Council. Working together, community leaders will better understand the issue and have the tools to make meaningful strides in confronting this valley-wide challenge in 2024.

Zinke battles Glacier Park’s ticketed entry

Glacier National Park’s ticketed entry system was subject of regular lashings from Rep. Ryan Zinke in 2023, with the Montana congressman claiming the system is a “scam” rigged against locals. 

He ultimately brought forward legislation that sought to amend an Interior funding bill so that the ticketed-entry system would be outright banned.

This editorial board pushed back on that maneuver, noting that while ticketed entry is certainly an inconvenience, it is necessary given the millions of visitors who want to share in Montana’s crown jewel each summer. Unfettered summer access only leads to an unpleasant experience with jam-packed parking lots and overcrowded hiking trails.

Even with the reservation system in place, Glacier is poised to end the year with overall robust visitation totals. Through October, the park had 2.9 million visitors, and increase of 0.41% over the previous year.

In his complaints, Zinke made sound points about Glacier’s lackluster transit program and the need to bolster the shuttle system’s reliability and overall experience. Hopefully he follows through with a detailed blueprint for success.

As for next year, Glacier has promised a more lax approach to ticketed entry, with reservations no longer required at St. Mary and Two Medicine. That’s a fair compromise that should satisfy Zinke’s fight for local access while also maintaining crowd control measures.

Montana’s resilient economy

Despite ominous threats of a recession due to inflation, the state economy is approaching the runway for a so-called soft-landing.

Locally, Flathead County’s unemployment rate is lingering near historic lows at 3.1%, and the labor force remains robust. As of November, Flathead’s employment pool was estimated at 51,860, with 813 new jobs added since the start of the year. 

Likewise, Montana’s unemployment rate was 2.8%, with the statewide labor force increasing by nearly 9,000 workers since the start of the year. Since January 2021, Montana has added nearly 40,000 jobs.

One downside remains the ongoing challenges with hiring and recruitment — a tolerable symptom of record low unemployment.

Will the good times keep rolling into 2024? President Joe Biden and Gov. Greg Gianforte are banking on it as their respective re-election hopes heat up as inflation cools down.

Flathead Lake’s diminished water level

Flathead County commissioners in July sought a disaster declaration, owing to the economic fallout from Flathead Lake’s sagging water level that was roughly 2 feet below the typical summer full pool mark. 

The request came after a regional water management team opted against releasing more water from the Hungry Horse Reservoir to fill up Flathead Lake, citing ecological concerns. Meanwhile, Energy Keepers Inc., the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes entity that controls the SKQ Dam in Polson, said the company was not authorized to stop letting water out of the lake due to downstream water and energy production obligations.

The lack of action over the summer led Zinke to introduce legislation last month that would require the Interior department to maintain Flathead Lake near full pool from June 15 to Sept. 15 through releases of water from the Hungry Horse Reservoir. 

While popular among locals, it remains to be seen if his bill will gain traction in Congress — but its premise could very well be put to test next summer with languishing mountain snowpack widely expected during this El Nino winter. 

Lake-reliant businesses and other lakefront stakeholders rightly want to know what actions can be taken to head off consecutive summers of low lake levels and associated economic impacts that are calculated in the hundreds of million dollars annually.

Legislature takes on housing reform

Efforts to ramp up Montana’s housing supply took urgent precedence at the 2023 legislative session, with Gov. Greg Gianforte signing into a law wave of pro-housing reforms that tweaked zoning and land-use rules to be more favorable for new construction.

The attainable housing crisis was a top issue on both sides of the political aisle heading into the session, with agreement from Democrats and Republicans that inaction was not an option. Montana’s housing costs reached frightening levels following the post-covid influx of newcomers, and continues to trend well above median income levels. As of November, the median home price in Flathead County was estimated at a jaw-dropping $600,000.

Out of all the noise and ridiculousness that took place in Helena this session — and there was plenty — housing reform rises to the top as a tangible success that should positively affect Montana residents in the year ahead.