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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Page One News at a Glance

Ravalli County to join lawsuit over Middle East Fork Project

Revised interim zoning petition approved for circulation

Stevi High School evacuated due to gas leak

Victor votes again for four-day school week

Ravalli County to join lawsuit over Middle East Fork Project

By Michael Howell

Ravalli County Commissioners voted last Wednesday to join as Intervenors in the federal lawsuit over the Bitterroot National Forest's Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project. The project, approved by Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull last March 21, 2006, is the first in the state to be done under Bush's Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA). It involves treating about 5,000 acres of national forest land near Sula with prescribed fire, thinning, slash removal, and commercial timber harvests.

Bull's decision was challenged in federal district court, however, by Native Forest Network, Friends of the Bitterroot and The Ecology Center. The groups charge that it was a foregone conclusion and violated the public's right to due process. They claim procedural violations, as well. They claim that the decision process violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), the Bitterroot National Forest Plan, and the Clean Water Act.

The County Commissioners had previously expressed an interest in the case and sought consultation from County Attorney George Corn on the matter. Corn laid out several options that the Commissioners could pursue from filing as intervenors, to filing a Friend of the Court brief, to taking their case public by addressing the press. He advised against the idea of joining as an Intervenor at the time.

He warned the Commissioners that his office did not have the expertise in federal court procedures that would be required, nor did they have the manpower or finances required to take on such a huge case.

Commissioners Greg Chilcott and Alan Thompson expressed the wish to take the strongest action possible to "get a place at the table," but each conceded that financial constraints had to be recognized. Chilcott said at the time that the County needed to look for funding to file for Intervenor status.

As it turns out, Kit Sutherland and his associates at Resource Conservation and Development were able to find the funding and a lawyer with expertise in federal procedures to take the case on the county's behalf. And on Wednesday, May 17, with a roomful of people in support of Intervening in the case and no one speaking in opposition, the Commissioners decided unanimously to join the suit on the side of Bull and the U.S. Forest Service.

Several Sula area residents affected by the Fires of 2000 spoke in favor of the County joining the suit.

"If a lawsuit stops this project we could all be burned out," said Leroy Baker from up the East Fork.

Several current and prospective members of the legislature also spoke in favor of County intervention.

Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull told the Commissioners, "I cannot advocate for intervention, but there is an important voice that needs to be heard." He said that a venue in federal court was "awkward" for the state, but that the County had an important perspective to offer, as the voice that represents the local community affected.

Thompson said that he got eight emails from Sula in favor of intervening. Commissioner Betty Lund said that she got two phone calls in favor. Chilcott said that he had some but did not bring them in to report because, as far as he was concerned, "they were preaching to the choir."

Thompson said that he was disappointed in the settlement reached between the Forest Service and the conservation groups who sued over the Forest Service's fire restoration projects.

"I thought the people of this valley were not represented," said Thompson. "I don't think the average person is being represented properly." He said he was concerned about the public safety in this area with one road in and one road out, as well as the threat to emergency reponders.

"We need to get in there and do something and the average person needs a place at the table," he said.

Lund said that she was disappointed that the Forest Service was not taking out more fire dead and beetle killed trees.

"I'm scared for everyone," said Lund. "I'd like to see George (Corn) step in there and do what he can."

Chilcott said that he had seen the tears, the anguish and the loss from the past fires and that this was a chance to do something to prevent a recurrence.

Sutherland said the RC&D and the American Forest Resource Council were able to secure the help of attorney Scott Holgren from an Oregon law firm to help in this case.

County Attorney George Corn said following the Commissioners' decision that it was a great deal.

"We got representation in an important case at no charge," said Corn. He said that the Oregon law firm would be the lead counsel in the case for the county and that he would assist as required.

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Revised interim zoning petition approved for circulation

By Michael Howell

As of May 19, Bitterrooters for Planning has gained approval from County Attorney George Corn to circulate a petition for Interim Zoning. The Interim Zoning Petition, if signed by enough voters, would place an initiative on the ballot requiring the Commissioners to undertake the formulation and adoption of a countywide zoning ordinance. It stipulates further that, until the requirement of adopting a comprehensive zoning ordinance is completed, all new developments will be limited to one dwelling per two acres.

This limitation of one dwelling per two acres is only temporary and will expire at the time of the adoption of comprehensive zoning regulations or at the end of one year. In the event the county has not completed the task of developing comprehensive zoning regulations in a year, the effort could be extended for an additional year and the onr dwelling per two acres limit will apply for the second year.

This limit is significantly different from the initial limitation first proposed by the group of one dwelling per 40 acres which drew some swift and loud complaints and condemnations.

Bitterrooters for Planning President Stewart Brandborg said that the revision of the interim limit down from one dwelling per 40 acres to one dwelling per two acres was done in consideration of the public response to the initial proposal.

"This way some small subdivisions can still go through during the interim period," said Brandborg. He said that in either case it is still just a temporary stop gap measure to limit subdivision while the zoning rules are being developed.

Brandborg said that Bitterrooters for Planning has worked hard over the last 10 years with neighborhood groups and individual citizens to get a comprehensive land use plan in place. But, he said, the county commissioners have consistently opposed their efforts and emasculated and failed to implement the citizen-written County Growth Policy.

He accused the Commissioners of approving 99 percent of developers' subdivision proposals, overriding concerns of neighbors and others seeking protection of their private property rights, of their wells, of irreplaceable farmlands, and of the public's health and safety.

"Our singular purpose for advancing the interim zoning petition campaign is to protect our valley, our economy and our Bitterroot way of life," said Brandborg. "At no time in our history has the threat been greater: some 45 subdivision proposals pending in our County Planning Office, with five major developments - cities unto themselves - pushed upon us by corporate developers." He said that the interim zoning campaign places the future of the Bitterroot Valley in the hands of Bitterroot voters.

"This is our 'Last Best Chance'," said Brandborg.

Anyone wishing to help in collecting signatures can contact Stewart Brandborg at 375-1122 or Phillip Taylor at 642-3289.

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Stevi High School evacuated due to gas leak

By Michael Howell

The Stevensville High School building was evacuated Wednesday afternoon, May 17, following detection of a gas leak on the school grounds close to the building. Police, ambulance and firefighters responded to the scene.

On the scene, Stevensville Poice Chief James Marble said that a gas leak had been detected seeping through the concrete sidewalk next to the corner of the high school building. He said that the gas line had been shut off and a team from NorthWestern Energy was trying to pinpoint the location of the leak. He said that all responders had recommended evacuation of the high school.

"The school did a very good job in facilitating the evacuation," said Marble.

Stevensville School District Maintenance Supervisor Jim Chisholm said on Monday that the leak was in an old spur line that was installed in 1960 to service the high school boiler. Chisholm said that gas smells had been reported occasionally but would disappear. It was attributed to the science class nearby. He said the maintenance crew got a detection meter and found nothing at first, but on second try some gas was detected along the crack between the building and the sidewalk. He said that when NorthWestern Energy was called in they could smell gas but could not detect it on their meters. With continued testing they finally did get a reading between 20 and 35 percent in one area, he said.

Chisholm characterized it as a relatively small leak, "possibly a pin hole, strong enough to be occasionally smelled and detected but not strong enough to be that dangerous." He said that with the gas line shut off some gas was still being detected in the ground but at reducing levels. He said that the plan was to cap off the line and abandon it. A new service line with a meter would be installed from across the street. He said that NorthWestern would do the work on June 10, after school was out.

Classes resumed on schedule Thursday following the Wednesday incident.

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Victor votes again for four-day school week

By Jean Schurman

On May 16, the Victor School Board met once again to hear residents express their concerns regarding the proposed four-day school week. This was the second time the board had voted on the proposal. After voting unanimously on April 17 for the proposal, the board had to rescind the vote May 9th after an attorney from the Montana School Boards Association clarified a possible problem. The board had not noticed the item regarding the four-day week properly on the agenda and had possibly opened themselves up for a lawsuit.

Approximately 35 parents, students, teachers and community members attended the meeting on May 16. Most were parents who were concerned about what would happen to the children on Fridays when there would be no school. Many parents stated with the children in school on Friday, as it is currently, they donšt have to worry about the cost of child care and finding a place for the kids to go on Friday.

Penny Copeland, owner of a daycare located just across from the school, said that it would be difficult to fit more kids into her child care facility as she was already at capacity and felt that most of the other child care places were also full.

Pastor John Capen of the Victor Nazarene Church said his church is currently looking into Friday-only day school for those who would need child care. The church is working on some grants but funding probably wouldn't come through until October.

"We want to do what is best for the kids," he said.

Although saving money is one reason to switch to the four-day week, the board and administration believe that attendance will improve as well as test scores. Parent Dave Smith said he felt that with the teachers having longer time with the students, their performance would improve.

Ann Staub, a behavioral consultant at the Bitter Root Valley Education Co-op, told the audience that student success is at the forefront of this issue. "The research states that a four-day week will improve success."

Tessa Wallace, a mental health therapist from the Co-op, commended the board in looking for ways to fund projects without cutting programs. She also concurred that research backed up the board's findings of increased attendance and potentially increased test scores.

Many in the audience were concerned there hadn't been enough investigation into the new proposal. Trustee Belle Burrington pointed out the board had been working on this monthly since October and "had the intelligence to look at the entire scope of the project. There are two issues that seem to be of concern, vandalism and child care."

Bonnie Taylor, an English teacher in the junior high and high school, stated she and another teacher, Donna Paulsen, had done a survey of the last year, counting all of the absences in the junior high and high school, excluding any school events. The number they came up with was an astounding 20%. It is this number the board hopes to decrease with the four-day week.

Superintendent Orville Getz said the new schedule would be monitored closely and if obvious problems arose, the school already has a schedule for a five-day week for next year in addition to the four-day schedule.

"I don't think there are any problems we cannot work through," said Getz. "We can and will work together with parents, students and the community to make it work."

The board voted unanimously to go to a four-day school week beginning next fall.

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