The holidays may have given most of us a slow news week, but it’s been a busy year at Montana Free Press, starting with reporters Leia Larsen and Eric Dietrich’s blanket coverage of the 66th Legislative session in Helena. Dietrich came on full-time in April, and editor Brad Tyer joined the team in July. In August, MTFP joined up with the Montana Newspaper Association and Solutions Journalism Network to produce a statewide reporting collaboration on the state’s aging demographics, and readers across Montana will start seeing the results of that work early next year. In the year’s closing months, we participated in NewsMatch, a national nonprofit journalism fundraising campaign and hit our ambitious goals, giving us some very warm feelings about the audience for quality journalism in this great state. And finally, in the year’s final weeks, we launched the search for another reporter to join our team, expanding our capacity to produce even more great journalism next year. 

But that’s next year. As we wind this one down, we’d like to offer a recap of some of our best work of 2019.

The session gave us plenty of opportunities to take readers inside the Capitol’s inner workings, and early on we found a move to limit public access to the often informative legal review notes attached to many bills. To which we responded: we’ll publish them ourselves.

A bison grazes at the National Bison Range. Photo by Erika Peterman/SOVA Partners. Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

When lawmakers considered abolishing the death penalty, we took a look at how 20 years worth of similar efforts had fared

Did you know what “companion bills” are for, or how they’ve evolved into a tool for last-minute horse-trading? We explained. Maybe you were more interested in how your representatives and their caucus voted. We built a tool for that, too. 

Then there were the bills. The so-called Save Colstrip bill turned out to be one of the session’s most-talked-about and least understood efforts. We tracked all the twists and turns, from its introduction and initial momentum to contentious debate to tabling and tinkering to PSC staff concerns and commissioners’ support. We covered the specter of deregulation raised by the evolving bill, its approval in the Senate, the last-minute changes to the bill’s language, and the messaging supporters used to try to sell it. Finally, we covered the way that Republican Save Colstrip supporters tried to salvage the bill by tying it to a top Democratic priority to renew Medicaid expansion in Montana. That attempt failed, and the bill died. 

Medicaid expansion, of course, was another of the session’s big stories, and we wrote about what the bill could mean to Montana caretakers, and how the program’s initial expansion in 2015 had already impacted health-care outcomes in the state. We were there when the hotly debated bill cleared the Senate by a single vote and got sent to Gov. Steve Bullock, who signed the legislation into law, extending the program through 2025. 

With GOP majorities in both the Senate and House, the State Republican Party generated its own news. MTFP covered the emergingly important Solutions Caucus early in the session, and followed up with a website’s attempt to police party loyalty with an online scorecard that some lawmakers said does more harm than good. In response, MTFP built another vote-tracking tool that delivers a more nuanced view of the Solutions Caucus’ role in bipartisan legislation.

Intra-Republican tensions bubbled up at the county level as well, with a bill aimed at rooting out “fake Republicans” from GOP county central committees. MTFP followed that bill through hearings that drew opponents out of the woodwork and on to an unlikely head-butt with the Save Colstrip bill on the Senate floor.  

With the slow burning of the session in the rear-view mirror, we turned attention to the prospect of even more intense conflagrations with reporter Amanda Eggert’s three-part series, “Living With Fire,” covering the evolution of fire suppression strategies in the West, current thinking on developing fire-adapted communities, and the rise of insurer-funded private-sector fire-fighting companies

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, and U.S. Wildlife Services Montana Director John Steuber, left to right, discuss grizzly incursions at a meeting in Choteau on Oct. 5, 2019. Photo by Tami Heilemann/Department of Interior.

The summer months also gave us an opportunity to check in with Montana Republicans and Democrats as they turned their own sights toward 2020. Veteran political reporter Charles Johnson covered Greg Gianforte’s gubernatorial race announcement, Sen. Steve Daines’ forecast of creeping socialism, and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s lane-change to the U.S. House race from the state GOP convention in Helena. Billings-based veteran Ed Kemmick wrapped the convention for us with a long view and a close read of disgruntlement in certain circles with the “Republican shuffle.”

In July, Missoula-based Alex Sakariassen reported on the Democratic state convention’s focus on rural inclusivity and the necessity of outreach to Trump supporters.

Throughout the year, MTFP reporter Eric Dietrich has been training his data-driven gaze on the state economy via the Long Streets Project, producing insightful piece on rural access to air travel, job creation grants, small-town grocery stores, student enrollment, jobs forecasts, aging demographics, and, in what turned out to be one of our most talked about, and far and away most popular, piece of the year, “Where born and bred Montanans do, and don’t, live.” 

On the environmental front, grizzly bears continued to be big news this year, and Johnathan Hettinger went to Choteau to see Greg Gianforte make the case for delisting Northern Continental Grizzlies from the Endangered Species list. Two months later, Alex Sakariassen waded into bear territory with his report from a meeting of Gov. Bullock’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council in Missoula.  

And shortly after reporting on attempts by the Crow Tribe to influence new protections for the Crazy Mountains, reporter Joseph Bullington broke the story of a new development on private land in the Crazies’ high-altitude reaches. 

Also on the breaking news front, Hunter Pauli was first to the story of the resignation of two tribal representatives from the Attorney General Tim Fox’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force over the AG’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline. Pauli, of course, is no stranger to the Keystone story, having covered legislative attempts to kill the pipeline and the convoluted course of pipeline suits through the court system for MTFP. 

Montana Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci speaks at a Red Pill Expo in Mesquite, Nevada, Nov. 9, 2019. Still frame from video posted by Red Pill University. Credit: Still frame from video posted by Red Pill University

Pipelines are energy infrastructure, and there was no shortage of energy issues in our digital pages this year. In September, Johnathan Hettinger explored the prospects and roadblocks facing the proposed Gordon Butte pumped hydro energy storage project in Meagher County, and followed up with comprehensive reporting on the sale and subsequent closure of southeastern Montana’s Spring Creek Coal Mine, the mine’s reopening and economic prospects, and the Navajo Nation’s ultimately withdrawal of bonding support for the purchase. 

Speaking of coal: in December, NorthWestern Energy announced plans to expand its stake in the Colstrip Power Plant, as it had earlier hoped the Legislature might help it do, for $1. That news provided the perfect lead-in for Eric Dietrich’s comprehensive look at NorthWestern’s 20-year power supply plan, and the Public Service Commission’s attempt to thread the needle between public support for more renewable energy development and the company’s mandate to keep Montana’s lights on without breaking the bank. 

The PSC itself was much in the news in the year’s latter half, facing charges of anti-solar bias, responding to charges of anti-solar bias, and defending confirmation of anti-solar bias

In the meantime, Dietrich discovered, PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci found time to present a civics lecture to a Red Pill conference in Bundy Country. 

The end of the year also saw sudden movement on the long-awaited CSKT water compact, with Trump administration proxies first signalling support, followed by an announcement that Sen, Steve Daines would carry a compact-ratifying bill, the revelation that said bill would return the National Bison Range to tribal management, and finally the bill’s introduction in the Senate

Ahead in the new year, of course, is a ramped-up election season. We helped pave the path with reporting on Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s initially rushed and ultimately delayed plan to implement new election software in 2020. We also took a peek at early fundraising trends in the Republican gubernatorial primary. And we built a tool that lets you access all the data you might want to see on Montana’s candidates for statewide and federal office. We’ll be expanding on that app in the new year, and if there’s anything you’d like to see there, we hope you’ll let us know. 

Until then, thanks for making the work we did in 2019 possible. We’re looking forward to ringing in an even better 2020.

Brad Tyer

Brad Tyer edited the Missoula Independent from 2002 to 2007, and again from 2016 to 2018. He has also done two stints as managing editor of the Texas Observer in addition to freelance work published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, High Country News, and other publications. He was a 2010 Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan and a 2011 Fund for Investigative Journalism grant recipient. His book “Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape” was published by Beacon Press in 2013. Contact Brad at btyer@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.