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Recent climate-related emails appearing in MTFP inboxes have largely fallen into two categories: inquiries about our plans for covering the Held v. Montana youth climate trial, or missives suggesting climatologists have overlooked or mischaracterized the mechanisms warming the earth’s atmosphere.

I’ll tackle the easier question first. Montana Free Press is partnering with the Flathead Beacon to publish an extensive package of stories about the first-of-its-kind climate trial, which is scheduled for a two-week hearing in Helena starting June 12. Beginning Monday, June 5, we’ll be co-publishing a pre-trial story package that will include an explanation of what’s at stake in the historic trial, profiles of four of the youth plaintiffs, and explorations of how the Montana Constitution and the 2023 Legislature inform the lawsuit.

In addition to the pre-trial package, Flathead Beacon reporter and project lead Micah Drew will produce daily coverage of the trial. That project is supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, which seeks to address climate change and other environmental challenges through multidisciplinary research, education and engagement. We’re proud to be partnering with the Beacon on this project and hope you find value in the coverage.

Now, on to the stickier question about the mechanisms driving climate change. It’s a question of particular interest to me given that my father, Jeff Eggert, spent most of his adult life working in the fossil fuel industry.

About five years into his retirement from the ExxonMobil refinery in Billings, I learned that my father spent some time in the mid-1970s working as a day laborer on the construction of Unit 1 of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant, which remains one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the region. At the time, that job tripled or quadrupled what my father had been earning flipping burgers at the A&W. Two years later, in 1976, he was hired on at the Exxon oil refinery. By the time he retired as a shift foreman in 2009, he was earning a white-collar income in a blue-collar industry. At Exxon, he learned about the structure of hydrocarbons, how refineries transform crude oil into petroleum products with catalysts and heat, and what happens when those products are combusted.

Though my father surely would have found comfort in an assertion that fossil fuel combustion isn’t warming the atmosphere, he’s never taken much stock in climate denial. Yesterday I asked why that is, and he gave me three reasons. First, he did a gut-check with his own experience: Montana’s summers are warmer, drier and smokier than they used to be, on average, he said, and winters are trending milder. Second, the idea of inputs at a parts-per-million scale producing a profound effect — even on something as vast as the Earth’s atmosphere — resonated with him. At the refinery, he’d seen how a ppm miscalculation could, for example, spoil a catalyst. And finally, around the time Al Gore was becoming a household name, he started consulting charts to understand carbon dioxide trend lines. It’s true, he said, that our climate has always been changing — but not the way it has in the past century. “In geologic time, that’s just too quick,” he said. “If you look at previous climate changes, they’re happening in thousands of years, not 50.”

These conversations with my father were circling in my brain when a reporter for REVEAL, a radio program produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, emailed to see if I was interested in collaborating on an hour-long episode exploring the Colstrip plant, the monopoly utility company that’s doubling down on coal-fired power, and the political conversations around renewable energy in Montana.

That reporter, Jonathan Jones, has put a tremendous amount of elbow grease into the story over the past six months, conducting more than 50 interviews and sorting through heaps of studies, news stories and legislative filings. I took mini-breaks from legislative coverage to help out with brainstorming and research. I also provided input on the many, many drafts that preceded the final product, which I’m mighty proud to have played a small role in producing. It will be available on MTFP’s website tomorrow, posted to popular podcast platforms early Saturday morning, and air on Yellowstone Public Radio at 11 a.m. Sunday.

I fully expect that the episode, titled “The Battle for Clean Energy in Coal Country,” will ruffle some feathers, but I hope it also inspires genuine inquiry into the questions raised by Montana’s energy past, present, and future.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of bills that appear to be awaiting a signature from Senate President Jason Ellsworth before they can head to the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte for his consideration, according to the Legislature’s bill-tracking database. Those bills include the state budget-defining House Bill 2 and several other big spending items. The pace of bill movement to the governor’s office has become a source of curiosity — if not suspicion — among some in the Capitol as lawmakers jostle over post-session vetoes. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Chilling Effect 🧊

Public officials in Butte made headlines this week for enforcing House Bill 359 — Montana’s ban on broadly defined drag performances and story hours in schools, libraries, and other places where minors are present — when they canceled a Friday presentation about the history of transgender and Indigenous two spirit people in the West at the Butte Public Library.

To be clear, the presentation was not a drag performance or a drag story hour, where people in elaborate costumes typically lip sync, dance or read children’s books. Rather, the event was to be hosted by writer, activist and transgender woman Adria Jawort — wearing her usual clothing and perhaps holding books — and feature discussions about gender and sexuality in a historical context.

In a statement posted to the library’s website, library director Stef Johnson called the circumstances presented by HB 359 “challenging.”

“Our commitment to promoting inclusivity and intellectual exploration remains, but not in violation of law,” Johnson said.

County Attorney Eileen Joyce told MTFP Friday that the decision was made after the county received a Facebook message about the alleged illegality of Jawort’s event, calling her “a transexxual” and referring to her as “it.” The message pointed to online statements Jawort previously made about how her public presentations might be undermined by HB 359 because of the bill’s vague definitions.

Joyce said the Facebook message was the first she and Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher had heard of the event. After reviewing Jawort’s online posts about how the bill could be interpreted, Joyce said the county encouraged the library to cancel the presentation “out of an abundance of caution.” She attributed the conclusion to confusion over the new law, a short time frame before the Friday morning event, and limited communication between the county and Jawort.

“After you read it 10 times, you say, ‘alright I see what she’s trying to point out.’ That she was trying to say ‘there’s a difference between a drag queen and me being a transgender person who’s dressed flamboyantly,’” Joyce said. “Hindsight’s always 20-20.” 

Joyce acknowledged that the county’s actions could be seen as discriminatory toward transgender people and possibly even grounds for a lawsuit. She said the county is open to rescheduling the event in the future, pending further conversations and clarification about its content.

Jawort could not be reached for comment before publication. In a Friday morning Twitter post, she framed Butte-Silver Bow’s decision as reactionary and based in fear.

“In the face of fascism, these people are such spineless cowards,” she wrote.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“Stories distinguish themselves because they’re not arguments. That’s all we do now is argue. Right? And the novelist Richard Powers said that the best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

—Ken Burns, quoted in Erika Fredrickson’s story about the new Burns documentary “The American Buffalo.” A PBS-hosted preview of the film will screen at the Wilma Theater in Missoula on Thursday, June 8. The free event includes a panel discussion with Burns, writer Dayton Duncan, producer Julie Dunfey, historian Rosalyn LaPier and National Wildlife Federation-Tribal Buffalo Program Senior Manager Jason Baldes. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Next Steps 👣

I’ve spent the last four months reporting for Montana Free Press and ICT as a legislative fellow covering the American Indian Caucus.

I was incredibly excited to be able to put into practice everything I’ve been learning for the past four years. The best part? Covering the bills that directly impact the Native communities that often fly very much under the radar in mainstream media — the same communities I come from.

I learned so much these past few months about how laws are made, the politics behind them, and the dynamics of a newsroom. I’m grateful for the MTFP and ICT reporters and editors who helped show me the ropes along the way. Challenging? Yes, but I also know how important it is to get accurate information out to the public, which kept me motivated.

I’m taking away so much from this fellowship, including confidence in my reporting skills and experiences I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. I’m ready to dive right back in and continue to report for Indian Country and all of Montana.

As bittersweet as this chapter’s ending is, I’am excited to announce that I’ll be continuing my reporting work with ICT as their new Mountain Bureau intern, based in Missoula. I look forward to sharing the important stories of our first Montanans!

Farewell for now!

—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow

Happenings 🗓️

June, internationally recognized as LGBTQI Pride month, has arrived, kicking off an expanding constellation of summer Pride events around Montana where you and yours can get your Pride on.

The Gist 📌

Friday marked the end of yet another school year for the vast majority of Montana’s roughly 149,900 public school students. And for a small sliver of them — approximately 5,000 5th and 7th graders, according to the Office of Public Instruction — the past nine months have been punctuated by a slight change in testing. In addition to the usual end-of-year standardized tests, those students took a series of mid-year math and reading assessments as part of a statewide pilot program administered by OPI.

The goal of the pilot, as MTFP has previously reported, is to explore the potential of a new system for gauging student achievement. While experimentation with new exams is something seasoned educators are all too accustomed to, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen hopes the new model will ultimately help teachers better understand where K-12 students are on their learning path while there’s still time in the year to address any issues. To that end, Arntzen plans to expand the pilot this fall to grades 3 through 8, widening the sample pool OPI needs to make an informed decision.

So far, participating students have had to take the tests in addition to the usual slate of spring exams, raising concern among parents and teachers about excessive testing burdens. Arntzen made a move last month to alleviate that concern in the pilot’s second year, applying for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to exempt those students from end-of-year testing. According to OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary, the waiver approval process “takes time,” but Arntzen spoke with a senior adviser at the department May 17 and was told the federal government would do “everything it can” to grant Montana’s request.

“The superintendent is moving forward with the verbal yes,” O’Leary wrote, adding that OPI hopes to get official approval this summer. How many districts choose to participate, and how many students will be added to the pilot, won’t be clear until fall.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

Just how religious is Montana? Given the highly personal nature of faith, there may be few concepts harder to quantify. However, the U.S. Religion Censusmakes an effort once a decade regardless, tallying the number of congregations associated with different denominations and their self-reported membership county-by-county across the nation.

Notwithstanding the “God’s County” nickname regularly applied to Montana’s landscape by faithful and secular-minded residents alike, the state actually ranks near the bottom of the nation in terms of its overall religiosity — or, at least, in the fraction of its residents who can be counted as belonging to a religious organization. The 2020 religion census identified 1,766 distinct Montana congregations with an estimated 378,000 adherents, equivalent to 35% of the state’s population.

That percentage ranks Montana 47th-lowest in the nation for faith membership, above only Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire. In contrast, Utah, whose capital Salt Lake City is home to the headquarters of the Mormon church, tops the charts with an estimated 76% of its population belonging to a congregation. Neighboring Idaho is ranked the 12th-most-religious state in the nation, with an estimated 53% of its population reporting membership in a church or other organized congregation.

While Montana’s overall faith participation rate is low, both county-specific rates and the prevailing denominations vary wildly across the state.

The religion census indicates that a majority of residents belong to a church or other organized religious group in nine of the state’s 56 counties. That list, generally containing rural counties in north-central and eastern Montana, includes Glacier County (Browning and Cut Bank), as well as Dawson County around Glendive.

Additionally, while Catholicism is by far the state’s most common denomination, claiming about 10% of Montana residents, several other Christian traditions have a notable presence in different corners of the state. Christian churches classified by the census effort as non-denominational represent the most common faith tradition around Kalispell, Great Falls and Glendive. Lutheranism is the most popular denomination in portions of northern and eastern Montana.

In Beaverhead County, including Dillon, 20% of the population is counted as part of the Mormon Church. In some sparsely populated counties, such as Liberty and Wheatland, as many as one in five residents belong to Anabaptist Hutterite groups.

In addition to 113,000 Montana Catholics, the religion census estimates the state is home to 51,000 Mormons, 43,000 Lutherans, 32,000 Pentecostal Christians, 15,000 Baptists, 11,000 Methodists and 7,800 Anabaptists. The survey count also includes 949 Eastern Orthodox Christians, 380 Hindus and 273 Jews in four congregations.

The census doesn’t make an effort to count affiliation with traditional Native American religious practices. The authors acknowledge their count may not have captured every small congregation across the country.

The full 2020 religion census, including downloadable data and national maps produced by the researchers, is available at

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Glad You Asked 🙋🏻

Montana Free Press readers are pretty darn good at drawing our attention to local meetings and events that might be generating buzz. Prime example: a recent email pointed us to an ad in the Bitterroot Star referencing a special meeting of the Ravalli County Commission June 5 — a meeting the sender knew very little about. So we did some digging.

Turns out the meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds event center, was called at the request of the Montana Election Integrity Project, a collection of citizens with deep concerns about the security of the state’s election systems. According to county commission chair Dan Huls, he and his colleagues agreed to host a listening session so they and the public could hear the group out. The meeting, Huls said, will feature four presentations from four speakers followed by a question-and-answer session, and the commission will not be taking any action.

Monday’s community discussion in Hamilton comes on the heels of a legislative session that featured election integrity among its many emergent topics. Questions about the adequacy of Montana’s safety measures around voting and outright allegations of local impropriety repeatedly surfaced in debates over proposed changes to state law. But for the most part, the bills that did pass were ones that garnered bipartisan support and will bring about relatively minor alterations to the existing election system. While those changes likely won’t be the primary thrust of Monday’s meeting, Huls said the commission is planning a discussion of its own about the 2023 Legislature’s work in the election arena for later this month.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — What is known about occupational health risks for wildland firefighters doesn’t look great for firefighters’ lung, heart and knee health, but there’s relatively little data available. The Centers for Disease Control is soliciting participants to help fill in some of those knowledge gaps, according to a Boise State Public Radio story out this week.

Alex — All my life, I’ve been a sucker for myths and mysteries of the cryptozoological persuasion. This week’s piece in the Flathead Beacon about the lore around the Flathead Lake Monster — as well as related stories of massive sturgeon plying those waters — was no exception. And like any good creature feature, the truth behind the tales remain tantalizing out of reach.

Eric — Home prices are falling in some housing markets across the country, the Washington Post reports in this interactive story, which includes some Montana-specific data. With interest rates up, though, it’s unclear if prices have come down enough to make homes more affordable after prices are translated to a monthly mortgage payment.

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