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I know I’ve been working on a water-related story when hydrographs and snowpack forecasts start leaking into my dreams.

Such was the case for much of last week, when I worked from the Flathead Reservation for a reporting residency with Char-Koosta News, which covers issues affecting the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The residency was part of a MTFP summer initiative to better understand the issues important to rural communities by placing our reporters in small newsrooms for a spell.

As I kicked around story ideas with the paper’s editorial staff, we determined we should take a look at Flathead Lake’s unusually low summer water levels. The northwest Montana rumor mill was rife with speculations that flows through the Séliš Ksanka QÍispé (formerly Kerr) Dam at the lower end of the lake, operated by a CSKT-held company since a first-of-its-kind purchase in 2015, had been mismanaged. And it wasn’t just idle chatter, either: former New Mexico state lawmaker William Sego, who owns a ranch in St. Ignatius, took out a full-page ad in the Missoulian newspaper urging Flathead Lake owners to consider the CSKT Water Compact’s role in the issue. “Save Flathead Lake” missives encouraging those affected by low water to learn “what is going on with OUR LAKE” had surfaced on grocery store notice boards and area yard signs.

Char-Koosta News Editor Sam Sandoval agreed it could be worthwhile to bring data and a focused look at the allegations to the conversation. I was already familiar with water-related databases kept by federal agencies, including U.S. Geological Survey streamflow data, which I’d started checking back in college when I’d worked as a raft guide. I’d also spent a bit of time navigating licenses administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after the Hebgen Dam malfunction nearly starved the Madison River of water for almost 48 hours in 2021.

With help from Char-Koosta News reporter Liz Dempsey, I broke the question into two parts: 1) Was this water year uniquely challenging to navigate in terms of where and when snowpack accumulated and melted? and 2) Was there anything in the operational record to suggest that the dam operators acted irresponsibly between early May, when rivers feeding into the lake hit peak flows, and late June, when lake levels started dropping in earnest, stranding boat docks and irrigation intakes? 

The fruits of my exploration of those questions and our partnership with Char-Koosta News are available here and in the graphics prepared by MTFP data guru Eric Dietrich, below.

As I was reminded by a billboard near Arlee during my drive home — “Something big is coming to help you keep your water,” it read — the fraught dynamics around water certainly aren’t going anywhere. But hopefully the conversation will now be better informed. 

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“It’s not like the ALA’s sitting there and their mission statement is, ‘Goal No. 1: Make America gay.’ That’s not what they’re doing. They’re just trying to give people the right to do what they do with the information they want.”

Helena librarian and American Library Association council member Matt Beckstrom, responding to mounting criticism among conservatives of the ALA, a nonprofit that provides services to tens of thousands of libraries nationwide.

Members of the self-styled parental rights movement have accused the ALA of pushing a pro-Marxist, pro-LGBTQ agenda on children, and the Montana Legislature’s Freedom Caucus last month urged other states to follow the Montana State Library Commission in severing ties with the ALA. As one caucus member — Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay — told Montana Free Press, “They’re trying to ruin a generation and they’re doing it.”

Beckstrom and other librarians balk at such allegations, countering that the ALA and the broader library community are simply working in defense of intellectual freedom and public access to information. In their eyes, requests by conservatives to remove certain LGBTQ-themed books run counter to their mission to ensure that the identities of all community members are reflected in library collections.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

As we reported in our joint effort with Char-Koosta News this week, the normally cold waters of Flathead Lake have become a hot-button issue this year as the lake levels dip well below normal for the summer, closing some marinas and producing angst for boaters and local business owners.

The lake is drained by the Flathead River as it flows to the south, with its outflows controlled by Séliš Ksanka QÍispé (formerly Kerr) Dam. Some critics in the area have blamed the dam’s operator, CSKT tribal benefit company Energy Keepers, Inc., for mismanaging water levels. The company, for its part, argues it’s been a victim of a historically unusual weather pattern. With the climate changing, it also said it anticipates such water supply swings to become increasingly common.

Inflows into the lake peaked earlier and lower than normal this year as record-warm May weather melted out snowpack in the lake’s drainage basin well ahead of the historic schedule. That meant there was plenty of water running in to bring the lake to nearly full as of early June. By late June and July, though, inflows had collapsed, meaning dam operators weren’t able to hold the lake level steady without dipping below their legally required minimum outflows.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter and Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

3 Questions For 

This week Montana Free Press introduced “The Sit-Down,” a new interview feature in which Missoula-based contributor Max Savage Levenson chats with a Montana art-maker or newsmaker. We’ll feature a new Sit-Down every other Wednesday.

To kick things off, Levenson visited with decorated writer and long-time Livingston resident Walter Kirn, the editor-at-large of “County Highway,” a brand-new bimonthly magazine that comes in the anachronistic form of a print-only 20-page broadsheet. 

The following three questions are excerpted from Levenson’s early-August conversation with Kirn in his Livingston office. You can read the entire conversation here

MTFP: When I read “County Highway,” it feels like there’s a recurring tension between optimism and faith in America, and a mourning of what’s been lost in the country. Does that ring true to you?

Kirn: There’s a great sense of loss in America: loss of tradition, loss of cohesion, loss of neighborly knowledge, loss of local knowledge, loss of vocational knowledge. There’s an inescapable theme of technology overrunning people’s lives, hollowing out a lot of the country that used to be a little bit more intact. 

I did this long trip around the country and I noticed something almost immediately: Even in small towns people often couldn’t give directions to a town that was 50 miles away. They’re like, “Don’t you have a phone?” It would turn out that all I had to do was go down one road, take a right and take another left to get on the way. But people didn’t know where they were. It’s amazing how geographically illiterate we’ve become.

But the other thing about rural and small town and small city America is that no matter how depressing certain circumstances have become, it’s a place that has succeeded culturally over the years through its good humor. It gave us Mark Twain. It gave us the blues. People need to entertain themselves and console themselves and stay healthy.

One of the big motives underlying this newspaper is to honor the cultural variety and achievement of Americans who are somewhat overlooked. It’s not Lake Wobegon. We’re not writing cute stories about extremely familiar America. We believe that a cosmopolitan, witty and worldly attitude toward local stories is both an amusing and useful approach.

MTFP: How do you avoid fetishizing small-town America in “County Highway”?

Kirn: There’s a fine line between cute and character-filled, you know?

I’ll use Montana as an example. If you’ve lived here a little bit, you know that the place is kind of stereotyped from the outside. If I’m in a city and I tell people I’m from Montana, they’ll say, “I’m sorry about all the white supremacy.” I’ll say, “Well, it may exist. It probably exists there, too. But let me tell you a few things about Montana.

Anybody who lives in eastern Montana knows that if you get close to the landscape, it’s full of little canyons, hills, arroyos, creeks, caves and so on. But somebody going by it fast goes, “Oh man, it’s just a bunch of flat, rocky nothing.

That’s the goal in our coverage of the country: to get down to the point where things reveal themselves in their true complexity, not to just understand why some districts voted for Donald Trump. One of the reasons we’re doing this paper is that we’re tired of those simplifications. 

MTFP: How does it feel to return home to Livingston, especially from a big city?

Kirn: Urban life in the United States has become more and more taxing over the years. And Livingston has not grown any more taxing. I can relax, I can breathe, I can hear myself think. I probably would not have survived in as good shape as I like to think I have, had I lived in the city my whole life.

I like not just the privacy, but the spontaneity of small-town life. There is a sense that you have more hours in the day, and you have more space in the margins for people and conversations and unplanned experience. 

I’m more grateful every time I come back that there is a place like this to come back to, you know?

Fire Lookout 🔥

Precipitation and cooler temperatures slowed the spread of some wildfires in western Montana this week, offering a bit of relief to firefighters who have been working since late July to contain a number of blazes ignited by dry lightning

Precipitation totals varied across the Mission and Jocko valleys, according to a release from the CSKT Division of Fire. That rainfall wasn’t enough to extinguish fires burning in the region, but did dampen fires by wetting small to medium-sized fuels like grass and brush. While recent cold fronts dropped much-needed moisture, northwest Montana is still experiencing extreme drought conditions that will continue to dry out fuels.  

Three large fires are currently burning on the Flathead Indian Reservation:

  • The Big Knife Fire five miles east of Arlee has burned 4,952 acres and is 7% contained, with pre-evacuation orders in place for residents near the base of the mountains west of the fire.
  • 12 miles west of Elmo, the 20,365-acre Niarada Fire is 47% contained.
  • Also west of Elmo, the Mill Pocket Fire is 2,135 acres and 51% contained.

Areas placed under evacuation status for the Niarada Fire on Friday, Aug. 4 have been downgraded to a pre-evacuation warning. Additionally, the Niarada Fire evacuation notice for Browns Meadow Pass to Highway 28 and the pre-evacuation warning for the Mill Pocket Fire have both been lifted as of Monday, Aug. 7.

Other fires on the Flathead Indian Reservation — the Middle Ridge, Communication Butte, Holmes Creek and Mercer incidents — were largely contained as of Tuesday, Aug. 8. 

Two large fires are currently burning on the Flathead National Forest:

  • The Ridge Fire southeast of Hungry Horse has grown to 2,940 acres and is 1% contained. The Hungry Horse Reservoir is currently closed due to fire activity. Authorities have also closed several roads and issued a pre-evacuation notice along a portion of Highway 2.
  • The Tin Soldier Complex, made up of the Bruce, Kah Mountain, and Sullivan fires, is estimated at 2,632 acres and is 0% contained.

In northwest Montana, the East Fork Fire, burning 1,376 acres south of Trego in the Kootenai National Forest, is 15% contained as of Aug. 10 and a closure orderis currently in place for nearby roads. The human-caused Gravel Pit Fire southeast of Libby has burned 304 acres and is 35% contained. An evacuation warning is in place for residents near the fire along Highway 2. 

In the Seeley-Swan Valley, fire officials noted that the Colt Fire received 0.07 inches of rain on Wednesday, Aug. 9. The fire, which has burned 7,202 acres as of Friday, Aug. 11, is now 45% contained. 

On the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge and Bitterroot national forests, the Bowles Creek Fire has burned 3,589 acres since it started by lightning on July 20. The fire is 5% contained. 

Across western Montana, a warm, dry trend is expected to increase through this weekend as temperatures rise into the 80s and humidity begins to drop. Drier fuels and the possibility of gusty winds are likely to increase fire behavior according to the National Weather Service.

Stay up-to-date on Montana’s active fires and air quality by visiting MTFP’s 2023 Fire Report

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

Public Comment 🗣️

The Public Service Commision, the state’s elected utility board, is hitting the road next week to discuss NorthWestern Energy’s loosely sketched plan for meeting its anticipated energy demand over the next two decades. 

Starting Monday with an appearance in Great Falls, commissioners will hear from their constituents about what they like, or don’t like, in NorthWestern’s 2023 Integrated Resource Plan. In that plan, Montana’s largest electric utility eyes gas plant generation and pumped hydropower, a technology that’s been proposed, but not implemented, in the state.

The commission weighs in the plan as part of its charge to balance the health of NorthWestern’s finances with the concerns of the monopoly utility’s customers, who aren’t able to shop around for other utility providers if they don’t like what the utility is offering — or charging for its service. Through a pre-approval process or a rate case (like the one the PSC is currently deciding for NorthWestern’s $81 million electricity increase), the commission’s work will intersect with any major power-generating acquisitions.

All listening sessions, except the one scheduled to take place in Helena from 12-2 p.m., will take place in the evening from 6-8 p.m. First up is Great Falls on Monday, followed by Helena on Tuesday, Billings on Wednesday and Butte on Thursday. Missoula is last in the mix with a session scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 22. Details on locations are available here

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Hot Potato 🥔

In recent weeks, Montana’s primary abortion access fund, which helps people cover the cost of abortion and related expenses such as travel, lodging and childcare, announced a rebranding. What was once known as the Susan Wicklund Fund is now the Montana Abortion Access Program, or MAAP.

On its website, MAAP says its new name is meant “to be more clear about what we do and to make it easier for people to find us.” Abortion remains legal in Montana despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling last year, and Montana-based providers have been accepting patients from other states where the practice has been banned or restricted. 

The name change, however, is also connected to a disagreement between Montana abortion access trailblazer, Dr. Susan Wicklund, the organization’s now-former namesake, and its board. 

According to a July email sent to “friends and supporters” and later shared with Montana Free Press, Wicklund said the schism was about what language the group should use when referring to people who might seek abortion: foregrounding “women,” as Wicklund preferred, or using entirely gender-neutral language to be inclusive of transgender, Two-Spirit, nonbinary, intersex and other people who can and do become pregnant.

In an August email about the name change, MAAP said the organization’s board had been moving toward the latter option in recent months, pointing to research finding that 1.1% of respondents who had abortions in the U.S. did not identify as women and 16% of patients did not identify as heterosexual. 

In Wicklund’s telling, she asked the board maintain joint references to “women” and “pregnant people,” a compromise she said the board refused. Wicklund said she then decided she “could no longer have my name associated with an organization that does not recognize or honor the long history of women fighting for reproductive rights, and does not acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of people seeking abortion care do indeed identify as women.”

MAAP said its board unanimously agreed with Wicklund’s request.

“Transgender men, two-spirit people, non-binary people, gender non-conforming folks, and cisgender women all need abortion care. By using gender-inclusive language, we are not erasing the individual struggles each of these groups have faced. Instead, we acknowledge that these struggles for bodily autonomy and agency over our specific healthcare needs are inexorably linked,” MAAP said in its August email.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Tom Lutey’s reporting on the Colstrip coal power plant is unmatched for both its depth and breadth. I found myself in awe of all the ground he covered in this 3-month-old story highlighting a slew of regulatory, legal and financial developments. 

Alex — After a long week of education beat work, I’m just going to give a shoutout to the smash Hulu hit “Reservation Dogs” for providing some hilarious evening escapism. The show, which boasts a few Montana connections including appearances by Blackfeet/Niimíipuu actress Lily Gladstone, is three episodes into its third and final season. It has yet to miss a beat.

Arren —  Here’s a jarring sight: Thermal images of the heat wave in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, courtesy of Reuters and the Guardian. 

Nick — I’m reading “Maid: Hard work, low pay, and a mother’s will to survive,” a memoir by Stephanie Land, a University of Montana grad and the speaker at the Montana State First Year Student Convocation on Aug. 22. It’s a powerful story, and I’m looking forward to hearing Land’s message to students and anyone else willing to set aside their biases and consider what it’s like to be poor. Her talk at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse is free, although members of the public will require a ticket available at

Bowman — As part of ProPublica’s Repatriation Project, a reporting series focused on investigating the delayed return of Native remains held by museums, Mary Hudetz — a member of the Apsáalooke, or Crow Tribe in Montana — offers an important perspective on what it’s like to report on this topic as an Indigenous journalist.

Eric — Olivia Weitz with Yellowstone Public Radio landed an interview with the CEO of the Maryland-based company that announced to much public consternation it was buying Chico Hot Springs earlier this month. He told her: “our plan is only to make it a better version of itself, really.”

Mara — Like other members of our team, I’m jealous of this week’s reporting by our Montana press corps colleagues. MTPR’s Aaron Bolton put together a touching piece about how friends and family members can use safe gun storagefor loved ones dealing with a mental health crisis in an effort to prevent suicide. The piece is well-worth a listen and some reflection this week as the CDC reports in provisional data that suicides in America rose again last year, with firearms being the leading cause of death.   

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