The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.

Our effort in the Aug. 18 edition of the MT Lowdown to fact-check state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s unproven claim that litter boxes are present in Montana schools kicked a hornet’s nest. Readers responded with confusion, frustration and even anger directed at Arntzen and her rhetoric. Some also suggested we should dig deeper.

You see, in October 2022, NBC News looked into the same issue and confirmed that one Colorado school district had been stocking its classrooms with small amounts of cat litter, but not for the reasons Arntzen and other Republicans around the country have suggested. The district — Jefferson County, home to Columbine High School — kept the sand for emergency use during active shooter situations when classrooms are locked down and students are unable to visit the restroom. 

That’s one district, located nearly 500 miles from the nearest patch of Montana soil. Yet NBC’s lone confirmation, later referenced on WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life, apparently inspired a counter-narrative to the allegations conservatives have used to challenge school policies dealing with gender identity. Several of our readers mentioned the lockdown angle in their emails.

We try to take our readers’ questions seriously at MTFP, so I spent some more time this week calling school administrators, board trustees and state associations to double-check that I hadn’t missed anything. They unequivocally told me that they’d heard of no cat litter usage in Montana, regardless of purpose.

What I did hear was ample evidence that the topic, and Arntzen’s decision to amplify it, has produced near-universal irritation (including some directed at me for raising the issue again while educators geared up for the first week of school). Doug Reisig, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, called the superintendent’s claims “disingenuous, disruptive and demeaning.” Other school leaders were reluctant to talk to me about the issue, saying it cast a negative light on the start of the 2023-24 school year and detracted from other conversations about student achievement and safety.

Despite presenting no hard evidence of litter boxes in Montana classrooms, Arntzen — the state’s top education official and a potential congressional candidate — has argued they’re a “distraction from the important mission of delivering a quality education to our students.” The educators we spoke with and most of the readers we heard from don’t see it that way. For them, it’s the debate itself that has proven the real distraction.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Closeup 📸

Credit: Alex Sakariassen/MTFP

New Dutton-Brady Elementary teachers Jordan Skulsky, left, and Jessica Toner examine a set of cards depicting hand signals their students can use to quietly request bottled water, tissues, bathroom breaks and other things they may need in the classroom.

MTFP partnered with the Choteau Acantha over the last few weeks to produce a story on teacher recruitment and retention challenges in Teton County. During that reporting, we learned the Dutton-Brady district had launched an in-school daycare center in fall 2022 partly to attract new teachers. And, according to Skulsky and Toner, it worked. Both cited the daycare — and the 50% discount it offers to school staff — as one of the top reasons they applied for jobs there this summer.

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Fire Lookout 🔥

Thunderstorms and high winds swept across the state on Tuesday and Wednesday due to a strong cold front moving in from the Pacific Ocean, dampening fires in the west and fueling new starts in central and south-central Montana.

On Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service reported wind speeds as high as 57 miles per hour in Ravalli County near Sula. The NWS also recorded significant precipitation throughout western Montana, with parts of Flathead, Lincoln and Sanders counties receiving over an inch of rain and over two inches measured near Flathead Lake. Lower temperatures and an increase in moisture from the storm slowed fire activity in the region.

In central and eastern Montana, low humidity paired with high winds on Tuesday and Wednesday fanned the flames of two new fires. Officials estimate that the human-caused Pryor Creek Road Fire on the Crow Reservation has burned 3,231 acres after starting Tuesday in a grain field. As of Friday morning, the grass and timber fire has been 61% contained, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. In addition, the Coal Ridge Fire north of Stafford Ferry in Blaine County has burned 1,206 acres since Tuesday afternoon and is currently 20% contained, according to the DNRC fire dashboard.

Looking ahead to early September, fire risk is likely to be low to moderate across much of the state, with a moderate risk in central Montana. The Northern Rockies Coordination Center predicts above-normal temperatures statewide through Sept. 7, which could dry out fuels, but above-normal precipitation is also expected to fall, particularly in western Montana.

—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

Following the Law ⚖️

Federal rules codifying which waterways are afforded Clean Water Act protections under the “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, rule have been changed once more, continuing a back-and-forth regulatory saga shaped by presidential administration changes and court rulings going back at least a decade.

The federal agency that administers the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, announced Tuesday that it amended its WOTUS definition to comply with the Sackett v. EPA decision the U.S. Supreme Court issued in May. The lawsuit focused on whether a couple who owned property in Idaho that included a wetland could fill it to build a home on it; the Supreme Court said they could.

In a press release about the new rule, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the new rule will “provide a clear path forward” for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with determining which specific waterways are jurisdictional for permitting and enforcement purposes.

“While I am disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Sackett case, EPA and Army have an obligation to apply this decision alongside our state co-regulators, Tribes, and partners,” Regan said. “Moving forward, we will do everything we can with our existing authorities and resources to help communities, states, and Tribes protect the clean water upon which we all depend.”

The rule strikes the “significant nexus” test, which had held that wetlands were afforded federal pollution protections if they significantly affected the chemical, physical or biological integrity of “traditional navigable waters” — i.e., those that were explicitly protected when Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. Instead, wetlands now must maintain a “continuous surface connection” with a protected waterway to be subject to federal regulation under WOTUS. 

Under the new rule, 1.2 to 4.9 million miles of ephemeral streams are expected to lose protection, as well as up to 63% of the nation’s wetland acreage.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper Executive Director Guy Alsentzer said in an interview that the new rule threatens the clean water that’s integral to Montana’s outdoor heritage and outdoor economy. He expects the resulting “vacuum” will give courts an opportunity to test the strength of state-level environmental protections codified in the Montana Constitution and the Montana Water Quality Act.

“We have those tools, the problem is that nobody has meaningfully enforced them,” Alsentzer said. “We have to do better now.”

The rule was better received by the Montana Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Raylee Honeycutt, who said it will affirm the Sackett ruling curtailing EPA overreach.

“The revisions to the WOTUS definition in EPA’s final rule is an important step toward bringing the EPA more in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling,” Honeycutt said in a written statement to MTFP. “MSGA will continue to work to protect Montana ranchers from burdensome regulations and ensure certainty on WOTUS.”

The rule goes into effect immediately. The EPA will host a webinar to explain it further Sept. 12.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Justin Franz/MTFP

One of Glacier National Park’s iconic red buses, built by the White Motor Company between 1936 and 1939, climbs the Going-to-the-Sun Road near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Park officials this week held two events to hear the concerns of area residents unhappy with the ticketing system to enter the park that they say favors out-of-state tourists. MTFP contributor Justin Franz wrote about the meetings and also provided this lovely photo.

READ MORE: As summer winds down, Glacier National Park seeks input on ticketed entry system

Happenings 🗓️

You’re usually more likely to find Montana Free Press covering congressional elections than campaigns for city hall, but Missoula’s upcoming mayoral election — the first since 2005 without John Engen on the ballot — is a pretty big deal. Engen was Zootown’s longest-serving mayor when he died in office last August. The City Council appointed council member Jordan Hess to serve out the remainder of Engen’s fifth four-year term. 

Now, headed into Missoula’s Sept. 12 municipal primary, Hess is one of five candidates seeking election proper to the nonpartisan office. Along with Hess, Brandi Atanasoff, Andrea Davis, Shawn Knopp and Mike Nugent are scheduled to participate in a candidate forum at Missoula’s VFW Post 209 (245 W. Main St.) on Thursday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m. The forum will be moderated by Big Sky Chat House newsletter author Max Savage Levenson. (Levenson is a MTFP contributor and we’re co-sponsoring the event.)

The primary’s top two vote-getters will proceed to the Nov. 7 general election. 

—Brad Tyer, Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — I’ve generally been impressed by the Narwhal’s coverage of mining issues that span the Canada-U.S. border, but I was especially impressed by the thoroughness of this story published by the British Columbia-based nonprofit news outlet last April outlining Teck Coal’s mining impact one water body at a time.

Alex — I was stunned this week to learn that public school enrollment in Whitefish has increased 18% over the past 10 years — a byproduct, according to the Flathead Beacon, of the influx of new residents. The growth has created challenges for the district, prompting a $34 million bond request this fall to expand the district’s high school and update its athletic complex.

Brad — I had the pleasure, many moons ago, of reporting a story for High Country News under the guidance of Bozeman-based HCN editor Ray Ring, so I know a little something about Ring’s skill with words. Now that he’s retired and living in Arizona, he’s turned that talent to novels, and his latest — “Montana Blues” — tells a fictional story of racial conflict that rings journalistically true.

Nick — How our country has treated Indigenous people and their culture is horrendous. This report about forced Indian boarding schools by the Washington Post is difficult to read but important just the same. 

Bowman — I enjoyed chatting with earth scientist and Montana State University professor Cathy Whitlock this week, who is also the lead author of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. She pointed me in the direction of a recent New York Times investigation that presents a sobering look at how climate change is accelerating the depletion of groundwater across the U.S.

Mara — Back in July, the state health department announced it planned to award a contract to a private consulting group to guide a “multi-biennia” overhaul of Montana’s behavioral health and developmental disabilities services (more on that here). The health department has since said it intends to award that contract to Alvarez & Marsal, a New York-based firm already working on fixing the Montana State Hospital. The contract amount has yet to be disclosed. Anyone curious to learn more might take a dive into a summary of the contract the health department put together this summer.  

Eric — Call me a snob, but this is by far the best thing I can remember reading about American drinking culture.

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