By Eric Dietrich on Dec 19, 2019 02:38 pm

At a cramped meeting before the Montana Public Service Commission in Helena Dec. 9, a crowd of climate activists radiated suspicion as a bearded economist flipped through a slide deck.

Ben Fitch-Fleischmann, an energy planner for Montana’s largest power company, NorthWestern Energy, was explaining a 300-page plan that analyzes the utility’s options for supplying Montanans with reliable, affordable electricity over the next two decades. While other Pacific Northwest utilities are planning to shut down coal plants, he said, if NorthWestern is going to keep Montana’s lights on without overcharging ratepayers, it needs more fuel-burning power generation — not less.

The activists, convinced that NorthWestern is dragging its heels as other utilities divest from fossil fuels, were there to disagree. Toting signs from a pre-meeting rally in the PSC parking lot, they argued NorthWestern has to get serious about pivoting to cleaner sources — and soon — if the state and world are going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

At the front of the room, Montana’s utility commission presided over what was officially a listening session — and unofficially a flash point in a sprawling, highly technical debate over Montana’s energy future.

“I know that if you’re concerned about climate change, you don’t want to hear that gas is the cheapest way to provide energy into the future,” Fitch-Fleischmann told the skeptical crowd. But the reality, he said, is that NorthWestern owns less generating capacity than most of its peers, and so buys more market power, making it vulnerable to a regional power supply crunch as utilities decommission coal plants. His analysis, he added, indicates gas-fueled power plants are likely the best way to fill the gap.

“The key result here is we’re short on capacity today, and the region is increasingly short on capacity,” he said.

“They have no imagination. This is a sham,” said Don Harris of Clancy, one of 40-plus attendees to take a turn at the microphone to criticize NorthWestern’s plan. 

The next morning, NorthWestern, which serves 369,000 Montana customers, announced plans to expand its ownership in the Colstrip coal power plant. Pending regulatory approval from the PSC, the company will purchase an additional 25% stake in Colstrip Unit 4 from Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy for $1, adding to its existing 30% share. In its announcement, NorthWestern officials compared the cost of operating the additional Colstrip generation, an estimated $15 million a year, to the $240 million cost of building equivalent natural gas capacity.

Puget Sound, faced with a Washington state law requiring the utility to eliminate coal generation from its portfolio by 2025, has touted the deal as a major step toward that goal.

“This is what our customers have been asking for,” executive David Mills said in a release.

NorthWestern’s critics would say they’re asking for the same thing, but the company argues that, given its capacity shortage, the Colstrip deal will help keep Montana electricity reliable as the company transitions toward cleaner energy sources. In announcing the deal, the company pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its generating portfolio to 90 percent below 2010 levels by 2045.

NorthWestern’s energy supply plan, which looks forward two decades and is updated every few years, is intended to serve as a roadmap as the company weighs decisions like the Colstrip purchase, keeping the public, and PSC regulators, apprised of its big-picture strategy.


Photo by Thom Bridge / Helena Independent Record

Energy planner Ben Fitch-Fleischmann presents NorthWestern’s 2019 Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan to the Public Service Commission during a public hearing in Helena on Dec. 9, 2019.


Per Montana law, regulated utilities like NorthWestern are required to “provide adequate and reliable electricity supply service at the lowest long-term total cost.” 

The NorthWestern supply plan is reviewed by the utility commission, which will give the company feedback, but won’t explicitly endorse or reject the plan with a formal vote. Commissioners will, however, ultimately vote on specific supply proposals from NorthWestern, like the Colstrip acquisition.

That regulatory power makes the PSC, where all five seats are Republican-held, the pivot point in Montana’s energy politics — the place where elected officials, agency staff, utility representatives, and interested citizens converge to hash out the policy that will drive the state’s energy future.

Dec. 17, 2019

(Gallatin County)The celebration is to honor the participants’ commitment to changing their lives.

Treatment Court starts at 9 a.m. in Gallatin County District Court Judge John Brown’s courtroom at the Law and Justice Center, located at 615 S. 16th Ave. in Bozeman.

“Treatment Court Christmas is a very special event. It is an opportunity to celebrate the ongoing success of our participants, some of whom have not celebrated Christmas in years,” said Judge Brown.

“Prior to Treatment Court, their lives revolved around drugs, alcohol, and jail. But this year, with the support of the Treatment Court team, our participants are clean and sober. They are employed, and they have stable residences. And they are free to experience the joy of the holidays with their friends and family,” he said.

At the Christmas celebration, the 18 current participants will receive gifts and treats provided by Belgrade Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 12112,  Friends of Treatment Court (a group that gives financial support to the program), as well as other citizens of Gallatin County.

Gallatin County Treatment Court was the first adult treatment court in the state and is now one of 31 drug courts across Montana.

Started in 1999, Treatment Court is an 18-month voluntary program that is an alternative sentencing for adult offenders whose crimes were motivated by substance abuse.

Participants receive treatment for chemical dependency and mental health issues. Among a number of things, participants are required to attend addictions counseling, mental health therapy and support groups, as well as submit to frequent drug and alcohol testing, report weekly to a case manager and perform community service.

The five core values of Treatment Court are honesty, integrity, responsibility, sobriety and service.

Brown also voiced his appreciation to the Gallatin County Commission.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Gallatin County commissioners for their continued support of the Treatment Court,” he said. “Their emotional and financial support is greatly appreciated.”

The program is managed by a team that includes:

Judge John Brown, Gallatin County District Court
Steve Ette, Director of Court Services
Eric Kitzmiller, Chief Deputy with Gallatin County Attorney’s Office
Kirsten Mull-Core, Attorney
Dr. Jim Murphey, Psychologist
Vicki Deboer, Clinical Supervisor with Alcohol and Drug Services of Gallatin County
Jared Poole, Probation and Parole Officer for Montana Department of Corrections
Kelley Parker-Wathne, Treatment Court Coordinator



Dec. 2, 2019

(Gallatin County, Mont.) On November 30, 2019 at 3:45 pm, Gallatin County Dispatch received a call for an overdue hunter. The hunter, a 47-year-old local man, had planned on meeting up with another hunter but didn’t show up. Attempts to contact the hunter by phone were unsuccessful. Based on the falling temperatures and the rugged terrain, Gallatin County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue was called out to conduct a search for the hunter. When deputies arrived on scene, the reporting party had left her truck to look for the overdue hunter. SAR volunteers, including a search dog, quickly located the reporting party and brought her back to the truck.

The search was in the area of Headwaters State Park and the Trident cement plant, along the train tracks. Just before 7 pm, Montana Rail Link notified dispatch that a train engineer had spotted a man near the tracks at the bottom of the Clarkston Hill. Deputies responded and located the overdue hunter. The man was in good spirits and was given a ride to his residence to meet with the reporting party.

When you are in the backcountry, be prepared to stay out overnight should the conditions worsen. If you report a missing person, please stay with your vehicle so that search parties don't have to look for multiple people.



MISSOULA, Mont., October 8, 2019

In keeping with MAM’s mission and recognition of its location on tribal lands, MAM will be open Monday, October 14 to honor Indigenous Peoples Day. This is a rare treat, as our museum is not typically open on Mondays. This year, the museum celebrates the exhibitions of Native artists Rick Bartow and Lillian Pitt.

Rick Bartow (1946–2016), a member of the Mad River Band Wiyot, is one of the nation’s most important contemporary Native artists. Bartow’s nationally traveling exhibition, Things You Know But Cannot Explain, represents more than 40 years of work. This is the first major retrospective of Bartow’s work and features a broad selection of sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints from public and private collections and the artist’s studio, on exhibit at MAM through February 15, 2020.

Drawing upon 10,000 years of Native American history, Lillian Pitt weaves tradition and tribute to honor the legacy of her ancestors in her solo exhibition Honoring My Ancestors. Pitt is celebrated nationwide for making contemporary artwork in the deep tradition of Pacific Northwest Native American artists. Her new work includes prints, masks, and a new series of Sally bags, on exhibit at MAM through February 22, 2020. 

MAM will also offer an adult art class on Indigenous Peoples Day:

Sense of Place Through an Indigenous Lens

Monday, October 14 // 10 AM–12 PM
Co Carew discusses her Indigenous arts-based research focused on understanding a ‘sense of place.’ Carew, a descendant of Mescalero Apache, shares her methods and findings from research that she conducted with faculty, alumni, and students from the Salish Kootenai College. Participants are guided through an art-making experience to highlight and solicit their understanding of ‘place.’ Students will use paint and collage during this mixed-media art-making experience. No prior art experience is needed, and the class is open to all abilities. The class is $18 for members and $20 for non-members.

About MAM: Founded in 1975 and accredited by the American Association of Museums since 1987, MAM is emerging as the leading contemporary art museum in the Intermountain West. MAM is a fully accessible, free public museum boasting eight exhibition spaces, a library, and education center in the heart of Missoula’s historic downtown.