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Dana Armstrong/Courtesy: Thinktank

New West Daily Roundup for May 24, 2016

Today in New West news: proposal to expand Bozeman’s Lark Hotel approved, an “energy bulletin” from the Cowboy State, and Utah’s outdoor recreation industry takes side in public lands debate.

Last fall, after years of associated development/construction, the new Lark Hotel in downtown Bozeman opened, showcasing work from local firm Thinktank. Although The Lark’s design drew criticism from certain quarters of the city, it certainly made an impression on travelers; the hotel had a 98 percent occupancy rate in through 2015. Further, we previously reported that the City Commission would hear proposals to expand the hotel and add 28 additional rooms (as well as commercial space) to the Lark.

Now, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the City Commission just unanimously endorsed the project, to the chagrin of its detractors. Indeed, Mayor Carson Taylor acknowledged the building doesn’t exactly look like other buildings in the city, but that seems to be the design’s selling point. From the Chronicle:

The expansion will add 28 rooms to the Main Street and Grand hotel complex by building upward on a currently vacant site on the street corner. It’s also slated to include a conference room, ground-floor commercial space and a triangular plaza adjacent to the Victory Taco stand.

“It’s taken some time and planning effort to get to where we are today, but we feel that process has yielded an end result that we’re quite proud of,” said project architect Brian Caldwell of Thinktank Design Group.

The project, he said, will feature a similar aesthetic to the existing Lark building. In a first for Bozeman, he added, it will be framed using cross-laminated timber, or prefabricated solid wood panels.

Commissioners expressed enthusiasm about the project, noting it sits a block outside the formal boundaries of the downtown historic district.
“It’s definitely going to stand out,” said Deputy Mayor Cyndy Andrus. “It’s going to make Bozeman more eclectic.”

“If we’re not going to be building something to make it look historic, let’s make it look intersecting and vibrant,” she added.

“This is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I still get complaints about the Co-op every once in awhile,” said Commissioner Jeff Krauss. “You’re not designing a building for everyone.”

There are people who complain about the building adjacent to the Lark across the street because it’s new construction that tries to emulate a historic feel, Krauss also said.

“I am reminded that people didn’t like the Co-op,” Taylor said. “I don’t hear that any more. It feels right now.”

The commission also met and discussed whether the sewer line would need to be expanded to accommodate additional waste from the Lark—as well as adjoining areas. Currently, the Lark Hotel expansion is set to start in October, and could take up to a year to complete.

Down in Wyoming, the Casper Star Tribune has a few updates to share in terms of the energy market. First and foremost, the Tribune reports, Los Angeles-based Brietburn Energy Partners (which mines oil in the Bighorn Basin) has filed for Chapter 11 protection, joining the long line of other energy companies who’ve entered bankruptcy. Indeed, in 2015, Breitburn posted a whopping $2.6 billion loss in 2015, and will have to contend with around $3 billion in debt.

Over the past few months, we’ve been following Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy, each of which declared bankruptcy earlier this year. According to the Tribune, Alpha has received a $339 million bid for the company’s natural gas assets in southwestern Pennsylvania. While welcome news to the company, as the Tribune points out, it could prompt uneasiness from regulators worried the company is trying to win cash and divest themselves of their reclamation duties.

Peabody, meanwhile, has received a $800 million financing package which, according to the Wall Street Journal, will let them continue to operate as they proceed through Chapter 11. The package entails a $500 million, $200 million for reclamation costs, and $100 million in credit.

Finally, over in Utah, we’ve been following the debate over public lands in Utah. To wit: the state of Utah claims the federal government has “mismanaged” some 30 million acres of land within Utahan borders, which the state says is owed to them as a part of their agreement to statehood under the Utah Enabling Act of 1894.

Earlier this year, Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill establishing a $14 million fund to fuel a lawsuit should the issue ever go to court. We previously reported that the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia likely diminished the chance of the suit’s success. We also reported that a pair of University of Utah lawmakers say even if Utah can establish ownership of the federal lands at issue, they would likely not be able to obtain mineral rights.

Now, according to the Durango Herald, representatives from Utah’s outdoor recreation industry (which pulls in roughly $6 billion in revenue per annum) has partnered with Denver-based Center for Western Priorities in a campaign to raise awareness of public lands—explicitly stating that a transfer of public lands to Utah could lead to the closure of recreation spots and landscape degradation. From the Herald:

The billboards going up in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada on Monday feature images of mountain bikers and warn that public lands are under attack in Utah.

“As people make their summer vacation plans, we want to raise awareness of what could happen if Utah politicians succeed in taking over public lands,” said Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Denver-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities, which is behind the billboards. The billboards will go up in Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix and Reno.

Rokala and recreation officials argue Utah would have to sell off public land or ramp up drilling and mining to be able to afford management costs, which would encroach on or close off pristine outdoor spaces.

“If the politicians in Utah have their way, access to your favorite camping spot, mountain biking trail or fishing hole could be cut off,” Rokala said at a news conference at Utah’s Capitol on Monday.

[…]

The land demand does not include national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments, with the exception of the roughly 3,000-square-mile Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and its underground coal reserves.

Attorney General Sean Reyes has not said if he’ll pursue the case, but lawmakers have already stashed $4.5 million for the lawsuit, which could cost three times that amount. The Legislature’s own attorneys warned that Utah would likely lose the lawsuit.

Rokala was joined by Juan Palma, the former Utah director of the BLM, Ashley Korenblat, the owner of a Moab bike tour company, and Brad Petersen, the first person to serve as the director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation.

They pointed to a 2014 study that found Utah could afford the $280 million annual cost of management through oil and gas leases on the land if prices for those commodities remain high. If oil and gas prices remain relatively low, as they are now, the state would have to increase drilling, raise the costs for drilling companies, or find other ways to make money.

“We simply will not be able to meet the needs of all our visitors and the quality their experience will suffer, and the next thing you know, customers will go elsewhere,” Korenblat said.

Jon Cox, a spokesman for Governor Gary Herbert, decried the move as “another out-of-state interest group telling Utahns that we shouldn’t be allowed to manage our own public lands.”

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