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New West Daily Roundup for Sept. 23, 2016

Today in New West news: estimating the economic loss from closing the Yellowstone River, Wyoming votes against wind tax increase, and Ute Tribe breaks with Representative Bishop over potential “land grab.”

Earlier this year, the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks reported they were closing 183 miles of the Yellowstone River to all recreation after thousands of whitefish were felled by a parasite. Although the 183 mile stretch has reopened, and Governor Steve Bullock has announced emergency aid for affected businesses, the closure still came at a significant cost. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, citing information from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation, the closure cost Park County anywhere from $360,000 to $524,000:

Jeremy Sage, the author of the report, said the impact to the state as a whole might be minimal, but the impact to the county over that short time period is significant.

“It could be hitting some businesses very hard,” Sage said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to close the river on Aug. 19, after confirming that a parasite outbreak killed thousands of whitefish. The initial closure spanned 183 miles of river from the border with Yellowstone National Park to the town of Laurel and included every tributary stream that entered the river through there.

Poor river conditions were blamed for the kill, as river temperatures hovered near 70 degrees and flows neared historic lows. In early September as river conditions improved and as fish mortality slowed, FWP began lifting parts of the original closure. The final reopening came on Friday, as state officials decided to reopen the river from Emigrant to Pine Creek, the last section that was closed.

But the initial closure took a toll on the businesses that rely on the stream for their income. The report says that about 31 percent of jobs in Park County depend on tourism, a large portion related to the Yellowstone River.

Sage estimated the total loss by looking at what visitors had spent in the past and guessing whether they would still visit the state or not. He came up with two estimates — one he termed “high impact” that assumed most people canceled their trips, and one called “low impact” that assumed that people still came but found other things to do. The lower impact estimate neared $360,000 and the higher impact one was close to $524,000.

But Leslie Feigel, the executive director of the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce, said the numbers Sage produced were too low and that the study focused too much on the losses suffered by river guides.

“We had impact in more ways than just floating,” Feigel said.

Feigel said hotels, bars and restaurants all felt the pinch, too, and that many people lost jobs. At least three businesses in Livingston alone had to close up shop because of the closure, she said, and one store she knew of lost around $5,800 a week in business.

She also criticized the study for making too many references to the impact to the entire state.

“This was not something that affected Montana as a whole,” she said. “It’s more of a local-area level.”

Feigel added she is compiling her own statistics and plans to release her findings by the end of the month.

Over in Wyoming, we’ve been following developments in a proposal to raise the state’s wind generation tax for turbines, which many industry players have said would cut into profits and stymie (and possibly even reverse) development of many wind projects in the state. Denver-based Power Company of Wyoming (behind the Chokecherry Sierra Madre project) have been among the most vocal opponents.

Now, according to the Wyoming Business Report, the state’s Joint Revenue Committee has decided not to increase the tax from $1 per megawatt hour to $3 per megawatt hour:

Rep. Mike Madden, a chairman of the Joint Revenue Committee, had suggested increasing the tax – which is the only tax on wind power in the nation – to $3 to help support Wyoming schools at a time when other energy revenues are down.

Wind developers argued that the added tax would effectively kill their projects, and threatened to look elsewhere.

UW economist Rob Godby told Wyoming Public Radio that, “if you raise the generation tax [and the projects leave Wyoming], you will be giving up all the other taxes.”

Wyoming’s wind – while still some of the best in the nation – is no longer the only game in town. In a meeting with officials in Rawlins on Monday, Juan Carlos Carpio Delfino, CEO of Viridis Eolia Corp., explained that wind in Iowa, while not as strong as Wyoming’s, is more dense and so is more efficient at pushing turbines around. Also, improvements in technology have meant that new turbines can squeeze more energy out of slower winds.

Delfino said that means that, “We can go somewhere else,” he said. “Let’s say we’ve already invested $10 million. It’s better to lose $10 million than to lose $2.3 billion. It’s just business.”

Finally, over in Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Ute Indian Tribe has broken with Republican U.S. Representative Rob Bishop over a proposal included in his Public Lands Initiative. Under Bishop’s proposal, 100,000 acres of land within the Ute’s reservation would be up for a “land grab,” which the Utes say violates their tribal sovereignty. From the Tribune:

Tribal officials have publicly insisted, to no avail, that the Utah Republican drop these land-exchange provisions from his Public Lands Initiative, or PLI, which he introduced in Congress two months ago. Their ire has now reached such a pitch that they say the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is no longer welcome in Indian Country, wrote Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the tribal business committee, in a letter to the agency Monday.

The tribe is now abandoning hard-forged agreements that aimed to free up mineral wealth SITLA holds under the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation’s Hill Creek Extension.

Spurring the letter was the Sept. 13 testimony of SITLA director David Ure, who reiterated his agency’s hopes to acquire consolidated energy-rich lands in the Uinta Basin. This proposal is one of many provisions in the PLI, which the House Natural Resources Committee advanced on Thursday.

The bill affects some 18 million acres of public lands in seven eastern Utah counties, specifying areas where either conservation or development should be prioritized.

Under the PLI, SITLA would exchange sections scattered around Grand, Emery, San Juan and Carbon counties for a huge block of Bureau of Land Management-administered land on the East Tavaputs Plateau.

In a reply letter to the tribe, Ure affirmed SITLA’s respect for tribal jurisdiction, but said the land in question is not owned by the tribe, but by the American public.

In a 40-year-old legal case, the tribe has successfully argued that Congress has never “diminished” the Utes’ historic reservation boundaries, which were thrown open to white settlement more than a century ago. Armed with a string of favorable appellate rulings, the tribe is asserting ownership of public land within “Indian Country.” SITLA’s bid to obtain such lands amounts to a “land grab,” tribal officials say, at least while the matter remains in dispute.

But state officials reject that characterization. Ure noted the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the tribe’s assertion of jurisdiction and ownership over these lands are separate issues. His agency had looked forward to developing lands acquired through the PLI in partnership with the tribe, he said.

“We strongly disagree, however, with any claim of tribal ownership of BLM lands in the historic Uncompahgre [Reservation], and believe these public lands are available for conservation land exchange,” Ure wrote.

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