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New West Daily Roundup for Jan. 11, 2017

Today in New West news: more energy leases cancelled in Badger-Two Medicine area, Senator Tester meets with Zinke as Montana parties name tentative timeline for replacement candidates, Utah tourism in 2017, and Grand Junction-based medical firm raises $7.6M in funding.

Fall 2015, we reported the Interior Department had decided to cancel a set of energy leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park, a region held sacred by the Blackfeet Tribe. The leases were originally granted in the early 80s and subsequently faced substantive litigation. They were shelved in the mid-90s, shelving any lawsuits with it. Solenex LLC, one of the companies holding leases in the region, sued the Forest Service and BLM to reverse the suspension, prompting the plaintiffs in the original case to demand the Interior revive their case.

Long story short, after much deliberation, the Interior Department decided to outright cancel energy leases in the region. We previously reported that the Interior had canceled 15 oil and gas leases held by Oklahoma-based Devon Energy. Now, according to the Missoulian, the agency has canceled and refunded payments for the remaining energy leases, although Solenex LLC is still contesting its lease cancellation:

“The Badger-Two Medicine is a powerful cultural region,” Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said on Tuesday after Department of Interior officials announced the cancellations. “We’ve lived for 30 years under the threat that it might be industrialized, and we’re extremely grateful that this cloud is finally lifted. This area is like a church to our people, and retiring the last of the leases is a tremendous step toward permanent protection of the Badger-Two Medicine.”

The leaseholders were the J.G. Kluthe Trust of Nebraska, which claimed 3,982 acres, and W.A. Moncrief Jr. of Texas, who claimed 7,640 acres. Kluthe was compensated $30,560 and Moncrief was paid $27,874 for past lease payments, filing fees and other charges.

[…]

Blackfeet Historic Preservation Officer John Murray said the tribe offered the two leaseholders alternative sites on the reservation in exchange for leaving the Badger-Two Medicine alone. The tribe has allowed extensive energy exploration activity on its lands in places not considered culturally sensitive.

With the leases canceled, Murray said the tribe now wants to see the area made accessible to a herd of genetically pure bison now breeding on the reservation.

“That would make it more complete, in place of the cattle leases already in there,” Murray said. “Some of those grazing leases are already vacant. The tribe is working with the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture to see that come to reality.”

Keeping with Interior news, after Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) was tapped as pick for Interior Secretary—prompting enthusiasm from sportsman organizations and guarded approval from conservation groups for his “Teddy Roosevelt” land ethos—he threw his favorability into question by voting with the U.S. House to make federal land transfers easier, a move many—on both sides of the aisle—say would open up the possibility of wholesale land auctions.

Zinke’s compatriots in the Senate (Jon Tester [D] and Steve Daines [R]) decried the vote as a betrayal of Zinke’s conservation/sportsman bona fides. The move was especially surprising since Zinke resigned from the Republican Party’s platform committee at the Republican National Convention when it expressly favored the transfer of federal/public lands to state hands. Zinke’s office maintained the vote did not reflect the representative’s commitment to public lands.

Indeed, according to the Missoulian, Tester met with Zinke, who reportedly downplayed the House vote:

In a press release, Tester said he asked Zinke about the nominee’s commitment to public lands, conservation, the environment and Indian treaty rights.

“I had a good talk with Congressman Zinke about the future of Montana’s public lands, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, responsible natural resource development, and upholding trust and treaty responsibilities in Indian Country,” Tester said. “It is important that the next Interior secretary is committed to protecting Montana’s outdoor way of life, and understands the threats facing those of us who love to hike, hunt, and fish on our public lands.”

Currently, Zinke is slated to have a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday, January 17. Senator Daines is a member of that committee.

If Zinke is confirmed, he would resign from his House seat, prompting a special election in Montana. According to the Missoulian, Montana Republicans and Democrats are gearing up to quickly hold their nominating conventions, although the timing depends on when (and whether) Zinke is confirmed.

Down in Utah, according to Utah Business, state officials and professionals associated with the tourism industry are gearing up for a busy 2017:

A group of nearly 25 industry professionals and leaders met on Monday morning at Holland and Hart to discuss the state of travel and tourism in Utah. Topics ranged from the progress of the airport renovation and the construction of a convention hotel to the rise of international travelers and the challenges of the unconventional liquor laws.

The perception of Utah as a state and tourism destination was also discussed. Despite the quality of its snow or the beauty of its red rocks, in the days before the 2002 Olympics, the perception of the state was not poor—it was nonexistent, said Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah. Since then, Utah’s perception to outsiders has gotten far better, but still has a lot of room for improvement.

“It’s worth reflecting that you don’t advertise your way out of reputation problems. There are a handful of ways of changing reputations [and] stigmas,” said Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Office of Tourism. “One is for people to have that Utah experience. We want to remind ourselves of the beauty of our industry. We call it the halo effect.”

Brock Dockstader, president and GM of Cliffrose Lodge, which is located near Zion National Park, said he has seen people with a poor perception of the state visit and have their minds changed.

“I see a lot of international travel. At Zion, Springdale, we have a tremendous amount of international tourists that don’t know what Utah is,” he said. “There’s always stigmas with it. It’s changed dramatically, for the better, over the last 10 years. People are realizing that Utah is an incredible state. … Every day people are blown away by how different Utah is than they expected.”

Still, some challenges doggedly remain for Utah—the liquor laws, for one, and the air quality. The beginning of 2017 has seen poor inversion conditions, with levels of air pollution in the Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties all in the red range in the past two weeks. Without a meaningful push to solve the air quality problem, Utah’s tourism industry could suffer, said Jim Crowder, director of sales for Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

Finally, over in Colorado, according to the Denver Business Journal, Grand Junction-based medical device company Avex LLC has raised $7.6 million for its “Footbeat,” a “wearable medical device” aimed at foot healing:

Company officials said the money “will build up production capacity, expand the operations team, and provide the sales and marketing resources to make Footbeat available to patients and physicians.”

“We believe that an investment of this magnitude validates both the clinical and commercial potential of Footbeat. We’re bringing a device to market that will transform lives through improved health and athletic recovery,” said Matt Mayer, CEO of Avex, in a statement.

In 2014, Avex received $172,500 from the Colorado Economic Development Commission.

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