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New West Daily Roundup for Mar. 2, 2017

Today in New West news: federal lands drive economic growth in rural counties, Bullock sets date for special election, and CO senator speaks out against Attorney General over pot.

According to a new study from Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics, rural counties across the West with high percentages of federal land holdings showed higher, more robust population and economic growth than counties with fewer or no federal lands. You can see a summary of the data below in a table, courtesy of Headwater Economics:


According to the study, growth in counties rich with federal lands was sustained through the early 1970s and early 2010s, with the growth in personal income especially remarkable:

While there are exceptions to these findings–some places with little federal land are performing well and some places with significant federal land are struggling–they demonstrate significant trends across the rural West.

The study reviews the 276 non-metro counties in the 11 contiguous western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The counties were broken into quartile groups by share of federal land for analysis.

These same findings–of better economic performance in four key economic indicators–hold on average for non-metro western counties with a larger share of protected federal lands, such as National Parks, Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, National Monuments, and National Wildlife Refuges.

These findings do not represent a short-term business cycle or the influence of a single industry. They show that as the regional western economy grows during the longer-term, federal lands and protected federal lands in rural counties are associated on average with better economic performance. Details can be found in the printable version of this report.

Headwaters Economics also has compiled a number of regional reports, case studies, tools, research library, and related news articles on the value of public lands to nearby communities.

Taking a close look at Montana, we reported earlier this week that the Treasure State’s lone U.S. rep had resigned to assume the post of Interior Secretary. With his vacancy comes the need for a special election and according to the Billings Gazette, Montanans are going to get one as soon as possible. Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D) has set a special election for Thursday, May 25, the soonest date possible in the 85-100 day window mandated by the Montana Constitution. Bullock’s announcement set off a flurry of activity from state political parties, who are poised to pick candidates by early next week. From the Gazette:

Zinke will be replaced in a special election May 25, a Thursday. With no time for a primary, political parties are turning to county committee holders to choose a candidate. Democrats will make their pick Sunday. Republicans will decide Monday. Both parties will do their voting in Helena.

“There’s a lot of energy right now on our side of the aisle,” said Nancy Keenan, Montana Democratic Party executive director. “There were 10,000 people who showed up at the march here. There are people who show up every time (U.S. Sen. Steve) Daines is around. Somebody is there. That is organic. That is total organic activism in this state.”

Democrats lost all but the governor’s race in statewide elections five months ago. Montanans gave President Donald Trump a 101,000-vote lead over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But people are watching much more closely now, Keenan said.

The short window before the election was on Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann’s mind Wednesday. Gov. Steve Bullock set the special election for 85 days after Zinke’s resignation. State law would have allowed for 100 days, which Essmann said would have benefited voters.

“I think it’s a good idea for Montanans to have a little bit of time to examine all candidates and their qualifications,” Essmann said. “Yes, I’m a little curious about why the governor called it short, but the state law gives him that prerogative, and we’ll live with it. We have no choice.”

We previously reported Essmann had also railed against the possibility of conducting the election by post. After his colleague in the Montana Legislature, Senator Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls), Essmann sent a party email saying an all-mail ballot would offer Democrats a distinct advantage. The Democrats accused Essmann of fomenting voter suppression while Fitzpatrick demurred, saying that all-mail ballots don’t hurt Republican prospects. His bill recently passed the Montana Senate.

Here is the full list of candidates each party (Democract, Republican, Libertarian) is considering:

• Representative Kelly McCarthy (Billings)
• Representative Amanda Curtis (Butte)
• Musician Rob Quist (Mission Mountain Wood Band)
• Attorney John Meyer (Bozeman)
• Tom Weida (Helena)
• Link Neimark (Whitefish)
• Dan West (Missoula)
• Gary Stein Missoula)

• Greg Gianforte (GOP challenger to Bullock in 2016 gubernatorial race)
• Former GOP chairman Ken Miller
• Senator Ed Buttrey (Great Falls)
• Drew Turiano (East Helena)
• Dean Rehbein (Missoula)
• Representative Carl Glimm (Kila)
• Former legislator Ed Walker (Billings)

• Rufus Peace (Livingston)
• Mark Wicks (Inverness)
• James White (Helena)
• Chris Colvin (Kalispell)
• Evan Gardner (Kalispell)

Finally, over in Colorado, with the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, marijuana advocates are on edge. Sessions, who has historically taken a hard line on drugs, was more muted about it in confirmation hearings. We previously reported that, even if Sessions’ department sought to “crack down” on marijuana users, he would run into difficulties—especially in states where recreational marijuana has been approved by ballot and legislative measures.

However, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the Department of Justice reportedly has marijuana in its crosshairs, a not so surprising development given Sessions’ history on the matter. Further, Sessions stated his personal opposition to recreational marijuana use and said (falsely) that the drug was being sold “at every corner grocery store.”

The comments were enough to alarm Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), according to Fox 9 News:

“I had a long and lengthy visit with Jeff Sessions about his views,” Gardner said. “It was in that conversation that I believe he said that he would not make this a priority, which is at odds, or at least seems to be at odds with what Sean Spicer said.

Gardner said he’s asked the White House to clarify its position on recreational pot, which is now legal in eight states, including California—the most populous in the nation.

Colorado voters approved commercial sales of recreational pot in the 2012 election and became the first state to begin sales on New Year’s Day of 2014.

The medical and recreational marijuana industry provides jobs for more than 30,000 Coloradans, according to the most recent state figures on the number of licensed workers.

Recreational marijuana sales totaled $77 million in Colorado’s most recent monthly report, on track to total $1B in sales annually.

Like many politicians of both parties, Gardner opposed legalizing marijuana before the vote, but adds that since the voters have spoken he’s pushed for legislation to ease banking for the industry and to de-schedule the drug under federal law.

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