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Contributing Writer

Life After Smurfit-Stone: One Year After the Company Leaves the Company Town

With hands worn from three decades of labor, Tim Steigers slides a small metal wedge out of an axle frame and turns toward his toolbox. Opening a drawer, he aligns the chunk of old steel – once the property of Smurfit-Stone Container – among the others of various sizes. Steigers, 54, peers inside a frame, trying to figure out what to do next. Even with decades of craft experience, this is a complex riddle. Each casting and gear removed is met with another and another, like an endless Russian nesting doll. He's in the middle of a large garage at the University of Montana's College of Technology, working slowly, making every move like an experienced chess player. Meanwhile, a group of college-aged students swarm around him, attacking projects with the goal of finishing early on this Friday afternoon. Across from Steigers, two kids bang away at their axle, trying everything and anything to crack its spell. “I think there's a better wrench for that,” Steigers says, smiling. He is among the oldest students in the diesel mechanics class, which also includes with five other former employees of Smurfit-Stone, the plant that closed one year ago after a half-century of operations in Frenchtown, just west of Missoula.

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The Case For A Wind Farm in Idaho Falls

The foothills making up the skyline east of Idaho Falls have seen many changes over the past century. During the early 1900s, the sagebrush was plowed under and grain was planted over most usable acreage. Back then, local sustainability and food production took precedence over wildlife habitat and watershed management. Sixty-some odd years later, the dry farm plots gave way to housing development. Not just standard tract housing, mind you, but large two- and three-story luxury homes on 5-acre parcels that could be seen from miles away. Back then, the housing boom fueled by a strong economy took precedence over the low yield patchwork quilt of agricultural lands that had been the view from the valley for decades. In recent years, the skyline has changed again, this time in the name of wind energy. The foothills have evolved into a dramatic landscape of 300-foot towers supporting mega-watt wind turbines designed to harness the never ending southwesterly gusts that residents of the Snake River Plain have learned to endure.

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Salmon on the Menu for Federal Court “Fish Friday”

A Federal judge has put endangered Idaho wild salmon and steelhead on the court menu today, and he's expressed hopes it will be the last time. Judge James Redden has asked for changes, based on the "best available science," to the federal plan to keep endangered wild species from going extinct. He's expressed doubts that plans submitted so far adequately meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act. A group of independent scientists released a report this week agreeing with that assessment. Leanne Roulson is the president of the western division of the American Fisheries Society, which issued the report. "Actions do not appear to be aggressive enough for addressing significant declines. Then, it suggests some examples for more aggressive actions."

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Senate Health Care Bill Now on the Table

Senate Majority Leader Reid released an $849 billion healthcare overhaul bill Wednesday that includes a public option and will extend coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans, though a few Democrats are still on the fence over whether they will vote to proceed to the bill. The bill would extend insurance to 94 percent of eligible Americans. The measure, which would reduce the deficit $127 billion over a decade, creates an insurance exchange where people can compare and purchase coverage; allows insurance co-ops to be formed; expands Medicaid to those earning 133 percent of the federal poverty level; and offers federal subsidies to help those without employer-sponsored coverage purchase insurance. The public option would allow states to opt out if they choose. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., shepherded a more comprehensive public option through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee but called the opt-out version a strong public option. The overhaul also includes an individual mandate with penalties reaching $750 per person for noncompliance by 2016. Employers that do not offer coverage will pay a fine for each of their employees who receive federal subsidies to purchase insurance in the exchange of as much as $750 per employee at the company, a senior Democratic aide said.

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Weekend Essay: The Global Warming Debate

The radio news squawk lately has been about Global Warming, the latest in an endless supply of silly partisan battles. As I hear one team arguing that a new Senate bill will create jobs and save the planet, I hear the other team telling us that same Senate bill will increase our taxes and crush the economy. Since we all side with the home team, it’s no wonder polls asking us – Global Warming, True or False? – are becoming red and blue in color. And just like NFL football, I’m tired of the commercials…let’s get to the game! We’re arguing a pointless debate. Both sides are wrong because the very premise of the debate is flawed. It’s not about “if” global warming is real or “who” is to blame. How can anyone “know” that our planet is warming, let alone “know” humans are the cause of the warming? To think that we understand how this living system we call earth operates is nothing but over-inflated human ego. The fact is we don’t know what’s going to happen. Every time we think we know what’s going on in nature, we get proven wrong. Let's stop the debate and get to the real problems. This is my breakdown for all the proud-to-guzzle-gas-rednecks and all the entitled-Prius-latte-drinking-hippies….we’re going to have too many people on the planet soon and too few resources to keep our current economic system moving.

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Economic Concerns Continue To Shape Climate Calculus

An initial hearing Tuesday on revamped cap-and-trade legislation from Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-CA) gave moderates a public mouthpiece that might spur concessions from party leaders down the road. At the hearing in Boxer's panel Tuesday, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-MT, cited "serious reservations" about the bill's requirement for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Boxer replied: "The goal is very, very doable." Kerry agreed but said the target could change. "We'll see what happens on the floor on that," Kerry said. "I'm open to talking with Max; we'll see where we end up." Boxer said she wants her climate bill to continue to preserve EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases despite complaints Tuesday from Baucus and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa. "We have to keep the EPA in the game," Boxer said. But, she added, "There are ways to make it more certain for people." Specter challenged EPA Administrator Jackson at the hearing and Democratic leaders afterward to provide regulatory certainty. "There's a great deal to be gained by certainty so people can make plans," Specter told Jackson. He also emphasized it is the job of Congress to lay out that roadmap for industries. "That's really our job," he said.

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Boise Trolley FAQs: Our Future as America’s Most Livable City

The proposed streetcar in downtown Boise has generated a lot of comment and controversy. But even with all the news coverage and discussion there still seem to be a number of questions. I try to get to the most important ones in a series of trolley FAQs: Just where exactly is Boise getting the $60 million to pay for this thing? Earlier this year President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law. As part of that Act, the U.S. Department of Transportation is making $1.5 billion available to state and local governments through the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grants Program. TIGER grants can be used for most any kind of transportation related project, but it must also achieve certain outcomes such as increasing livability, sustainability, economic competitiveness, and job creation. Grants will be announced as soon as possible after September 15, 2009, but not later than February 17, 2010. If the City of Boise gets the grant those funds will partially cover the start-up costs. To generate the remaining monies needed they are considering the establishment of an LID or Local Improvement District. Under the LID, the City would levy an additional tax on businesses along the streetcar route. There is still no consensus among business owners as to whether there is support for the creation of an LID, but Idaho state law 50-2601 allows Idaho municipalities to create LIDs (or BIDs - Business Improvement Districts) with a simple majority vote of the Council. The Mayor and Council will then have to cobble together funds from the City's general fund and CCDC to pay for ongoing operations.

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Socially Responsible Investors Can Hold Companies Accountable for Green Practices

For over a decade, socially responsible investors have called on companies to address the risks and opportunities posed by climate change and a carbon constrained future. We’ve worked with companies in the west and elsewhere who have emerged as leaders in the climate movement, such as Nike, Google, and Pacific Gas and Electric. They’ve prepared their companies for the realities of potential legislation and worked to affect policies well before many of our regional elected officials were willing to do so. We’ve persistently called on companies to address the risks and opportunities posed by climate change, achieving increasing support for these resolutions as more mainstream investors come to recognize that smart social and environmental policies and strong financial performance often go hand in hand. This linkage likely influenced the results on a broad array of this year’s shareholder resolutions requesting increased energy efficiency as an important driver of bottom-line savings for companies; GHG emissions reductions; and greater disclosure from companies on their strategies for addressing climate-related risks and opportunities. Investors are increasingly calling on their companies to change their policies or to at least plan – because if they don’t pay now and plan, they’ll likely pay much more later. This year marked major milestones in investors’ shareholder engagements with U.S. and Canadian companies around climate change. Investors filed a record 68 climate related shareholder resolutions, and achieved the first ever majority vote on a climate resolution here in Idaho - asking Idaho Power (IdaCorp) to establish greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

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Western Rail Network Key to Regional Sustainability

According to his bio, “Ed Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard, where he also serves as Director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. He studies the economics of cities, and has written scores of urban issues, including the growth of cities, segregation, crime, and housing markets. He has been particularly interested in the role that geographic proximity can play in creating knowledge and innovation. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1992 and has been at Harvard since then.” An obviously brilliant and esteemed urban economist, you’ll see why I find his article “Put Transit Where the People Are” so bizarre.

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Home Energy Audits – You Get What You Pay For

The latest Consumer Reports feature article was on home energy efficiency. It had some good tips on inexpensive ways to save energy – use energy efficient appliances, replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs or LEDs – the basics - the article does little to clear up the consumer’s decision to pursue energy efficiency improvements. There are a plethora of websites, articles, blogs, and books offering advice on how to make your home energy efficient, but few paint an accurate picture of what it takes to come up with an intelligent energy retrofit plan. That’s because the best plan for a particular home is completely dependent on the home’s current condition. No book can inspect your home and its construction, quirks, and opportunities. But a few basic questions is a good place to start. Does it make sense to replace your windows? It can if they are very old and contain only a single pane of glass. If not, you might be looking at a payback of 20+ years. How about replacing your old furnace with a newer model? For some homes it may make sense but if your home is drafty, you won’t realize the savings until you reduce air infiltration. If you do weatherproof your home, be careful you don’t make it too air tight or it will lead to air quality problems. And what about replacing your major appliances - is that a good investment? It can be but, again, it depends on what you already have and how the appliances work with respect to other conditions unique to your house.

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