Sally Mauk’s column looks at why D.C. is scary and Helena isn’t

News Director Sally Mauk was in Washington, D.C. recently for meetings at National Public Radio headquarters, and she came back with some thoughts about why government in our nation’s capitol is a little more intimidating than government in our state capitol in Helena. And she has an idea for how to improve the lawn around the state capitol.

Click here for the full column.


White House vegetable garden

Helena second Montana city to pass nondiscrimination ordinance

visitors pack into Helena's City Commission chambers to speak on the nondiscrimination ordinance Monday

visitors pack into Helena’s City Commission chambers to speak on the nondiscrimination ordinance Monday

Helena city commissioners have passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in the Capitol City.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and discrimination toward transgender individuals.

The measure extends to housing, employment, as well as use of public accommodations.

Helena stands as the second Montana city to pass a non-discrimination ordinance after Missoula. The process has taken about a year, and it’s been a contentious one.

“This is a very closely divided issue in this community,” said Helena City Commissioner Dan Ellison.

Supporters and opponents quickly filled the commission chambers, then packed into two overflow rooms showing audio and video of the meeting.

Each side was given a full hour for public comment.

“So I’m speaking up, for myself and on behalf of all those not in attendance for fear of repurcussions,” said Amy Ophus, a lesbian living in East Helena. She had been too afraid to speak during previous meetings, because she had seen her landlord among the opponents of the ordinance.

“He’s still here opposing the ordinance,” she said, but felt it was too important to sit silent this time.

“No one who lives, works or shops here should be afraid to hold hands with their loved ones in a public place,” Ophus said.

The ordinance reads existing state and federal laws do not clearly address all discriminatory acts reported by Helena’s diverse residents.

LGBT supporters of the ordinance told stories of a wide variety of verbal and physical abuse.

“I’ve been jeered at, I’ve been called names, I’ve been sworn at,” said transgender woman Roberta Zenker. “I’ve been told I’m an abomination and I should be put to death.”

Those speaking against the ordinance say it’s impossible to legislate kindness. Sometimes people are just going to be cruel to each other.

B.G. Stumberg approached the podium.

“I wasn’t really sure that I was going to speak this evening but I was prompted by one of my tenants, Amy Ophus,” he said. He says he is truly sorry for the supporters who have been discriminated against, but he’s been discriminated against too.

“on numerous occasions because I’m a fundamental Evangelical Baptist and people don’t often appreciate my stand on things.”

He says he’s known his tenant Amy Ophus was a lesbian for years and has never treated her with anything but respect.

“I treated her as a child of god, a person with dignity,” he said.

The majority of opponents spoke of their respect for the LGBT community. But some say the ordinance threatens traditional family and religious values. Others worry about costs to taxpayers from lawsuits prompted by the ordinance. The issue raised most often was a rather specific one—a worry about transgender people using public restrooms and locker rooms. Helena Resident Sharon Turner says she’s afraid for the community’s children, but not from the gay and lesbian population.

“The concern that I have is that this ordinance will allow for those with malicious intent to enter women only portions of facilities under the guise of being transgender,” Turner said.

Commissioners affirmed an amendment inserted into the statute from an earlier meeting. The amendment does make it legal for a business with a locker room or changing room to require a transgender person use the restroom of their original, anatomical, sex.

Many supporters of the overall ordinance were outraged. The Montana Human Rights Network is calling it a harmful and offensive amendment. The only commissioner to vote against the locker room amendment was Katherine Haque-Hausrath. Commisioner Haque-Hausrath originally brought forward the nondiscrimination ordinance for consideration.

The full ordinance passed unanimously.

Applause could be heard from one side of the issue, yet some on both sides were shaking their heads.

Commissioner Haque-Hausrath said it was a bittersweet victory because of the locker room amendment she opposed.

“But I think it’s important to focus on what we are accomplishing with this,” She said with tears in her eyes. “Being LGBT is part of being human, it is something that is immutable, something that cannot change….We hear your concerns but we just believe there is discrimination and unfair treatment that’s worth addressing in the city of Helena.”

Most churches and religious organizations are exempt from the Nondiscrimination ordinance. The city say it will become effective next month.

Required alcohol server training course draws mixed feelings

Jon Kellogg serving at The Jesters Bar in Helena

Those selling alcohol in the state of Montana need to go through an alcohol server training course. The state has required such a course for about a year after a law was enacted by the 2011 Legislature.

The usefulness of the course has some mixed reviews.

Bartender Jon Kellogg took the state’s alcohol server training course soon after it became law to do so.

He’s quick to give his opinion.

“Did you learn anything from that?” I asked.


He’d only been working as a bartender for about six months before he took the course. He says he already knew the ropes.

“It was common sense and basic laws,” Kellogg said.

Lawmakers passed the law in 2011 to require anyone selling alcohol in the state be trained to comply with state law, particularly regarding sale to minors and to those who are already too intoxicated. The courses are operated at the County Level. In Lewis and Clark County, the organization Youth Connections facilitates the course, because of its work to limit alcohol sale to minors.

Organization Director Drenda Niemann says hundreds have taken the course offered once every two months in Helena over the last year.

It’s offered not only bartenders but to “individuals who work in a grocery store or convenience store setting–as well as a bar setting,” Niemann said.

She argues the course has been helpful, teaching new bartenders about the law and reinforcing the rules for long-time servers. Lewis and Clark County has been offering the course for five or six years and in that time she says underage drinking has gone down.

“We can’t attribute that to one thing, because we do a lot in our community to help prevent underage drinking,” she said, adding it probably helps though.

The course does have a curriculum set by the state. Local law enforcement assists in the instruction. But Niemann says the course does not have a strict schedule the whole time and instructors draw on the knowledge of veteran bartenders.

“It is definitely not a setup of instructors just speaking to or lecturing to the class, it’s definitely conversational and we learn from each other.”

Back at The Jesters Bar, that’s where bartender Jon Kellogg works, he’s serving to Jesse Athearn, who also got certified through the alcohol server program. Athearn pretty much has the same opinion as Kellogg about the training.

“‘If somebody’s really really drunk, don’t serve them,’ and they just beat that into your head. Every bartender on the world knows that.”

Athearn describes the $15 course as just another way for the government to get some of his money.

Across town at Van’s, a local grocery store, cashier Christel Dinges says the course did not help her personally, because she’s been doing this for awhile. Yet, she agrees with the program.

“Yes, it does help, the program does serve everybody actually,” she said.

She says even the people in her checkout line not buying alcohol are affected by how their cashier checks the IDs of the people who are buying it.

Youth Connections Director Drenda Niemann says these courses add confidence to those serving alcohol by recognizing them as professionals.

“We tell them during the class that Pharmacists go through years and years and years of schooling in order to administer drugs,” she said, “and really, alcohol is considered a drug and they’re going through a four hour course.”

A four hour course in a state with one of the highest alcohol-related fatality rates in the country.

Snowing a ton in Helena! Well, a lot anyway…

Snow falls outside the state capitol building Friday afternoon

A winter storm is moving through the state, a fact very obvious to those especially in North, Central and Southwest Montana. Those areas have seen heavy snowfall today. That snow is expected to last through the night, followed by very cold temperatures on Saturday.

I’m walking outside the back door of the capitol. With me, a new reporter who just started working down the hall from me, Chudney Matta, the Helena reporter for ABC 5.”

We’re getting lightly assaulted by snow at this point.

She’s been in Montana for about 4 weeks now, coming from,“Sunny California! Los Angeles!”

She wakes up this morning, looks out the window and thinks, “Looks like all the roads will be closed this morning so I won’t have to go to work.”

Wishful thinking for Chudney, I’m afraid.

It has been a lot of snow though.

“Right now, the heaviest reports have been coming from down in Helena around Butte this afternoon in terms of intensity,” said Great Falls-based National Weather Service Meteorologist Nick Langlieb.

He says across the plains of North Central Montana up to the Rocky Mountain Front it has snowed a foot or more. 17 inches in the Heart Butte area.

“A little over 14 here in Great Falls,” he said.

And over a foot in Helena too. It’s been a challenge for reporter Chudney Matta out on the beat.

“I traded in a SUV I had in LA for a smaller car thinking ‘hey I would do great in Montana with this car and I’ve been having a really difficult time getting up hills.”

She had to leave her car behind for a few hours, getting a ride with someone else.

“It’s been bananas,” she said.

West of the Continental Divide has not seen nearly the snowfall, an average of 3 to 6 inches. Meteorologist Nick Langlieb says the snow should start to lighten up tomorrow morning.

And it’s going to get cold.

“It looks like tonight temperatures will be anywhere from the single digits below zero around Cut Bank around the Rocky Mountain Front to the single digits and teens above zero across Southwest Montana and tomorrow highs will only be in the single digits and teens,” he said.

Another new one for Chudney Matta.

“I don’t think that my thermometer gets that low!” she laughed.

Montana opens first state employee health clinic in Helena

Montana held a grand opening for the nation’s first state-run health clinic for public employees Thursday in Helena.

Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer toured the facility he says will keep the immediate area’s 11-thousand state workers and their dependents healthier while saving the state millions of dollars over the next few years.

“We’re completely full,” Schweitzer said about the Friday schedule, the clinic’s first day seeing patients.

He unveiled his plan for opening state employee health clinics back in February, and then set an aggressive schedule to have the first one open by late Summer. The administration’s proposal has several other clinics opening in other major Montana communities later.

The state is contracting with the private, Tennessee-based, company Care Here to operate the clinic with Montana employees. Physician Assistant Cassie Springer says she wanted to work at the clinic because she respects the facility’s preventive care model. Patients pay no co-pay or deductible.

The staff wants to get state employees in to see a physician early to catch problems before they get worse.

“We’re looking at bringing in patients regularly, staying on top of their healthcare,” she said. The state saves money if this prevents more costly treatments or emergency room visits down the line.

Health Care and Benefits Division Administrator in the Montana Department of Administration Russ Hill says a state analysis of the entire health clinic proposal shows Montana saving $100 million dollars over the next five years “based on full implementation for all clinics across the state.”

Governor Schweitzer says he’s been fielding attacks about his idea as government run health care.

“The first attacks were something about Obamacare. Well this has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act,” Schweitzer said. “The only thing this has to do with the Affordable Care Act is we are challenging expenses here in Montana because they didn’t challenge expenses in Washington D.C.”

Schweitzer says this is an idea from the private sector.  Companies like Google, Cisco, and Boeing use this on-site clinic model with their employees.

Healthcare consultant Mike La Penna has been researching the on-site clinic industry for the last decade, recently publishing a book on the subject.

He says counties and cities in other parts of the country have opened similar clinics, but never before on the state level.

“This is a game changer,” La Penna said. “Other state’s will be watching this closely.”

Helena Republican State Senator Dave Lewis has problems with the program. Not necessarily with this first clinic itself, he says it looks great. But it’s a big change, and Lewis does not think this kind of decision should be able to be made without legislative approval.

“The issue is whether or not a governor unilaterally has the authority to make that kind of policy change,” Lewis said. He is pursuing a bill for the next Legislature which would prevent that type of authority for the governor’s office in the future.

Schweitzer will be leaving office at the end of this year due to term limits.

Helena 8th graders help transition the new kids into Junior High

C.R. Anderson 6th graders walk into their school’s gym for the first time on Wednesday

The first day in a new school can be tough, especially if it’s your first day of Junior High. We all know this involves losing recess, moving to different classrooms every period, and facing the 8th graders.

Well, a Helena middle school trying to ease that transition for new students and teachers are using those supposedly-terrifying 8th graders as their primary weapon to do it.

The flock of freshly-minted 6th graders collecting behind Helena’s C.R. Anderson Middle School doesn’t seem to know what to think. Many look giddy chatting with friends. Others are fidgety. 11-year-old Molly Woodward admits she’s nervous.

“A little bit,” Woodward said. “I just, I’m not used to being around a whole bunch of people.”

A short flight of concrete stairs leads up to the school’s back door. Standing there like guards of the citadel are some 8th Graders.

“That’s the fear factor is the 8th grader,” said math teacher, Bob Tipton.

All the 8th graders are wearing matching black and tie-dye shirts like some kind of street gang.

“Hey, listen up!” one of them shouts.

Oh no.

Wait, the teachers are wearing the tie-dye shirts too.

“Welcome to CR Anderson!” the 8th graders say.

“Are you ready to have some fun?!” yells one of the teachers.

With that, the back doors open into the gym. About a hundred 8th graders are forming a tunnel. Everyone is clapping and cheering.

And the 6th graders outside, now at the end of their Summer vacation, these 6th graders start clambering over each other to get into the school, through the tunnel of upper classmen.

8th grader Kaysen Spencer was one of the citadel guards. He remembers how he felt his first day here.

“It is really scary to come to a new, big school like this and not really have any idea,” he said. “So this is just to get them in the flow of it.”

C.R. Anderson started this welcome day about ten years ago. The 6th graders take seats in rows of folding chairs after exiting the tunnel. 8th graders are sitting in amongst them leading the wave and stuff.

C.R. Anderson staff chooses 8th graders for the day who demonstrate leadership. They lead the 6th graders through the whole morning assembly in the gym. Everyone splits up in the afternoon. A couple 8th graders will take maybe ten 6th graders and just show ‘em around and help them acclimate. Here’s Kaysen Spencer again.

“It gets them to know that I’ll be ok here, that I’ll turn out just fine,” Spencer said.

A lot of the bigger schools in Montana are starting to use transition programs like this for their new students. Math teacher Bob Tipton says sure, it helps the 6th graders feel less intimidated. And he says, you know, it’s great for the 8th graders too.

“Then they look at these kids a lot differently then they probably did 30 years ago where it was like ‘Here’s the guys we may be able to pick on. Now, it’s the guys–‘We’re gonna help these guys,'” Tipton said.

To teach these 8th graders they can be role models, rather than bullies, when school starts in earnest the next day. Tipton says the benefits can last all year.

“They’re giving me all high fives and I feel so cool,” said Molly Woodward, our nervous 6th grader, after just having finished moving through the tunnel.

“All my life, I’ve been dreaming to be a rock star and now it makes me feel that I am one,” she said.

Maybe this big bad school and those big bad 8th graders aren’t so scary after all.

Helena filmmakers finish home-grown Montana vampire movie

Bryan Ferriter as Elric in ‘Crimson Winter’

The motion picture industry is going through a period of rapid change.

Advancements in technology are making it easier than ever before to produce studio quality movies for a fraction of their traditional cost.

It’s allowed a group of Helena filmmakers to make a home-grown vampire movie for about a half-million dollars.

It’s called ‘Crimson Winter’.

For this feature, Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce caught up with 23-year-old Producer Isaac Marble and 25-year-old Director Bryan Ferriter to speak about  making this film over the last few years and their thoughts about the future of the industry. Ferriter also wrote the script for Crimson Winter and plays the lead role, a vampire prince looking to make peace with humanity.

Wildfire season posing risk to Helena watershed

Helena Water Treatment Superintendent Don Clark stands in front of Beaver Creek

A long running wildfire season leads to many concerns outside the immediate effects of the fires themselves.

For instance, The city of Helena has serious concerns for its water supply.

The water flowing down Beaver Creek tumbles between large boulders before collecting in a small pond above a concrete headgate. The creek lies up Rimini road, West of Helena, and it’s one of the bigger tributaries of the Ten Mile watershed—the Capitol City’s primary water source.

This part of the stream is lined by the green leaves of bushes and healthy trees.

“You can see a very lush, nice looking area, and that’s the way we want to try and keep it,” said Helena’s Water Treatment Superintendent Don Clark.
Don Clark is Helena’s Water Treatment Superintendent.

He faces many challenges keeping the water of the Ten Mile Watershed clean. Construction crews work to remove decades of mining pollution. The area is an EPA Superfund site. There can be problems from erosion, the condition of infrastructure.

Right now, Clark worries about forest fires. Out of his long list of concerns, he puts fire right at the top.

“It’s our number one concern It’s something we worry about every year,” he said.

No fires have affected the area yet this year, but it’s possible. Moving down from Beaver Creek, one quickly sees an area primed for a wildfire. Pine Beetle killed trees cover the hillsides around the tributaries Clark points out in some areas you can easily count the living trees. It’s all wildfire fuel and even when all of those tributaries come together to form the full Ten Mile creek—it’s not very big. Depending on how a fire burns through, unmanageable amounts of sediment could wash into the stream.

“Which could virtually shut down the treatment plant and make the water in this watershed not even usable,” Clark said.

If that happens, it could last for years.

“Some communities in Colorado where they’ve had this happen, it’s taken up to 5 years before the water was usable again,” he said.

If the Ten Mile watershed closed down, the city would draw water from the Missouri River—but it’s much more expensive to do so. Helena  is working with the US Forest Service and other partners to try to mitigate wildfire risk up the watershed however possible.

But there will always be some risk.

“The funding just isn’t there and just it would be the logistics of doing something that would give you 100 percent assurance that would protect your source water is just, it’s not possible,” He said.

Instead, whenever Don Clark hears about a fire in the area, he immediately hopes it’s nowhere near Ten Mile creek.

The job of protecting the watershed never stops.

“It’s everchanging, there’s things that are always going on in the watershed that could negatively impact your source waters. so yeah, you can’t ever let up on it,” Clark said.

Restoration efforts beginning on land burned in Corral Fire

The Corral Fire site North of Helena

Fire crews across Montana have been taking advantage of milder weather to work on containing the state’s biggest wildfires.

Restoration efforts are beginning on the Corral Fire site North of Helena—a fire that destroyed 4 homes.

“I felt shock at seeing this beautiful land burning,” said Helena physician Steve Behlmer about first visiting his 220 acres of land in the Scratchgravel Hills after the fire started.

It’s undeveloped land, no structures. It was heavily forested. Although, in many places now there’s not much of anything but ash and the charred skeletons of pine trees.

He says probably 80 to 90 percent of his land was destroyed.

BLM Rangeland Management Specialist Roger Olsen is leading the restoration of the public land burned. The majority of the nearly three square miles burned was BLM land. He says this fire showcases just how important fire mitigation efforts can be. Olsen points up to one hillside formerly packed with trees—where some of the highest intensity burning took place.

“You can almost draw a line directly where our treatment is and on the one side of the line you have solid black, your trees are burnt from the bottom to the ground,” Olsen said.

On the other side of the line, trees are still burnt. Trees are still dead. But not all of them—in fact, many will be just fine. Crews had thinned many of the trees in this field. You can see how many trees used to be here, as blackened stumps pop-up from the earth by the dozens.

“And you can just imagine if all those trees would have been still standing when that fire ran through here,” Olsen said.

Olsen says after firefighters fully contain a blaze, crews then come in to assess the need for emergency stabilization efforts—like securing soil on a steep hillside that may no longer have the support of any vegetation.

Then the full restoration begins.

Olsen says the state will assess what the landscape will be able to do on its own. Looking back up at the black hillside, he says workers usually need to replant.

“In a lot of the areas that burnt so hot we lost a lot of the natural seed bank that was in the soils because of the accumulation of fuels,” he said. “So we were gonna go back in and help seed that so maybe we can get that place to return to native vegetation rather than being overcome by introduced and noxious weeds.”

Just two weeks after the Corral Fire, green plants are already starting to poke back up.

“But a lot of it is the weeds because this area did have a large weed population,” he said.

BLM will start spraying for the weeds. Olsen says sometimes they even bring in specially trained sheep that eat the weeds. He says some fires get a year or two of restoration work “and then there’s other fires where it’s possibly 5 to 6 years where you’re constantly doing large scale projects.”

A place like the Scratchgravel Hills, he says they might be spraying for weeds from now on.

“Fire is a risk, and I’d always known it’d be a risk here. Just, I didn’t, it didn’t seem real until it happened,” Steve Behlmer said.

He knows his land will never look the same again in his lifetime. He hopes the area can rally together and move forward as a community.

Several local fundraisers have been set up for the families who have lost their homes.

Steve Behlmer looks over his land burned by the Corral Fire

Life in Helena getting along even with high temperatures

12 year old Wyatt Zimmer (left) washes a car in Helena Monday

Life still goes on, even with these high temperatures.

A construction crew was pouring concrete on Helena’s Montana Avenue Monday afternoon. Sweat was running down Laborer Bill Dunmire’s face.

He wasn’t stopping, but he didn’t have to like it.

“It’s not very fun, the heat really gets ya,” he said.

The East Coast and Midwest is getting some much needed reprieve from the extreme heat wave seen for more than the last week. Seems as soon as that is happening, temperatures here in the west are rising. Well, there’s a reason for that.

“It is the same air mass that actually moved over into our region,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Zach Uttech.

We have some advantages here in the West that are keeping the temperatures lower than what was seen back east. The air has been cooled a bit by our higher elevation. And with our lower humidity, it cools off a lot more at night. The winds or temperatures are not as high as what Southern and Southeast Montana experienced early last week—when several major wildfires erupted.

“I’d say significantly above average but not necessarily quite at the threshold of a heat wave,” Uttech said

Some Helena kids were trying a different tactic for keeping cool then just opening their mouths. They were washing cars. It was for a good cause, they are part of a volunteer effort coordinated between the local YMCA and an organization called Youth Connections. The kids will donate all their proceeds to the local humane society. Supervisor Philip Bouchard said they manage to squeeze in a little play with their work.

“You’ll definitely see them out here spraying water at each other and hopefully there’s time to wash some cars too,” Bouchard said.

And concrete kept pouring over at Bill Dunmire’s construction site. He doesn’t get sprayed by a whole lot of water—he just drinks a bunch of it, all day long.

No sitting in the shade for him, either.

“Nah, concrete doesn’t wait for the head. When it’s hot out you gotta keep workin, there’s no time for the shade,” Dunmire said.