2017 a year of significant change: Top news stories will have lasting effects

Managing Editor/Reporter

Skate Park organizer Jeff Ament, founder of the nonprofit Montana Pool Service, prepares to cut the ribbon, formally opening Big Spring Skatepark on Aug. 12.

Photo by Charlie Denison


From fires and drought to city elections, 2017 was a year of events with long lasting impacts, some to be felt for years to come. It was also a very busy year for news. In looking through the past 12 months’ worth of News-Argus issues, we identified nearly 30 stories that could be considered the top news events of 2017. While these eventually were narrowed down to just the top 10 events, the fact there were so many candidates to choose from gives a hint at just how much went on in Central Montana this year.

While some of these top 10 events affected people across our region, others will have the largest impact in the immediate area of Lewistown. All, however, either have changed or will change the way people here live, work or recreate for years to come.

With that in mind, here is some of what Central Montana experienced in 2017.


Events that shaped a region

This was a big year for Mother Nature, but not in a good way. After a dry spring in Central Montana, farmers and ranchers began worrying about the effects of drought. It turns out their concerns were warranted.

In June the Governor declared the first drought emergency of the year, mostly for eastern counties, and by July 19 the declaration covered 28 counties, including Fergus. While some moisture arrived in the fall, it was too late to help most farmers. Both wheat and hay crops were negatively impacted, and most Central Montana ranchers moved livestock onto hay early, due to the poor condition of the range.

Lewistown ends 2017 over 4 inches behind normal precipitation amounts.

Of course, drought and dry fuels often lead to wildfires. Sadly, this was a big year for fire in much of Montana. Despite the extreme dryness, the Lewistown area was one of the few places in Montana that did not experience a big fire, thanks to the vigilance of rural and urban fire crews.

In an effort to manage the fire danger, Fergus County entered Stage 1 fire restrictions in mid-July and Stage 2 fire restrictions in early August, and somehow dodged the bullet.

Other areas of Central Montana were not as lucky. The Crying Fire, reported July 19, burned nearly 8,000 acres on BLM, CMR Refuge, state and private lands about 50 miles north of Winnett. It was declared 100 percent contained on July 27, but was dwarfed by the Lodgepole Complex fire.

Reported on July 19 after lightning storms moved through the area, the Lodgepole Complex began as four separate fires that ultimately merged, burning in timber and grasslands along the Musselshell River about 15 miles east of Winnett. Highway 200 was closed briefly when the fire jumped from north to south across the road. Battled by crews from across the nation, the fire raged for weeks, driven by wind and very dry conditions. Ultimately the fire burned over 270,00 acres and was, at one point, the largest wildfire burning in the U.S.

News-Argus reporters ventured into the fire area to bring first-hand accounts of the devastation to our readers. Unfortunately, 16 homes and numerous outbuildings were destroyed, along with 120 power poles and an estimated 1,400 miles of fencing before firefighters began to get a handle on it. Several ranchers lost all their pasture and hay grounds, and some were forced to sell off cattle. The results will be felt for years to come.


Change comes to local governments

Both City and County governments will be a little different going into 2018.

On the county level, a lengthy conflict over the coroner’s office was settled in August when the Fergus County Commissioners voted to combine the office of the coroner with that of sheriff. The action, along with a $5,000 settlement approved by the commissioners in November, may have ended a lawsuit brought against the county by Ralph and Kendra Mihlfeld, owners of Creel Funeral Home. The Mihlfelds' alleged having a coroner who was also the owner of a funeral home, as was the case with Coroner Dick Brown, owner of Cloyd Funeral Home in Lewistown, is a conflict of interest and violates state law. Following the 2018 election, the position will be a combined sheriff/coroner.

City government will be somewhat different going into 2018 as a result of the 2017 city commission elections. After an intense election season, Diane Oldenburg, Patty Turk, Alexzandra Dunnington and Clint Loomis won their respective elections, defeating challengers Dick Krillenberger, Joe Kern, incumbent Beth Putnam and Jonathan Moor. Oldenburg replaces Frank Gremaux in Ward 1, who opted not to run for re-election; Turk keeps her seat as Ward 2 commissioner; Dunnington will serve Ward 3. Loomis is taking the Commissioner-At-Large seat, which previously belonged to Rick Poss, who also chose not to run for re-election.

Commissioners will oversee City business and will work directly with City Manager Holly Phelps, who officially became City Manager March 1, the day after her six-month interim contract expired.


Recreation facilities: good news and bad

Two construction projects provided good news to locals who enjoy outdoor recreation, while one closure of a facility was the bad news this past summer.

The bad news came in June when managers for the Helena-Lewis-and-Clark National Forest announced the closing of Crystal Lake’s 30-acre, 27-unit campsite, due to more than 50 percent of the trees in the area being considered “hazardous.”

Forest Service spokespersons said they expect the campground to be closed next summer (2018), and potentially for the summer of 2019 as well.

Forestry Technician Matt Voigt said the trees are hazardous due to “a combination of trees getting old, rotting, forming decay and becoming more vulnerable to insects, wind, snow loads and general increased potential for failure.”

The addition of two new facilities, one now and one in the future, were the counterpoint.

On Saturday, Aug. 12, a dream came true for members of Make It Happen Montana, as Big Spring Skatepark had its grand opening at Symmes Park. Pearl Jam bassist and Montana Pool Service founder Jeff Ament came to town for the event, cutting the ribbon and signing autographs. He brought friends from Missoula (where he currently resides) and the Pacific Northwest, where his career took off.

Make It Happen co-founders and board directors thanked the community for their contributions. Ament matched funds through his MSP non-profit, but the Lewistown community raised approximately $150,000 to make this top-of-the-line skate park a reality. Evergreen Skateparks of Portland, Oregon built the park.

Meanwhile, members of the Recharge Our Community Youth Engagement Committee successfully engaged the community in support of the construction of a new park, complete with performance amphitheater and outdoor market site. The project, known as Creekside Marketplace and Pavilion, is planned for the area across from the Yogo Inn.

One aspect of the proposed Creekside project was the removal of the mill building, also known as the Gamble-Robinson grocery warehouse. The building was approved for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the efforts of members of the Lewistown Historic Resources Commission, who thought the building should be saved and incorporated into the park design. The City Commission decided the question in favor of the Creekside project on Sept. 20, and the mill building was demolished in November.

The Creekside project has been turned over to the City, with fundraising assistance from various community groups and members. Currently Snowy Mountain Development Corp. is managing a pledge drive to help fund the construction, and grant funding is being sought, as well.


Changes come to CMMC

The importance of medical facilities in rural Montana can’t be overstated, and, as a result they are often in the news. Last year the Central Montana Medical Center hit our headlines with big news two times: in June and again in December.

In June the medical center announced it had signed an agreement with Billings Clinic, providing a new affiliation. As a result of the agreement, Billings Clinic provides management services for CMMC.

“We are very excited to announce this partnership with Billings Clinic,” CMMC CEO Mike Dowdy said at the time.

CMMC joins 11 other health care organizations in Montana and Wyoming affiliated with Billings Clinic.

In November the medical center had less positive news to announce: the CMMC Board had decided to close Hospice House, a facility on the CMMC campus built with community donations to provide hospice services to the terminally ill. Hospice services are still available, and CMMC has plans to create a second hospice room in the hospital facility. The future use of the Hospice House facility has not been decided.


State budget woes reverberate locally

Bringing up the tail end of the top 10 stories for 2017 is one we’ll probably hear a lot more about in 2018: state and federal budget cuts leading to reduced services in Lewistown and across Central Montana.

The first of these was the October 31 closure of the local Job Service office. The service, reduced from three employees to one, is now offered through the HRDC office located in the same building. The closure resulted from funding cuts to the federal Department of Labor.


Of course, there were plenty of other stories that made the headlines in 2017 but didn’t make it onto our list: soccer fields, the special election for a new congressman, medical marijuana, the Grass Range roundabout, and more.

While some may argue with our choices for the top 10, one thing is clear: 2017 brought us a lot to talk about in Central Montana, and it looks like 2018 will be the same.









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