Among hundreds of headlines, a dozen stood out in 2017
It was another newsy year in the Methow Valley. Some major stories were carried over from the previous year or years, others popped up as breaking events or new developments.
In the past, as part of our year-in-review, we’ve cataloged the year’s headlines month-by-month — which is thorough but kind of a long slog to read.
This year we tried something different: We asked our readers to help us determine the Top 10 News Stories of 2017 for the Methow Valley (and relevant environs). We created a ballot with 20 finalists, collected votes for the past three weeks, and collated the results. What follows are summaries of the Top 10 stories, in order of votes received, plus two more as a bonus (the voting was very close for spots 9 through 12).
We had a pretty good turnout of voters, and every item on the ballot drew votes. Thanks to everyone who took part — we appreciate the effort and the feedback. It helps us know what’s most important to you.
A campaign to protect the scenic upper Methow Valley from future mining continued to gain support in 2017, after federal agencies initiated a process that would withdraw 340,079 acres of U.S. Forest Service land near Mazama from mining activities for up to 20 years.
The proposed “mineral withdrawal” is needed to protect the valley’s environment and recreation-based economy, according to the Methow Headwaters Campaign, a local grassroots effort that has garnered bipartisan support from state and federal legislators. Washington’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, reintroduced legislation in March that would permanently protect the land, but the bill was stalled in Congress at year’s end.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced “segregation” of 340,079 acres at the end of 2016, which began a two-year period during which the land is off-limits to mining while the Forest Service conducts an environmental assessment of withdrawal. The Forest Service began that work in the fall with a public comment period. However, as 2017 came to an end, the BLM still had not scheduled a public hearing on the segregation as required by law.
To lobby for protection of the Methow Headwaters and to push the mineral withdrawal process forward, Soo Ing-Moody, Twisp mayor, David Gottula, Winthrop Chamber of Commerce president, and Maggie Coon of the Methow Headwaters Campaign traveled to Washington, D.C., in December to meet with Congressional members and federal agency officials.
The Methow Valley was hit by two human-caused fires this summer — one near Carlton, which was quickly brought under control, and the Diamond Creek Fire, which burned for three months in the Pasayten Wilderness.
The Canyon Creek Fire started on July 15 and burned almost 1,200 acres before it was contained later that day by quick response and favorable weather. The fire scorched vegetation for miles along Highway 153 and around homes east of the roadway, but destroyed only an abandoned house and an outbuilding.
An investigation completed in September found the Canyon Creek Fire was “suspicious in nature” but couldn’t pinpoint a specific cause.
By contrast, the Diamond Creek Fire, which started in extreme fire conditions on July 23 in the Pasayten Wilderness, was particularly difficult for firefighters to control, since it was burning in remote areas and steep, challenging terrain.
In early September, the fire tripled in size during a 10-day period, crossing into Canada. Before damp weather in mid-October helped firefighters control the blaze, the fire had scorched large swaths of the Pasayten, a popular hiking, hunting and camping destination.
The Diamond Creek Fire came within 11 miles of Mazama, forcing temporary evacuations in early September. More than 60 trails and roads were closed, and the fire frequently blanketed the valley in smoke.
In all, the Diamond Creek burned an estimated 128,272 acres — 97,136 acres in the forest north of Winthrop and 31,136 acres in Canada.
An assessment in November found that 56 percent (more than 54,000 acres) of the area within the national forest burned at high or moderate severity, creating risks of future flooding and erosion.
An investigation into the Diamond Creek Fire is underway.
The Carlton Complex Fire continued to wreak havoc on the Methow Valley when massive mudslides — attributed to extensive erosion and soil damage caused by the 2014 fire — blasted through several portions of Highway 20 between Twisp and Okanogan in April, closing the vital state arterial for three months.
The highway partially re-opened in July after extensive hurry-up repairs to the road, which was virtually wiped out in places. Repairs were made more difficult because water from multiple springs was flowing from a hill above the work area, causing further erosion. Repair costs for the damage were expected to total up to $5.5 million.
Heavy rains during the first weekend in April caused the flooding and mudslides that damaged nine sections of the highway and forced closure of a 16-mile stretch of the road. The washouts and debris flows were largely a result of past wildfires, particularly the Carlton Complex Fire. Hillsides above the highway were burned during fires that destroyed vegetation and in some areas damaged soil so badly that it was unable to absorb moisture.
In addition to disruptions in tourism traffic, motorists who regularly traveled over the Loup Loup Pass to work, shop or transact business were forced to take a detour via Pateros, roughly doubling the time and distance required for the trip.
The future of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) was uncertain for much of 2017, while the U.S. Forest Service conducted a review to determine whether it would be better to move smokejumping operations to larger airports at Wenatchee or Yakima.
In late August, the Forest Service announced that the current location at the Methow Valley Airport on East County Road remains the best site for the historic base, which is home to the first experimental jumps in 1939. But the decision, according to a Forest Service report, was predicated on NCSB securing as much as $5.2 million in construction funds in the next two to three years. The funding is needed to demolish three old buildings that are too close to the runway, in violation of federal aviation regulations, and to construct a new building at the base, according to the analysis.
The decision to keep the base in the Methow Valley was based largely on the finding that loss of 45 jobs affiliated with the base would harm the local economy. If funding to make improvements at the base can’t be obtained, the analysis recommended moving the base to Wenatchee. In December, elected officials from the Methow Valley and Okanogan County were finalizing plans to invite Forest Service officials to the valley to discuss ways to fund improvements at NCSB.
Many Okanogan County residents planning a new house — or who work in the construction trades — were frustrated by delays as the county tried to develop a process to comply with a 2016 state Supreme Court decision that requires people using a well for the first time to prove they have enough water and the right to use it. But many welcomed the ruling as a way of conserving scarce water resources and keeping development in appropriate areas.
The so-called Hirst decision came in a Whatcom County case, but it applies statewide. It requires people who rely on wells for household use to be sure that their new water consumption won’t impair earlier users and water-right holders — which includes water for fish in rivers and streams.
The decision also put the obligation to verify water adequacy into the laps of counties instead of the state. Okanogan County has been more proactive than most in trying to establish a system for evaluating how much water is available. While the county was gathering research and data, there was a de facto moratorium on new building permits.
The county started issuing permits again in the spring, but people can contest the water use if they think it will impair other users — and some applications for water for a new home have been challenged.
About 140 Methow Valley residents attended an open house at the Winthrop Barn in February to learn about a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears into the North Cascades. The open house was one of a series held after the January release of a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that describes three approaches to rebuilding the grizzly population in an area called the North Cascades Ecosystem.
The ecosystem is a vast wilderness landscape that spans the crest of the Cascade Mountains in British Columbia and Washington, and includes the Methow Valley. Grizzly restoration proposals in the draft EIS differ primarily in how quickly the goal of 200 bears would be reached. Public comments on the draft EIS were accepted until mid-March and a final EIS was expected to be completed by fall of 2017.
However, in December the superintendent of North Cascades National Park told members of an interagency grizzly bear committee that work on the final EIS had been put on hold. Officials with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two lead agencies on the study, said they were not authorized to respond to requests for further information. And a press secretary with the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the national park and wildlife agencies, also declined to provide information about whether the study had been stopped or why.
7. Women’s March
The inauguration of Donald Trump spawned Women’s Marches around the world, including Twisp, and hundreds of Methow valley women, men and children joined in the movement. A crowd estimated at up to 800 people walked through Twisp on Jan. 21, a significant turnout for a community this size. They gathered at the Methow Valley Community Center after the march to hear speeches and music. The Methow Valley march was noted in a Huffington Post article about the many marches that sprung up in small towns across America.
More than 50 people from the Methow Valley traveled snowy roads to Seattle for the Womxn’s March on Jan. 21. The march drew as many as 140,000 people — far surpassing the expected crowd and breaking records for previous demonstrations in the city. Several Methow women made the trip to Washington, D.C., to join nearly half a million people. Marchers carried signs on themes of civil rights, women’s rights, tolerance, climate change, health care and opposition to Trump. Many wore pink knit hats that have become a symbol of solidarity and support for women’s rights. Marches are being organized again to be held this month in cities around the world. Some local residents who participated in the 2017 marches say they plan to join a march in Omak on Jan. 20.
Working people in the Methow Valley who’ve struggled to find affordable housing may have more options in two years, with the purchase of land in both Twisp and Winthrop by the newly formed Methow Housing Trust. The trust plans to build about 15 homes near the Methow River in Twisp, and 25 more across from the Winthrop IGA and post office in Winthrop.
The trust plans to develop the Twisp property first, where it expects to build five houses a year starting this year.
The homes are geared to people earning 60 to 100 percent of the county’s median income, which is about $40,000. The trust is following the community-land-trust model, where the trust owns the land and sells houses, leasing the land the houses sit on to the homeowner. To keep the houses affordable, the resale price will be capped.
The housing trust grew of out efforts to address needs that arose after the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. A study of housing availability found that 39 percent of Methow Valley residents pay more than a third of their income for housing, and 20 percent pay more than half. Rentals are scarce and 41 percent of houses in the valley are occupied only seasonally.
A citizens’ group dedicated to preserving public access to back roads is fighting the efforts of two companies to privatize 3 miles of upper French Creek Road and keep locked gates on other roads in the area.
The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition intervened in a lawsuit filed against Okanogan County by Gamble Land and Timber and Cascade Holdings Group. The two companies say the county claimed the road in 1955 without any right to the property. The suit seeks to acquire ownership of the road by quiet title, which would unearth any other claims of ownership. Quiet title is a method traditionally used in disputes such as the location of a property line.
Okanogan County initially contested the lawsuit, saying it was “vague and incomplete” and that the plaintiffs’ claims were not within the statue of limitations. The county later said that it will not actively defend the case but will abide by the decision of the court.
The open roads coalition contends that more than 100 years of public travel on the road makes it a county road and that people regularly use it to reach public land and to travel between parts of the county. They say they rely on it as an emergency-escape route.
Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson heard oral arguments in the case in late December. Rawson said it would take time to review the evidence in the case and couldn’t predict when he would issue a decision.
Another 350 miles of roads were opened to all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) riders in the northern part of the county — near Omak, Oroville and Tonasket — in November after the Okanogan County commissioners reviewed the potential for environmental damage from allowing ATV riders to use the roads.
The expanded process for determining which roads make suitable ATV routes came after the commissioners had to rescind previous county ordinances when a lawsuit filed by the Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest was successful.
Although state law allows counties to open roads of 35 miles per hour or lower to wheeled ATVs, the court agreed with the conservation groups that the county still had an obligation to make sure that the environment wouldn’t be harmed as a result. Wheeled ATVs have safety features like lights and mirrors and must have a special license and registration.
This year, the commissioners followed a more-systematic process, doing a road-by-road review and asking for public input. They also consulted with land-management agencies about nearby habitat, ecologically sensitive areas, and enforcement concerns.
A list of the new routes is on the county’s website. The commissioners will review potential ATV routes in other parts of the county, including the Methow Valley, in the future.
Three Devils Road, a remote road that leads from the Chiliwist to connect with roads to the Loup Loup summit and the Methow Valley, was gated in August after a citizens’ group lost its legal battle to keep the road open to the public.
Gamble Land and Timber petitioned the county in 2015 to close the road to protect its adjacent property, which is used primarily for grazing and timber, from vandalism and trespassing.
The former board of county commissioners determined that the road was not useful to the county road system and closed it. The Chiliwist Residents and Friends challenged the commissioners’ decision, contending that the road served as an important escape route and a way to reach public lands.
A visiting judge in Okanogan County Superior Court ruled that the commissioners had the prerogative to close Three Devils Road as part of their management of the county’s road network. The state Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision in 2017.
The Chiliwist group asked the Washington Supreme Court to review the case, contending that it raised Constitutional issues, including a ban on actions by a county that benefit an individual or company. When the high court declined to hear the case, the road was closed.
Winthrop’s chronic challenges with its Marshal’s Office boiled over into an often-acrimonious public controversy beginning in February when former Mayor Anne Acheson fired then-Marshal Hal Henning. Although few public explanations were offered for the firing because it was a personnel issue, the mayor and marshal had often clashed over some of Henning’s actions and the scope of the mayor’s authority over his department. Former Mayor Sue Langdalen, who hired Henning in 2016, had similar concerns about Henning before she resigned.
Henning’s firing generated a public debate in which residents and businesspeople supported both the marshal and the mayor. Acheson eventually resigned, saying she had hoped the Town Council would move past the issue but they had not.
Under interim Mayor Rick Northcott, the town hired Washington State Patrol veteran Daniel Tindall to be marshal. Later in the year, Doug Johnson, another veteran law enforcement officer, joined as a deputy marshal. With Tindall and Johnson, the town — which saw marshals and deputies depart regularly for a variety of reasons over the past several years — now has two full-time offices on duty for the first time in more than two years. Meanwhile, Henning filed a lawsuit alleging that he was illegally fired and that the town violated his terms of employment. That case is pending.
Also on the ballot for Top 10 Stories:
Ann Diamond will seek a House seat in Washington’s 12th Legislative District, challenging Cary Condotta; the name of Squaw Creek is officially changed to Swaram Creek by a state board, and Squaw Creek Road is changed to Hunter Mountain Roady by Okanogan County; failure to approve the state’s capital budget delays important local projects; progress continues in updating the county’s comprehensive plan; county imposes a moratorium on marijuana operations; county voters approve a sales tax increase to support the juvenile facility; Methow Valley School District gets International Baccalaureate approval; Little Star Montessori School expands in Twisp and Winthrop.
And a few others that were considered:
Frozen water lines caused problems in Winthrop; discussion of the Mission Project continued; outcomes of local elections; Winthrop approved an update of its Westernization code; county changed its rules for nightly rentals; Douglas County Public Utility District took over operation of fish hatcheries in Winthrop and at Wells Dam from the state; Okanogan County Public Utility District fired its general manager; the town of Winthrop agreed to be annexed to Okanogan County Fire District 6; the Idle-A-While Motel was considered for low-income housing; Twisp residents raised concerns about proposed Third Avenue closure; the fire-damaged Twisp River Pub may become community “Hub;” a new website connected Methow Valley nonprofits and organizations with potential volunteers; a new nonprofit was formed to support improvements at the Winthrop library; Cody Acord was named chief for Okanogan Fire District 6, and the district considered a new site for a fire hall in Winthrop.
And other notable headlines from 2017:
Two cougars were shot in Methow Valley after killing pets; citizens took concerns to Newhouse’s staff; low-power radio station KFAC-FM took to the air in Twisp; Methow Investment Network linked investors, businesses; WSDOT carried out repairs to four Highway 153 bridges; heavy snows delayed the opening of the North Cascades Highway.
A small plane flipped at the Twisp airport, no injuries reported; the state’s wolf population grew 28 percent in 2016; the Methow Valley Fund granted $63,050 to local nonprofit organizations; Konrads plan to redevelop Blue Spruce Motel site; new plaza opened at TwispWorks; climber died in Goat Wall fall.
Laura Wright retired from the sheriff’s department; expedited building process for Enloe Dam was upheld after appeal; Twisp Council adopted economic growth plan for downtown; Second Avenue in Twisp returned to two-way traffic; local man presumed drowned in Methow River; U.S. Women’s Nordic Ski Team trained in the Methow; Highway 153 head-on collision left two truck drivers dead; Reddingtons spread vital message about dementia on statewide “Ride4Alzheimer’s.”
Twisp broke ground on a new public works building; unhealtlhy air limited outdoor life; Artistic Director Ku Gottberg is leaving The Merc Playhouse; millions prepared for rare solar eclipse; new building in Methow Valley once again topped county values; additional recreational trail construction begins in Twisp and Winthrop; new book “Lost Homeland” tells little-known history of Methow Tribe; 300 people filed a lawsuit seeking damages from state DNR for 2014 Carlton Complex Fire; Cinder the bear adapted well to the wild; Branden Platter replaced Karl Sloan as new Okanogan County prosecutor; Okanogan County sought to cut $2 million to balance 2018 budget; co-op customers will wait until 2018 for new powerline hookup; Give Methow campaign raised more than $220,000 for valley nonprofits; Twisp looked to future of Wagner pool; Lewis Butte, Riser Lake trail systems targeted for improvements.
Fire destroyed an unoccupied house on West Chewuch Road; DNR planned a Wolf Creek/Virginia Ridge logging and timber sale; Twisp pondered solutions for Painter’s Addition flooding; county was nearing completion of new plan to protect shorelines.
Don Nelson, Ann McCreary and Marcy Stamper contributed to this story.
Old Schoolhouse Taproom, Twisp
Sixknot Taphouse, Winthrop
Brix Wine Bar, Winthrop
Pinetooth Press/Woodshed Ink, Winthrop and Twisp
Local Blend, Twisp
The Barnyard Cinema, Winthrop
El Valle, Twisp
Natural Animal Wellness, Twisp
Methow Plumbing, Winthrop
Rockchuck Ranch, Twisp
Sauna Quest and Health, Twisp
Little Star Montessori School South Collaborative
Sunflower Catering, TwispWorks
La Fonda Lopez, Twisp
North Cascade Land & Home Company, Twisp
Mountain Paws, Twisp
F.L. Cooley & Associates, Twisp
Winthrop Star Properties, Winthrop
Filer Plumbing in Twisp, retirement
Valley Video, Twisp
Motion Auto Supply, Twisp
Los Cantaritos, Twisp
Kelly’s Restaurant at Wesola Polana, Mazama
Red Hen Trading Company, Winthrop
Methow Power Sports
Twisp Liquor Store
Methow Valley Inn
Methow River Lodge and Cabins
Coldwell-Banker Winthrop Realty (merged)
Melbourn Insurance Agency (to next generation)