Mother Nature’s vengeance, environmental entanglements and a story of uncommon courage competed for readers’ attention in 1996, a year replete with headline-grabbing events from the Inland Northwest and North Idaho.
The year saw floods turn the streets of Cataldo and St. Maries into chocolate-colored spillways. Opponents of smoke from grass fields rallied after the asthma-related death of one of their own, and the election may have put a new species on the endangered list: the Idaho Democrat.
Stories of survival from the February floods and November’s brutal ice storm brought out the best in many communities. A different story of survival came from World War II veteran Vernon Baker, who will finally receive the Medal of Honor denied him for more than half a century.
As in previous years, The Idaho Spokesman-Review asked readers to rank the top 10 news stories for the past year. More than 200 readers responded, sending in their choices by mail, fax, phone and Internet. Here are the results for North Idaho:
1. The ice storm
A freak meteorological juxtaposition sent sheets of freezing rain down on the region Nov. 19, crippling power systems and sending residents scurrying for generators.
At its worst, more than 100,000 people sat in the dark. Though most in North Idaho had the lights back within a week, some in outlying areas waited weeks before crews could clear trees from the power lines.
While devastating, the storm spawned kindness as strangers helped strangers get on with their lives. Washington Water Power Co. and Kootenai Electric Cooperative worked around the clock to make sure Thanksgiving turkeys weren’t cooked on barbecues. The crisis created a new folk hero of sorts: the utility lineman. The storm’s costs totaled in the tens of millions, and WWP will have to explain its response to a Washington state utilities panel. The true cost to the area’s trees won’t be known until spring.
2. February’s floods
A healthy snow followed by monsoonlike rains swelled rivers around North Idaho, turning several towns into muddy messes. Evacuations in Kootenai and Benewah counties followed as the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe rivers swelled well past their respective flood stages. Federal disaster relief helped many flooded businesses rebuild, but reminders of the flood damage will remain for years to come.
3. Grass-field burning
The death of Sharon Buck, a member of the Clean Air Coalition, created another storm of controversy over the practice of burning grass seed fields to increase yield. Buck died after a particularly heavy burning day, and the threat of litigation over the issue sounded louder than ever. A suit was filed against growers on behalf of a Post Falls girl with cystic fibrosis. A settlement restricting burning in neighboring Spokane County could create momentum for more restrictions for North Idaho farmers in the coming seasons.
4. Mining’s legacy in the Coeur d’Alene Basin
Mining has damaged the environment downstream on the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, but just how much - if at all - will be the subject lawyers for mining companies and for the government will fight over for years to come. The Environmental Protection Agency filed a multimillion-dollar claim against local companies such as Coeur d’Alene Mines, Hecla Mining Co. and Sunshine Mining & Refining Co. over damage caused by acidic drainage from mines. It won’t likely be settled anytime soon. Environmentalist groups continue to present evidence that plant and animal life downstream from the Silver Valley have suffered. Mining companies continue to present their own science showing a healthy, normal ecosystem despite the drainage.
5. Vernon Baker
The St. Maries resident fought through much more than hordes of German soldiers in Italy during World War II. He also fought the prejudice of his superior officers, who overlooked his heroism and courage while fighting to save his outnumbered all-black platoon. Slighted in official reports about the battle, Baker’s valor has finally come to light. In January he’ll receive the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade a soldier can receive in this country.
6. Welfare reform
Idaho joined other states around the nation in dramatically changing the way it distributes welfare benefits. Changes include limits for benefits and holding grandparents accountable for supporting their minor children’s babies. Other reforms targeted those who failed to pay child support.
7. Salvage logging
Environmentalists railed against the legislation that allowed timber companies to harvest dead or dying trees without the environmental laws associated with normal timber sales. After reports that some salvage sales harvested healthy trees, the Clinton administration backed away from its initial support of the law. Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig enraged environmental forces even further late in 1996 by proposing a sweeping change in federal forest policy that would allow more salvage-type logging, among other pro-timber provisions.
8. GOP-dominated Idaho
Even with millions of anti-Republican dollars flowing into Idaho to unseat controversial U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth and with a trailing presidential candidate at the top of the ticket, Idaho’s Republican Party saw substantial gains across the state. The Democrats saw their statehouse numbers dwindle to 16 between the House and Senate, from 21 two years ago, making it the most GOP-dominated statehouse in the country. North Idaho sent 11 Democrats to Boise in 1992. This January the region will send two. Longtime Democratic torch-bearer Mary Lou Reed lost a hard-fought, expensive battle to businessman Jack Riggs. Kootenai County Democrats suffered a further setback when party leader Bob Brown faced charges of molesting his stepgrandson.
9. North Idaho workers
The region’s fragile economy got a mild boost when the federal minimum wage rose from $4.25 to $4.75 an hour, with another 50-cent hike on the way next year. About 18 percent of Kootenai County workers make the minimum wage. In other employment news, Ernst Hardware went bankrupt, costing jobs at the Coeur d’Alene and Moscow stores. Many who work at lumber mills in the region lost their jobs, either by closure or a fire. On the positive side, two mines reopened in the Silver Valley and another announced plans for an expansion. Catalog retailer Coldwater Creek opened a call center in Coeur d’Alene, employing 100 people.
10. Batt’s nuclear waste deal
Though the issue doesn’t take place in our time zone, just how much nuclear waste gets stored in southern Idaho makes news here. Idaho Gov. Phil Batt made a deal that would allow a limited amount of waste to be stored there. An effort to block Batt’s agreement with a state initiative failed in the general election, though the names of the two campaigns mobilized to fight over Proposition 3 - Stop the Shipments (for the proposition, against Batt’s deal) and Get the Waste Out (against the proposition, for Batt’s deal) - just added to the confusion for many North Idaho voters.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 9 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Top Idaho stories Here are the top 10 regional stories of 1996, as chosen in a poll of readers: 1. The November ice storm. 2. February floods. 3. Another firestorm of controversy over farmers’ grass burning practices. 4. Mining’s legacy in the region. 5. A black veteran from St. Maries, finally will receive the Medal of Honor. 6. Idaho joins other states around the nation in dramatically changing how it distributes welfare benefits. 7. Environmentalists rail against salvage logging legislation. 8. Idaho’s Republican Party makes substantial gains across the state. 9. Minimum wage increase helps North Idaho workers. 10. Gov. Phil Batt makes a deal that would allow nuclear waste to be stored in the state.