News

Out West Roundup: Counties across Wyoming big economic winners from eclipse tourism

Author: Associated Press - December 22, 2017 - Updated: January 2, 2018

AP-Wyoming-Eclipse.jpg
In this Aug. 21, 2017, file photo, Jack Kvenild, 5, of Laramie, Wyoming, watches the eclipse onset at Glendo Reservoir in near Glendo in east-central Wyoming. An economic analysis of last summer's total eclipse found that nearly 192,000 people traveled to Wyoming to view the event. In addition, the study released Monday, Dec. 11 by the state Office of Tourism estimated that the celestial event boosted the state's economy by an estimated $63.5 million. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver, file)In this Aug. 21, 2017, file photo, Jack Kvenild, 5, of Laramie, Wyoming, watches the eclipse onset at Glendo Reservoir in near Glendo in east-central Wyoming. An economic analysis of last summer’s total eclipse found that nearly 192,000 people traveled to Wyoming to view the event. In addition, the study released Monday, Dec. 11 by the state Office of Tourism estimated that the celestial event boosted the state’s economy by an estimated $63.5 million. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver, file)

Wyoming

Counties across Wyoming big economic winners from eclipse tourism

CHEYENNE – Cheyenne and Laramie County were among the biggest winners in Wyoming from tourism activity associated with the Great American Eclipse in August.

And while the overall number of out-of-state visitors fell short of higher-end estimates, the Wyoming Office of Tourism is touting the eclipse’s path of totality through the state as the largest single tourism event in the state’s history.

An economic impact study conducted as a joint effort of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, Dean Runyan Associates and Destination Analysts Inc. was released last week with hard-and-fast numbers on tourism activity in the days surrounding the eclipse. The study looked at a five-day period from Aug. 19-23 in terms of visitor spending and tax generation on local and statewide levels. The eclipse happened Aug. 21.

The study found around 261,000 people traveled in the Cowboy State in that period, with roughly 75 percent of the total, or 195,750, coming from outside of Wyoming. The activity resulted in $63.5 million in travel spending statewide attributed to the eclipse, with just less than $60 million from out-of-state visitors. Around $60.6 million was attributed to overnight accommodations. Day-trip travelers spent just less than $3 million, according to the study. State agencies were expecting huge numbers of travelers associated with the eclipse, with early estimates around 250,000-500,000. Some media outlets – including the Wyoming Tribune Eagle – reported traffic counts could have indicated around 1 million people packed state roadways on the day of the event.

Surveys found an average of 77 percent of visitors stayed overnight within Wyoming, spending four days and three nights. More than half of out-of-state visitors stayed in a Wyoming hotel, motel, bed-and-breakfast or resort, with just more than 26 percent patronizing campgrounds. Travelers, on average, spent $930 in Wyoming during the course of the trip.

Perhaps most importantly for the tourism authorities, almost 44 percent of respondents indicated they would come back to Wyoming in the next two years.

Utah

Ex-polygamous sect leader gets nearly 5 years in fraud case

SALT LAKE CITY — A former polygamous sect leader was sentenced last week to nearly five years in prison for his role in carrying out an elaborate food stamp fraud scheme and for escaping home confinement while awaiting trial.

The sentencing of Lyle Jeffs closes the book on a major government bust that took several years to investigate, culminating in February 2016 with fraud and money laundering charges against him and 10 other group members.

Lyle Jeffs was accused of being the ring-leader of a scheme that diverted some $11 million in food-stamp benefits to a communal storehouse and front companies over several years.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart said during a hearing in Salt Lake City that Lyle Jeffs deserved the 57-month prison sentence because his behavior showed he doesn’t respect U.S. laws and puts his allegiance to his brother and the sect’s imprisoned prophet, Warren Jeffs, above everything else.

Stewart said Lyle Jeffs’ religious beliefs provide context for his decision to “blindly” follow his brother’s orders, but don’t justify the fact that he “cheated” taxpayers out of government funds.

“Mr. Jeffs is an adult. He knows right from wrong,” Stewart said.

Lyle Jeffs is a lifelong member of the Mormon offshoot group based on the Utah-Arizona border known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS.

Lyle Jeffs 57, spoke briefly and said he accepted responsibility for his mistakes and that he erred in not properly researching food stamp fraud laws. He was ordered to pay $1 million in restitution. He had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit benefits fraud and failure to appear.

New Mexico

New Mexico Senate Dems oust colleague from leadership post

SANTA FE — Majority Democrats in the New Mexico Senate last week ousted one of their members from a leadership post amid controversy over past sexual harassment allegations.

The Senate Democratic caucus held a closed-door meeting and later released a statement saying a majority of Democratic senators voted “to vacate the position” of majority whip that had been held by Sen. Michael Padilla.

The second-term lawmaker from Albuquerque’s South Valley, once a rising figure, withdrew this month from the lieutenant governor’s race amid mounting concern over decade-old allegations that he harassed women at a prior job. Padilla has long denied the accusations.

The embattled politician issued a statement after the meeting saying he appreciated the opportunity to serve as majority whip.

“Tomorrow is another day, and I will work just as hard as I always do. I look forward to continued partnerships with my colleagues to get New Mexico moving in the right direction again,” Padilla said.

The Senate Democrats’ statement says the caucus will meet early in January to elect a new majority whip. The 30-day legislative session starts on Jan. 16.

The Legislature is in the process of overhauling sexual harassment rules and disciplinary procedures for lawmakers, legislative staff, lobbyists and others who visit or work in the Statehouse.

Montana

Montana Republican gets behind Yellowstone mining ban

BILLINGS, Montana — Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte is sponsoring legislation to withdraw land near Yellowstone National Park from future mining, after describing an identical Senate measure as “dead on arrival” in the House.

Gianforte spokesman Travis Hall said the Republican has been working with other lawmakers to make sure the bill introduced last week can pass.

The measure would remove public lands north of the park from future mining claims. An identical bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, had stalled.

Two companies are seeking to develop gold mines north of Yellowstone.

Local residents and businesses say the projects could pollute waterways and discourage tourism.

North Dakota

More than $600,000 spent on police gear for pipeline protest

BISMARCK, North Dakota — North Dakota law enforcement purchased more than $600,000 worth of body armor, tactical equipment and crowd control devices during the height of protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, state invoices show.

The purchases, tallied by The Associated Press from invoices obtained through a public records request, included pepper spray, flash-bang and smoke grenades, riot helmets, gas masks, night-vision goggles, more than 2,000 rounds of non-lethal ammunition and more.

The equipment ultimately made up a small share of the $35 million in policing costs associated with the pipeline, and state officials defend the purchases as reasonable for a protest that attracted thousands of “water protectors” to southern North Dakota who skirmished — sometimes violently — with law enforcement.

“There was a legitimate, deliberate plan that was put together that said, ‘OK, how can we do this and do it safe for folks on both sides?'” state Homeland Security Director Greg Wilz said. “At the end of the day we were successful.”

Most of the purchases were in September, October and November of last year, when confrontations near a protest encampment grew most heated. Authorities established their own operations center a short distance away and manned it for months, making 761 arrests. About 75 officers were deployed on a typical day, though the number jumped to as many as 540 during one skirmish.

Invoices show Minneapolis-based police equipment company Streicher’s was paid nearly $613,000 for gear.

Protesters who have filed an excessive force lawsuit say police became “militarized” by October of last year and point to the use of such equipment, including tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. They allege a wide range of injuries, including burns, broken bones, eye injuries, and wounds requiring stitches and staples. Among those injured was Sophia Wilansky, a 21-year-old New York woman who underwent several surgeries for a serious arm injury. Protesters maintain she was injured by a grenade thrown by police, while authorities say she was hurt by a small propane tank that protesters rigged to explode.

“Having police officers show up looking like Stormtroopers, seems in many ways only exacerbated clashes that did occur,” said Lauren Regan, founder and executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, which is part of the lawsuit. “When police officers anonymize themselves, when they put on all that Rambo gear and face shields and no one can identify them, it tends to incite that mob mentality.”

Associated Press

Associated Press