Best of the West: Broadband expansion in Colorado; first-ever electric plane takes flight in Hawaii; Christmas traditions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Dec. 14, 2020. Photo courtesy of The Colorado Sun.

Expanding broadband internet connectivity to underserved, rural areas is a top priority for Western Governors.

Recently, aerospace company SpaceX received $39.7 million from a federal broadband auction to bring internet access to more than 19,000 households or businesses in Mesa, Rio Blanco and San Juan counties in Colorado.

The auction, which was part of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, attached a price tag on how much it would pay a company to provide a census block with broadband. When more than one company submitted a bid, the FCC would lower its payment and continue the process until only one provider remained. The federal agency reported that over 300 service providers participated in the reverse auction.

As a result of this collaborative process, the FCC is now able to bring internet access to 5.2 million homes and businesses nationwide for $9.2 billion, as opposed to the estimated $26 billion it would have cost if they had done it on their own. The leftover money will be carried over into a Phase II auction, which will target partially served areas.

Although the FCC accepted bids from any provider offering speeds faster than its standard 25 megabits per second (mbps) download and 3 mbps upload limit, higher speeds were prioritized, with approximately 85% of locations expected to receive gigabit (1,000 mbps) internet. In other cases, speeds of at least 100 mbps down and 20 mbps up are predicted.

Learn more about the program. And check out WGA’s Policy Resolution on broadband connectivity in the West.

Tracking upward: Hunting has seen a resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Stateline, the pastime’s popularity has been in decline for decades, but in 2020, many states saw a dramatic rise in residents taking hunter safety classes, especially in previously underrepresented groups like young, female and first-time hunters. In Nevada, there was a 30% increase in hunting licenses and a 50% increase in hunter safety class enrollment. Washington graduated more than twice as many people from its hunter safety program than in 2019, and Idaho sold 28% more hunting and fishing licenses to first-time buyers. The increase is important because state wildlife agencies, which are responsible for a great deal of the conservation work and species management in the U.S., typically receive little revenue from tax dollars. Nearly 60% of their funding comes from hunting and fishing revenue, including license fees and taxes on gear sales. Learn more about why wildlife managers are excited about the increase. 

Electric Plane: A first-of-its-kind, hybrid-electric plane recently took flight in the skies above Maui, Hawaii. Governing Magazine reports that the vessel, built by California-based Ampaire Inc., conducted its first 20-minute demonstration flight in November from Maui’s Kahului Airport to Hana and back, all on a single charge. "We're following the successful path of hybrid-electric automobiles in transforming ground transportation by taking that model to the sky," said Ampaire CEO Kevin Noertker. "By upgrading current aircraft with hybrid-electric propulsion we can enter the market quickly and take advantage of existing infrastructure for fixed-wing aviation." The company hopes that the aircraft will be certified by the FAA to carry passengers commercially within the next three years. Read more.

Grizzly Country: Despite a drastic increase in the number of people recreating in grizzly country this year, wildlife managers have not noticed a spike in conflicts between humans and bears. In fact, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, comprised of public land managers, wildlife biologists, and other state and federal government specialists, released data showing the number of conflicts across grizzly ecosystems stayed the same or dropped. According to Montana Public Radio, the Yellowstone area documented 49 mortalities this year, compared to 68 in 2018. In Glacier National Park, there were 35, compared to more than 50 in both 2018 and 2019. Despite the notable decrease, there were, however, some specific areas that saw a small rise in bears getting into property, livestock, and unsecured attractants. Find out more about the downward trend.

Christmas Traditions: In light of COVID-19, many Christmas traditions look a little different than in years past. In Alaska, the state’s National Guard typically delivers gifts to a handful of remote, predominately native villages. The effort – nicknamed Operation Santa Claus – was still carried out this year, Alaska Public Media reports, but COVID-19 protocols dictated the gifts be delivered to airstrips, where locals picked up and distributed them. “For 65 years we have not missed a beat,” said Chief Master Sgt. Winfield Hinkley, Jr. “COVID is rough, but it will not stop us from carrying out this tradition. It is an honor to do it.” More. In Colorado, Michael Cawthra, a retired elementary school teacher turned professional Santa Claus, is doing his part to spread holiday cheer as well, albeit from the safety of his Lakewood home. “We did have to totally adjust,” Cawthra told The Colorado Sun. “When you’re live, you can be large and demonstrative and wave your arms and sing and dance. When you’re doing a Zoom meeting, you can wave your hands, but for the most part, you’re stationary, locked into the screen. You have to use more facial expressions.” More.

ICYMI: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work (updated regularly)

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