Best of the West: Kansas expands broadband access; Colorado faces ‘exceptional’ drought conditions; increasing food access on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Oct. 12, 2020. Photo courtesy of the United States Drought Monitor.

Expanding Broadband: High-speed, broadband internet access will come to more than 70,000 previously underserved households in Kansas, Governing Magazine reports. Gov. Laura Kelly announced the state will utilize $50 million in federal coronavirus relief grants to fund 67 public and private projects that will help connect 76,735 households, 5,996 businesses and 636 anchor institutions such as libraries, schools, and health departments. “[Broadband] is a singular tool that can close the equity gap between communities and bridge the urban-rural divide,” Gov. Kelly said. Additionally, the Governor announced that $85 million will be spent over the next 10 years to improve statewide internet access through the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Eisenhower Legacy program. More.

Exceptional Drought Conditions: For the fourth time in 20 years, the entire state of Colorado has been classified as abnormally dry or in drought, with nearly 17% of the land area experiencing “exceptional” drought. The arid conditions, according to The Colorado Sun, have contributed to historic wildfire activity, including the 164,140-acre Cameron Peak Fire, which recently surpassed the 139,007-acre Pine Gulch Fire as the largest fire in state history. “Typically, this time of year we’re cooling off and starting to get wetter,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the U.S. Drought Monitor. “That just hasn’t happened yet.” Thankfully, meteorologists predict that the Centennial State could return to pre-2020 figures soon, provided it sees adequate levels of snowfall this winter. More.

Rural Vacation Towns: Despite a litany of closures, cancellations, and unprecedented public health restrictions, many outdoor attractions across the West saw a steady stream of visitors this summer, giving the surrounding economies a much-needed boost, Stateline reports. Rural recreation counties had an unemployment rate three percentage points lower than their urban counterparts for the month of June. At Yellowstone National Park, which spans across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, visitation was up 6% in August compared with August 2019, and down just 16% for all of 2020. Visits to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, however, were down 60% in August, owing in large part to a lack of international tourism. More.

Wildfire Waivers: Health and education officials in Oregon are providing schools with an easier path toward in-person instruction, after devastating wildfires severely hampered many students’ ability to participate in distance learning, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “[The wildfires] had a huge impact,” said Phoenix-Talent School District superintendent Brent Barry. “And it was really the most vulnerable and the families that were having the most challenging time in the first place, that lost everything.” A new emergency waiver, dated Oct. 5, allows school districts where students are facing technological problems or traumatic circumstances to host in-person classes, provided they can demonstrate “a lack of basic services” and the ability to abide by certain COVID-19 mitigation steps. More.

Fighting Hunger: The Food Access and Sustainability Team (FAST) on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana has been working overtime during the COVID-19 pandemic, doling out as much as 50,000 pounds of food a month, Montana Public Radio reports. Although the state’s public health restrictions have been loosened, the Blackfeet Nation remains on high alert, facing multiple stay at home and business closure orders. Consequently, FAST’s goal is to lend a helping hand to families who are struggling to afford, or get access to, food as a result of the coronavirus health crisis. "The focus right now is to give out as much food as we can to the quarantined and to the COVID patients,” said Earl Running Wolf, acting director of the Blackfeet Food Distribution program. More.

Click here for the latest wildfire updates in your state.

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

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