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Govt-and-politics
AP top story
Eclipse a bust? Report says just 100k traveled to Wyoming for spectacle

The numbers are in on one of the most anticipated tourism events ever to take place in Wyoming. The results? The Great American Eclipse had a far more muted effect on the Cowboy State than the most optimistic estimates, but still contributed tens of millions of dollars to merchants along with a more modest sum flowing into public coffers.

About 99,000 out-of-state visitors said they came to Wyoming in late August solely to view the eclipse, according to a report released by the Wyoming Office of Tourism Monday, far below the projections of up to 500,000 eclipse visitors floated in the months leading up to the event. Another 100,000 people described the eclipse as an important factor in their trip.

Diane Shober, the tourism office’s director, said the state may have been too timid in marketing the eclipse out of concern that smaller communities would be inundated with tourists.

“In hindsight I think we took maybe a too-conservative approach,” Diane Shober, the office’s director, said. “I wish we would have pushed a little harder.”

But Shober said she was still pleased with the total numbers. The report was compiled by Dean Runyan Associates and Destination Analysts based on surveys distributed during the eclipse weekend, Aug. 19 to 23.

(While initial car-counts from the Wyoming Department of Transportation pegged the number of eclipse visitors at above 1 million, Shober said that given the results of her office’s report she believes the same cars may have been counted multiple times.)

Confusing calculations

The estimates are muddied by the fact that the report counted many visitors who said they would have traveled to Wyoming that weekend even if there had not been an eclipse.

Shober said the survey extrapolated on its sample size of roughly 1,900 people to determine the total number of visitors in Wyoming during the eclipse and how many of those people were on trips related to the eclipse. A Star-Tribune analysis of data in the report found that while more than 250,000 out-of-state visitors traveled to Wyoming during the eclipse weekend, about 45 percent would have come whether or not there had been an eclipse. Just under 40 percent said they would not have come without the eclipse, and another 15 percent said they were unsure whether or not they would have come.

But the tourism office report counted eclipse visitors as anyone who said that experiencing the eclipse was either “very important” or “important” to their decision to make the trip to Wyoming. Roughly 200,000 out-of-state visitors described the eclipse as an important factor and those individuals spent $63.4 million during that period, generating $3.8 million in tax dollars for the state and local governments, according to the report.

The report also found that 63,500 Wyoming residents traveled within the state on trips related to the eclipse.

Wyoming disadvantages

Shober said that Wyoming faced an inherent disadvantage in drawing eclipse tourists because it is not close to many large population centers, meaning fewer people are within reasonable driving distance of the state. Other states within the path of the solar eclipse’s totality, such as Oregon, were much closer to major metropolitan areas.

Given that, Shober said she was happy with the total turnout over the weekend.

“We were thrilled,” she said. “For something that’s five days, that’s pretty phenomenal.”

(While Wyoming did not offer an official estimate of eclipse visitors ahead of the event, Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management planned to accommodate 1 million visitors in the state during the eclipse, but it appears that in the end far fewer people traveled to that state.)

Shober said that the over-the-top estimates of the number of tourists preparing to descend on Wyoming may have deterred more casual visitors who decided not to drive up from Colorado or neighboring states because they were worried about traffic jams and overcrowding in towns along the eclipse’s path.

Benefit to communities

On the ground, local officials said they were pleased with the turnout.

Casey Adams with Wind River Country, Fremont County’s tourism board, said the eclipse drew manageable crowds and that merchants and lodging operators were pleased.

“When (the visitors) all left at the same time we had a little bit of a countywide, statewide traffic jam and it was actually a really cool physical demonstration of how many people chose Wyoming,” she said.

In Casper, which sat in the path of totality and was billed as the largest eclipse destination in the state, leaders said that while crowds fell somewhat below expectations, the eclipse festival was still a success.

Visit Casper CEO Brook Kaufman said the Wyoming Eclipse Festival generated community pride and was smoothly executed. While she was expecting more visitors to come, Kaufman said that even looking back she would not have amended the city’s promotional efforts. Expecting unmanageable crowds to arrive on Casper’s doorstep without any invitation, organizers intentionally chose not to try and attract additional visitors or draw tourists away from other eclipse-viewing destinations in the country.

“I’m actually really good with where we landed,” Kaufman said. “I thought it was a good decision.”

Casper City Manager Carter Napier said that the city brought in about $450,000 in sales tax revenue above what was expected while spending only $150,000 on eclipse-related expenses.

Napier said the state’s report may have underestimated the economic benefit to cities and towns. The survey found that $7.5 million was spent by eclipse travelers in Natrona County, yielding $170,000 in local sales tax revenue.

“Oh I tell you, I think on the whole it was very positive for us and did create a lot of benefit,” Napier said. “But I do admit that I expected more from a population standpoint to descend on the community.”

But tourism officials said that the eclipse provided a benefit in publicity for Wyoming destinations, exposing visitors to parts of the state they might not have been familiar with and laying the groundwork for future trips. Those intangible benefits were not included in the report.

“There were so many people who ended up in the state who wouldn’t have come otherwise,” Adams, in Fremont County, said. “We can count on that for word-of-mouth and return visits.”


Crime-and-courts
breaking
Suspect in chaotic Glenrock crime spree pleads guilty

A man accused of leading police on a chase through Glenrock and shooting at authorities this summer pleaded guilty Monday to six felonies.

Christopher J. Eads entered his pleas to the six charges in a federal courtroom in Cheyenne. They are: conspiracy to distribute heroin and methamphetamine, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, discharging a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, assault on a federal officer and two counts of carjacking.

In exchange for his pleas, Eads had three other charges against him dismissed, according to court documents. He had also faced charges alleging he possessed heroin and methamphetamine with intent to distribute, discharged a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence and was a felon in possession of a firearm.

Other details of the deal were not available Monday as they were placed under seal.

Law enforcement arrested Eads and his girlfriend, Santana Keener, in June after the couple fled an attempted traffic stop by state troopers and agents of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation on Interstate 25. Authorities pursued the couple, and during the ensuing chase, authorities say Eads shot at law enforcement vehicles.

The couple drove their car off the highway at Glenrock and abandoned it, court documents allege. While police searched for it, they received a report of an elderly woman bleeding from the head.

The woman told police a man went into her home through the back entrance, pushed her to the ground and attacked her before taking her car keys. The woman, who is in her 80s, had a broken rib, a broken toe and a laceration to her scalp that required 18 staples to close, according to the documents.

Law enforcement later found the woman’s car abandoned nearby. Officers also found Keener, who was hiding in a field about 400 yards away from the crashed vehicle.

Police arrested Keener, who later admitted to officers that she was in the car during the interstate chase and handed Eads a gun, which he then used to shoot at officers. She also said she witnessed Eads attack the elderly woman and steal a law enforcement vehicle. She said she and Eads had been traveling with a “large amount of controlled substances,” according to the documents.

Authorities later found 18 grams of heroin in Keener’s possession during a cavity search after her arrest.

Keener pleaded guilty to three felonies on Thursday.

Agents with the Division of Criminal Investigation had been watching Eads because they suspected he was a “major distributor” of methamphetamine and heroin in the Casper area, documents show.

Eads was arrested hours later. He allegedly drove to Casper, hid in a car shop and refused to exit when police arrived. After hours of negotiation, he was taken into custody.

Eads is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16 in Casper.


Courtesy Casper Police Department. 

Eads


File | Star-Tribune 

Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Aly Courtemanch and Game Wardens Rob Hipp and Kyle Lash prepare to test a female bighorn sheep captured by helicopter in 2014 outside Jackson. Wildlife biologists believe pneumonia may be back in the herd, a death sentence for many bighorn sheep.


Energy
Contura selling Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines, once called "crown jewel" assets

The coal company that emerged from the ashes of the Alpha Natural Resources bankruptcy is getting out of the Powder River Basin just a little over a year since its formation.

Contura Energy announced Monday that it was transferring its Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines to Blackjewel L.L.C., a private company based in West Virginia, in order to focus on its metallurgical coal mines in the east.

Even most coal industry observers aren’t clear right now what reshuffling of ownership for two of Wyoming’s largest mines means for the basin. Wyoming coal companies have spent the last year reorienting themselves to the new normal for coal: no new long term contracts and declining demand post downturn.

Companies in the Powder River Basin, which produce some 40 percent of the nation’s thermal coal, have been reporting improvements even as they brace for long term challenges. Earnings have been up and production has risen. A portion of the nearly 900 jobs lost in the downturn have returned. But the sale of Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr came as a surprise.

The company is a blank slate in Wyoming. It registered with the Secretary of State’s office just last week and was formed in July when it acquired a number of coal operations in Appalachia, according to its CEO, Jeff Hoops.

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said he had no prior knowledge of the transfer before it was announced, and that he was unfamiliar with the buyer, Blackjewel. Contura’s CEO praised the Powder River Basin workers in his statement Monday.

“While these PRB thermal assets will not be part of our company’s operational strategy moving forward, the purchaser is acquiring two solid mines with decades of minable reserves, a top-notch, professional workforce and a great operating track record,” said Contura CEO Kevin Crutchfield.

***

For the workers in Campbell County, Blackjewel will be their third owner in little more than a year.

Belle Ayr employed 236 miners as of June this year, down by more than 100 workers from pre-bust levels. Eagle Butte had a little over 300 miners in June, comparable to average employment of recent years.

In response to a question about the security of those jobs, Hoops said in an emailed response that the Wyoming workers “are a great addition to the team.”

Deti, of the Wyoming Mining Association, said it’s generally a wise practice for new owners to keep the workers already in place.

“There is always that sense of uncertainty when a change comes,” Deti said. “But what we’ve seen in the past is when someone sells, or a new buyer comes in, it always behooves them to keep the workers that are on the ground.”

***

To some, the news that a small company is buying up the old Alpha assets is an odd development in Wyoming coal, which is largely dominated by big, publicly traded companies like Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.

In contrast, the virtually unknown firm seems like a prospector, said Clark Williams-Derry, a financial analyst for the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank advocating for a move to renewable fuels.

“In short, the new reality is that the PRB now attracts small companies and risk-hungry investors,” he said.

Contura was created as part of Alpha Natural Resource’s reorganization plan, after Alpha went bust in the coal downturn. Laden with debt from bad bets on the rising price of metallurgical coal, Alpha was one of a number of companies operating in Wyoming that staggered when coal demand declined over a series of warm winters, natural gas competition began to shoulder coal out of its dominant position in the electricity market and the volatile met coal sector failed after a meteoric rise.

After bankruptcy, Alpha moved out of Wyoming, though it still owes Campbell County millions in unpaid taxes from the bankruptcy years, according to the county treasurer. It has recently made payments bringing that debt down to $12 million.

Alpha’s senior lenders, however, formed Contura, and bought what were considered Alpha’s “crown jewel” assets: the dependable Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines of Wyoming.

***

The crown jewels haven’t performed well for Contura. In the first nine months of 2017, the firm’s Wyoming operations reported net losses, according to the company’s financial statements.

Contura also scaled back its Wyoming outlook earlier this year, when it retracted an application with the Bureau of Land Management in June to expand Belle Ayr.

General sentiment is that the PRB coal sector is improving, but some of the lower-heat coal from mines like Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr have been a tough sell, as noted in earnings calls between investors and the big Powder River Basin players like Cloud Peak Energy and Arch Coal who also sell 8,400 Btu coal.

The sale proves that right now low-heat coal is the “weakest link in the PRB,” said Williams-Derry of Sightline.

It appears Contura is not really transferring the mines for cash, he said, but rather to get rid a liability.

Contura expects to get a tax write off of between $400 million and $450 million after the transfer, as well as lose about $200 million in reclamation liabilities it currently has on the books associated with the mines, according to its statement Monday.

Williams-Derry says that’s telling for Powder River Basin coal.

“The real point of this transaction is to dump underperforming mines, shed long-term cleanup liabilities, and free up cash that had been tied up as collateral for mine reclamation,” he said.

Clean up at these mines was a key debate during the bankruptcy period when Alpha guaranteed clean up based on the health of its financial statements. It was essentially an IOU payment that’s since been replaced with collateral and third party sureties.

According to Contura, the transfer to Blackjewel will include the full transfer of clean-up costs associated with the mines.

As of Monday, the companies had not yet begun that process with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Contura will remain responsible for those liabilities, until the state has signed off on the permit transfer, according to the DEQ.

***

Blackjewel’s CEO said that despite unfavorable winds against low-heat coal, his team was up to the challenge. The small company is partnered with a marketing firm in the United Kingdom and a German utility.

The coal sector at large is also balancing the problem of low-heat coal in the current market, and it’s adapting to the reality of operating without long term contracts, where the spot price of coal is more variable, said Deti, of the Mining Association.

As for Blackjewel, Deti said he wasn’t yet familiar with its record or experience.

“I would hope they’ve done their homework,” he said. “But I can’t comment on that one.”