Economic recession top Idaho news story of 2009

AP News
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Posted: Dec 28, 2009 11:19 AM

More than 33,000 jobs lost, millions of dollars cut from the state budget and foreclosures peppering neighborhoods across the state _ many Idaho residents spent 2009 hoping and praying for better times ahead.

The economic crisis touched nearly every aspect of life in Idaho, reaching into public school classrooms, local housing markets, the halls of the Statehouse and the courts to become the biggest news story of 2009.

Still, hopes are high that economic recovery could be the story of 2010: Idaho's chief economist Mike Ferguson said earlier this month that Idaho's non-farm employment showed a slight uptick in jobs in November. Ferguson said if the trend holds, it could mean the state has hit rock bottom and can begin to look for a path out of the recession.

Here are the other top stories of 2009 chosen by The Associated Press:

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Idaho soldier missing in Afghanistan:

The news began July 2 as a cryptic U.S. military announcement: An Army private was in Taliban hands after walking off his base in eastern Afghanistan. No name was released, officials said, to protect the soldier.

On July 17, however, the frightened face of Bowe Bergdahl, from tiny Hailey, Idaho, became familiar to the world after Taliban militants released a video of 23-year-old. Residents of Hailey adorned Main Street trees with yellow ribbons. Their message: "Bring Bowe Home."

In mid-December, the Taliban's media arm announced it would release a new video of a captive U.S. soldier. So far, however, no video has emerged publicly.

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Public wolf hunts:

Idaho was joined by Montana in opening the first gray wolf hunts in the lower 48 states after the animal was removed from the endangered list across much of the Northern Rockies. Gray wolves once ranged from Alaska to Mexico, but hunting, trapping and government-sponsored poisoning wiped out the species across most of the lower 48 states by the 1930s. The animals were listed as endangered in 1974, and didn't return to the region in significant numbers until 66 Canadian wolves were relocated to Idaho and Wyoming in the mid-1990s.

Idaho's efforts to allow the animals to be hunting spawned federal lawsuits, but despite the legal battles the season opened Sept. 1 with a quota of 220 wolves.

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The acquittal of Robert Aragon:

The trial of an Idaho man who let his two young children walk several miles in freezing conditions along an isolated rural highway last Christmas Day unfolded in October. Robert Aragon was driving his daughter, Sage, 11, and son, Bear, 12, to see their mother for the holidays when his car slid into the snow bank. The children started walking, but Sage did not survive the snowy trek. Aragon was charged in the death of Sage and for allowing Bear to suffer hypothermia. Aragon was acquitted after less than five days of testimony.

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The murder of Robert Manwill:

A mother and her boyfriend pleaded for help after an Idaho boy went missing this summer, resulting in what Boise police called the largest search for a missing person in the city's history. Thousands of residents helped look for 8-year-old Robert Manwill, whose body was found more than a week later in an irrigation canal. His mother, Melissa Jenkins and her boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick, each are charged with first-degree murder. The trial has been scheduled for April 2010. Defense attorneys have asked a judge to hold separate trials for the two, and move the proceedings.

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Nellis and UI:

Duane Nellis, who cited too little money when he turned down an offer to become the University of Idaho's president, took the job in April after the state Board of Education sweetened the deal. The board agreed to waive a policy prohibiting multiyear contracts and the use of private funds to supplement the salaries of university presidents, giving Nellis a three-year contract and annual base salary of $335,000. Of that, $37,000 came from the university's foundation. The board later extended multiyear contracts to the presidents of Idaho's other four-year institutions.

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Football Frenzy:

A turnaround season for the University of Idaho football team was topped off with the Vandals' first bowl game in more than a decade, and in their home state. The Vandals (7-5) were invited to play Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl on Dec. 30. The teams will square off on the blue turf at Boise State, where the Broncos dominated again this year and earned another trip to a big-money bowl. No. 6 Boise State (13-0) will play No. 3 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4.

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Tamarack saga:

French-born resort entrepreneur Jean-Pierre Boespflug pushed Tamarack Resort in 2004 as the first all-season U.S. vacation getaway in a quarter-century. After defaulting on a $250 million construction loan to a lender group led by Zurich-based Credit Suisse Group, however, Boespflug's project 90 miles north of Boise runs the risk of another enduring legacy: The first major ski resort to go completely bust since a Colorado project folded its tent in 1974.

Lifts at Tamarack will be idle this winter; in December, Bank of America filed papers in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, its latest bid to repossess ski lifts.

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Pam and politics:

Fired Idaho Transportation Department Director Pam Lowe launched a counterattack when she sued the state in November, alleging she was forced out illegally after refusing to buckle to demands by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's aides not to cut a highway contract with companies that are among his biggest campaign contributors. Lowe, the department's first female director ever, also said she was a victim of gender discrimination.

Otter has since said he backed Lowe's ouster, not because she was making life tough on his political friends, but because she'd lost the confidence of his office and of the Idaho Legislature.

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Prison problems:

Idaho's prisons were plagued with problems in 2009, kicking off the year with a riot that destroyed a prison warehouse. The department remodeled the warehouse into a cellblock so that 300 inmates that were being held in expensive out-of-state prisons could be brought back to Idaho. But some of the inmates rioted, destroying the building and leaving the state with no other choice but to overcrowd the prison, violating a long-standing court ruling against inhumane treatment of inmates.

The state also had to defend itself against lawsuits brought by several inmates _ many of them housed at the privately run Idaho Correctional Center _ contending that guards failed to protect them from gang members. A federal judge consolidated the cases and then partially dismissed them, but some of the inmates' cases are proceeding. A review of hundreds of documents by The Associated Press showed the private prison had a dramatically higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults compared with the state-run facilities in the state.

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Associated Press writers Jessie Bonner, John Miller and Todd Dvorak contributed to this report.