Zinke leaves unfinished business at the Interior Department

On the second day of 2019, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted out his resignation letter to President Donald Trump. After less than two years in office, he claimed to have “restored public lands ‘for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,’ improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs.”

That appears to be Zinke’s view of the legacy his abbreviated tenure will leave on the Interior Department’s more than 500 million acres of land and roughly 70,000 employees. Critics might interpret his garbled syntax as a confession: that he turned over public land to industry — pushing oil and gas leases in sensitive habitat, rescinding environmental protections and shrinking national monuments. But what, really, did Zinke accomplish? This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Ryan Zinke to step down as Interior secretary

Ryan Zinke will step down from his post as Interior secretary, President Donald Trump announced Saturday. “Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years,” Trump wrote in a tweet. In a second tweet, Trump said he plans to announce a replacement in the coming days. In a resignation letter obtained by the Associated Press, Zinke attributed his departure to “vicious and politically motivated attacks.”

Zinke, a former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL, oversaw much of the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda, including the ramp up of public lands oil and gas leasing and the rollback of environmental protections. The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, which together manage 330 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West. Under Zinke, the Interior Department opened up large swaths of the West to oil and gas drilling, rolled back a suite of climate change policies, and abandoned a number of collaborative land management agreements spearheaded by the department under former President Barack Obama. Zinke announced his intention to rewrite one such plan, on sage grouse protections, early in his tenure.

Feds fail to prosecute crimes in Indian Country

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute more than a third of cases referred to them in Indian Country. That’s business as usual according to a new report by the department. The report reveals that U.S. attorneys’ offices left 37 percent of referred cases from Indian Country unprosecuted in 2017 — a figure slightly up from 2016 and steady with data since 2011, after then-President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law. The percentage continues to plateau despite funding for tribal law enforcement from the Trump administration. Lawmakers like Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., see the department’s prosecution rate as failing members of federally recognized tribes.

Federal politics unite unlikely coalitions at the border

The last two years of the Trump administration have been challenging for both environmental and immigrant advocacy groups at the border. Renewed calls to build a $25 billion wall that would cut through important wildlife habitat for species like the jaguar and the Mexican gray wolf, combined with the impacts of ramped-up militarization in border communities, have increasingly united conservationists and social justice activists. This newfound collaboration is especially strong in Las Cruces, in southern New Mexico. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. Here, in the Borderlands, groups like the faith-based organization NMCAFé and the American Civil Liberties Union Regional Center for Border Rights have long worked on immigration reform and fought for immigrant rights at detention facilities.

The country’s busiest oil and gas office has a plan for more drilling

If there is one swath of land that holds the most promise for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vision for energy dominance, it might be southeast New Mexico. The 6-million acre region includes part of the Permian Basin, which stretches into west Texas and is expected to produce more than any other nation except Saudi Arabia by 2023. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released a 1,500-page draft of a new management plan for the New Mexico side of the basin that will determine how its resources will be used for the next 20 years and beyond. The BLM’s Carlsbad field office, which oversees this three-county region, is the busiest in the nation for oil and gas drilling. It’s also a landscape of deserts, grasslands, small mountain ranges and spectacular underground caves.

Imperiled wildlife are caught in a political tug-of-war

As temperatures climb to triple digits and fires rage from California to Colorado, Western lawmakers and the Trump administration are turning up the heat on the Endangered Species Act. On July 12, the conservative Western Congressional Caucus, which was founded to “fight federal overreach” and advocates for extractive industries, introduced a nine bill ESA reform package. And in a separate move, the Trump administration is proposing to change how federal agencies implement the law. A common thread in the bills is a push to give more authority to the Interior Secretary and states. The proposed rule changes dial back federal agencies’ ability to pursue policies that hamper development.

New EPA head has long history of ties to mining interests

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal and uranium mining lobbyist, has been named the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, after the abrupt resignation of Scott Pruitt. Pruitt announced his decision on Thursday, amid a series of ethics investigations into his improper use of taxpayer money and penchant for using employees to conduct personal errands. Wheeler has made a career out of representing fossil fuel interests and rolling back environmental regulations. His relationships with senior officials from the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy, his lobbying background and deep ties to polluting industries have some people worried that his influence could extend beyond the parameters of the EPA. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Climate change is making it harder to revive damaged land

Carianne Campbell remembers the exact moment she fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. As a botany major in college, she joined a class field trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the southern border of Arizona, arriving and setting up camp in the dark. Emerging from her tent the next morning, Campbell, who grew up on the East Coast, caught her first glimpse of enormous saguaros, clustered organ pipes and bright desert wildflowers. She knew immediately that she wanted to work in this kind of landscape. Today, Campbell is the restoration director for Sky Island Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona.

In the Southwest, ‘drought’ doesn’t tell the whole story

In early June, more than 1,000 people near Durango, Colorado, had to leave their homes as the 416 Fire swept across the landscape. Following a dismal snowpack, the region experienced a spring so hot and dry that the U.S. Drought Monitor labeled conditions “exceptional drought,” the worst category. Colorado wasn’t alone. An irregular bull’s-eye of dryness radiated outward from the entire Four Corners region, where Colorado meets New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. These circumstances offer something of a preview of the coming decades: While experts say the Southwest will continue to experience swings in precipitation from year to year, overall climate change is making the region and its river basins hotter and drier.

National parks endure rising visitation and less staff

National parks have been a centerpiece of America’s tourism culture since the late 19th century, after the colonialization and displacement of many of the Indigenous people of the West. But recently what’s been called “America’s best idea” has a new label: “loved to death.”

Last year, about 330 million people visited the parks. That’s roughly 5 million more visits than the total U.S. population and almost 50 million more visits than in 2012. While visitation has increased, staffing levels have declined and the costs of overdue park infrastructure projects have ballooned to around $12 billion. As the national parks’ summer high season begins and the understaffed Park Service works to keep them clean and safe for the crowds, politicians are fighting over how to pay for the parks.