What will Zinke do with the extra $2.5 billion in his budget?

Since his confirmation in March 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s push to trim the department he oversees while opening more public lands to energy development has been lauded by Republicans and denounced by Democrats. When it came to the budget, however, both sides agreed on one thing: No big cuts. In the omnibus federal budget, which recently passed with solid bipartisan support, Congress decided the Department of Interior was worth nearly $2.5 billion more than the administration had proposed. The Trump administration had proposed substantial budget cuts at a time of record visitations to public lands, billions of dollars of maintenance backlogs and some of the lowest staffing levels in decades at agencies like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. But in the appropriations bill signed March 23, the Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM each received more than a quarter billion dollars more than requested, and the National Park Service got almost $650 million more than the secretary asked for.

In small towns, a way to make remote work, work

This story is part of the State of Change project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network. Dilapidated motels line the entrance to Grants, New Mexico, signs of the boom that came and went in this town of 9,000 people. Reclamation work continues at the mines that once earned Grants the nickname “uranium capital of the world,” but federal figures show the mining industry employs a fraction of what it once did in the historic U.S. Route 66 town. “The uranium mines were good to us,” said Sarah Pena, 71, a lifelong Grants resident. “They brought the economy up, and there are a lot of people who are still here, who stayed.”

Today, finding consistent work is a challenge for Pena and scores of others in Cibola County, where the unemployment rate is higher than the state average and precious little besides a few private prisons powers the local economy. To Pena, an 80-mile drive to an office job in Albuquerque started to sound like the best option.

Fire funding fix comes with environmental rollbacks

Congress accomplished something unprecedented last week: They passed a bipartisan solution to a knotty budget issue that has hobbled the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to do restoration and fire-prevention work in Western forests. The $1.3 trillion federal spending package, signed into law by President Donald Trump last Friday, included a long-sought funding fix for wildfire response. Starting in 2020, the Forest Service will be able to access over $2 billion a year outside of its regular fire suppression budget. As recently as 1995, the Forest Service spent only 16 percent of its budget on fire. In 2017, though, wildfire suppression costs ate up more than half the agency’s budget, exceeding $2 billion.

What the 2018 midterms could mean for Native voting

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West. Patricia Roybal Caballero was a freshman lawmaker in New Mexico’s House of Representatives when she walked into a popular Santa Fe restaurant in 2013 for a meeting with some of her colleagues. Roybal Caballero, a community and economic developer of Piro-Manso-Tiwa ancestry, was by then used to dealing with negative perceptions about her race, but what happened next astounded her. “Before I had a chance to ask for a table, the hostess said, ‘I am sorry, but we’re not taking applications right now,’” Roybal Caballero told me recently. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

What’s quelling the anxiety of electric-car drivers?

Gerald Espinosa vividly remembers his anxiety-riddled drive up Colorado’s McClure Pass in May 2015, watching the charge on his fully electric Fiat 500e plummet as he inched toward the 8,755-foot summit. He was in the final stretch of what normally would have been a four-hour jaunt from Denver to Paonia, in the western part of the state. With charging stops, it ended up being a two-day trip. His car packed with bikes and clothing, he spent the last few hours charging the battery in his electric vehicle, or EV, in Carbondale. As he climbed, the remaining range on his charge dropped from 70 miles to 40 to 30.

Harassment pervades the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Sue Parton first began working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1976, as a teacher at the Albuquerque Indian School, one of the few remaining BIA boarding schools at that time. Parton, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, had been around the agency most of her life; her father was a lifelong employee. But she gained a new perspective in 2008, as she got more involved with the Federation of Indian Service Employees, the union that represents employees of the four Interior Department agencies that serve Native Americans. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. “One of the things that shocked me was the intimidation factor,” says Parton, now president of the union.

A new structure for the Interior Department takes shape

Update: In an interview with the Associated Press on Feb. 23, Zinke said he is reconsidering aspects of his planned overhaul of the Interior Department. According to the report, Interior will be moving forward with a reorganization that adheres more closely to state boundaries, though some states will continue to be split. “Western Governors are gratified that the Department of Interior has responded to their previously-stated concerns and are moving towards a state boundary-oriented approach in the latest draft map of its unified regional boundaries,” said Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors’ Association. The Department of Interior employs around 70,000 people and oversees a broad array of federal programs, from land management agencies like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to relationships with tribal nations through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The big public land sell-out

Next month, hundreds of corporate representatives will sit down at their computers, log into something called Energynet, and bid, eBay style, for more than 300,000 acres of federal land spread across five Western states. They will pay as little as $2 per acre for control of parcels in southeastern Utah’s canyon country, Wyoming sage grouse territory and Native American ancestral homelands in New Mexico. Even as public land advocates scoff at the idea of broad transfers of federal land to states and private interests, this less-noticed conveyance continues unabated. It is a slightly less egregious version of the land transfers that state supremacists, Sagebrush Rebels and privatization advocates have pushed for since the 1970s. This piece originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

‘Orphaned’ oil and gas wells are on the rise

In March 2015, Joe MacLaren, a state oil and gas inspector in Colorado, drove out to the Taylor 3 oil well near the tiny town of Hesperus, in the southwestern corner of the state. He found an entire checklist of violations. Atom Petroleum, a Texas-based company, had bought out more than 50 oil and gas wells after the company that drilled them went bankrupt. Now, Atom was pumping oil from those wells, but Taylor 3 was leaking crude, and it was missing required signage as well as screens on infrastructure to keep birds away from toxic gunk. Worse, the company had not performed safety tests to ensure the well wasn’t leaking fluids underground.