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.

Tribal nations hold some of the best water rights in the West

Tens of thousands of people on the Navajo Nation lack running water in their homes. But that could change in the coming years, as the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project goes into effect. It’s expected to deliver water to the reservation and nearby areas by 2024, as part of a Navajo Nation water rights settlement with New Mexico, confirmed by Congress in 2009. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. Three other Native water settlements currently await congressional approval.

When colleges let down Indigenous students

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West. In April, police removed two Mohawk teenagers from a campus tour at Colorado State University. By now the video of officers removing Lloyd Skanahwati and Thomas Kanewakeron Gray after a mother on the tour called 911 has made its way around the internet. She said the brothers acted “odd,” wore strange clothing (they were wearing metal band t-shirts) and were too quiet when she began asking them why they were on the tour. “They just really stand out,” the unidentified woman said in the 911 call.

How do we honor New Mexico’s colorful past?

Evening, and a raucous crowd is milling beneath a giant marionette, waiting for the fire to begin. “Burn him!” they chant. “BURN HIM!” And, just like that, the lights of the old baseball park go out. A roar of approval from more than 60,000 people fills the air. In the darkness, faces are illuminated by cellphones; necks and wrists glimmer green, orange, and pink with the help of neon-glowing bracelets and necklaces.

Scott Pruitt’s ethics violations haven’t stopped his rollbacks

Kevin Chmielewski knew when he was out at the Environmental Protection Agency. As he told Democratic members of Congress, it was when the former deputy chief of staff refused to retroactively approve a staff member’s first-class travel from Morocco to the United States. Chmielewski, a 38-year-old former Coast Guard member, was placed on administrative leave without pay, later learning from news reports that he had been fired. A staunch Trump supporter, Chmielewski had tangled with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over spending before: He’d previously dissuaded Pruitt from using EPA funds to contract with a private jet company for $100,000 per month. After his firing, Chmielewski turned whistleblower, meeting with congressional Democrats to detail EPA behaviors that he found to be unethical.

Conservation takes a hit in early version of farm bill

Every five years, the U.S. Congress has to reauthorize the farm bill. In addition to its effect on food security and agricultural production, the farm bill — which is projected to cost about $387 billion altogether — is also the nation’s single largest funding package for conservation on private lands. That makes it crucial to the protection of endangered species and wildlife habitat, since 70 percent of the land in the Lower 48 is privately owned, and 40 percent of that is used for agriculture. Given that fact, and the length of time between bills, what does (and doesn’t) make it into the legislation has a huge impact on shaping Western conservation projects. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Trump’s false narrative of chaos at the border

Este artículo también está disponible en Español aquí. California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

In 2010, back when I covered the border region for public radio, I visited a shelter for migrants, a modest building located a mile away, just south of the fence separating San Diego and Tijuana. There, recent deportees could find a bed for a few nights after Customs and Border Protection agents released them in Mexico. That’s where I met 34-year-old Verónica Vargas, a mother of two from Los Angeles, who’d been deported after a domestic violence incident.