The Trump administration reassigned several top-level employees in its reorganization of the U.S. Department of the Interior. That includes Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, and Weldon “Bruce” Loudermilk, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The New Mexico State Director for the Bureau of Land Management, Amy Lueders, whose background is in economics, is also being reassigned to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In a state like New Mexico, with more than 20 American Indian tribes, vast tracts of public lands, federal water projects, myriad endangered species issues, large-scale oil and gas development and existing and proposed mines on public lands, the staffing changes—and what they signal— could have deep and long-lasting effects on the state’s landscapes, communities and future. During a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall questioned Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the staffing changes, slated to take place at the end of June.
New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Aubrey Dunn wants the U.S. Department of the Interior to expedite its review of two national monuments in New Mexico. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the designations previous presidents had made under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Two New Mexico monuments are on that list: Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in the southern part of the state. According to Dunn, the Rio Grande del Norte designation landlocked more than 41,000 acres of state trust lands and 3,468 acres of mineral rights. He wrote 12,000 acres are now “unleasable” because “prior lessees aren’t interested in leasing lands within that area.”
He also wrote that 67,547 acres of state trust lands are landlocked within the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied New Mexico’s petition to hold Colorado responsible for the 2015 Gold King Mine spill Monday, on the court’s last day in session this term. While conducting exploratory cleanup work of an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado, federal contractors caused 3 million gallons of wastewater to spill from the Gold King Mine. The mine, like hundreds of others in the area, was owned by a private company before being abandoned. The Supreme Court decision to not hear the case was the latest blow to New Mexico’s attempts to hold someone responsible for the spill into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose contractors caused the breach, said that under the Federal Tort Claims Act it was not legally able to pay the claims of economic damages caused by the 2015 spill.
So far this month, New Mexicans have experienced record high temperatures, dangerous dust storms and wildfire evacuations. Saturday night, a haboob struck Las Cruces, and last Monday, six people died when a dust storm led to a 25-car accident on Interstate-10. In our warming world, these conditions—piled one on top of another—won’t be unusual. According to NASA, May 2017 was the second warmest on record, just 0.05 degrees Celsius cooler than last May. Already, summer temperatures in New Mexico are 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in the 1970s.
As of this morning, the 1,400-acre Cajete Fire in the Jemez Mountains was 80 percent contained, and all of the evacuees have been allowed to return home. The wildfire ignited after visitors to the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned a campfire about a mile northeast of the community of Sierra de los Pinos. The site remains under investigation. The Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest has experienced a rash of abandoned and unattended campfires so far this spring. And even with a wildfire burning through the forest—and more than 400 people fighting it—fire officials still found three more abandoned campfires during their weekend patrols.
With all the big oil and gas news over the last few weeks, it might be hard to keep track of the different rules, agencies, court rulings and studies—and what they mean for New Mexico. Last week, U.S. District Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg ruled that the federal government’s environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline was insufficient. The ruling came after the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River tribes sued the federal government, arguing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t complied with the National Environmental Policy Act when it greenlighted plans to build the oil pipeline under Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River. In his opinion, Boasberg wrote that the court agrees that the federal government didn’t adequately consider how an oil spill would affect fishing rights, hunting rights or environmental justice issues. It’s not clear, however, if the company must cease operations while the Corps of Engineers reconsiders certain sections of its environmental analysis.
According to the Santa Fe National Forest, a wildfire ignited in the Jemez Ranger District Thursday. Smoke was first reported at 10:47 a.m.
The fire is dubbed the El Cajete Fire. As of 1 p.m., the fire is estimated to be 100 acres in size and spreading. Engines, air tankers, a helicopter and ground crews are working to control the fire. Additional teams of fire fighters are expected to arrive tonight and tomorrow.
After a snowy winter and a relatively wet spring, some of New Mexico’s forests are starting to dry out. And quickly. During their Wednesday morning fire call, officials with the Santa Fe National Forest heard the bad news: The National Weather Service forecast calls for increasingly hot temperatures with the possibility for thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday. After that, conditions will be hot and dry for the foreseeable future. “Leadership is looking at the possibility of fire restrictions,” said Julie Anne Overton, acting public affairs officer at the Santa Fe National Forest.
Smatterings of conversations in English, Arabic, Caldean and Dari punctuate the calls of Steller’s jays and Bewick’s wrens on a trail in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness. Six kids, ranging in age from seven to 16, hike up the Crest Trail with three young women from the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and Catholic Charities’ Refugee Mentoring Program. The childrens’ families have relocated to Albuquerque after being forced to leave their home countries, and the kids are here as part of the Refugee Wilderness Explorers Summer Camp. Rather than introducing themselves by their country of origin, the children name the languages they speak: Arabic, Caldean, Urdu and Dari are the predominant languages, and some of the kids also know Spanish or French in addition to English. Sixteen-year-old Ghulam-Ali speaks five languages, and he takes a takes a crack at reading the field guide entry for “banana yucca.” The pokey plant grows on rocky slopes, blooming in June and July.
The election results are in from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and progressive candidates continued a trend that began in 2009. In Bernalillo County, Karen Dunning won with three times the votes of Pat McCraw. The Pueblo of Sandia’s Derrick Lente, now also a state representative, soundly defeated Orlando Lucero. And Bernalillo County’s Joaquín Baca ran unopposed. The closest race in the district occurred in Socorro County, where Valeria Moore beat out James Lee Martin by just ten votes.