Proper fire funding continues to elude Congress

On Sept. 14, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue officially declared that the 2017 fire season was the Forest Service’s most expensive ever, with costs topping $2 billion. Perdue noted that fire suppression, which accounted for just 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995, now takes up over 55 percent. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention,” he wrote in a press release, “because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.”
This story originally appeared at High Country News. The Forest Service’s fire funding is subject to a budget cap based on the average cost of wildfire suppression over the last 10 years.

In New Mexico, demographic shifts have helped job growth

It’s a typical Monday in this dusty New Mexico town 30 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. In a brightly lit classroom at Deming High School, Francisco Manuel Garcia Ruiz, a math teacher recruited from Spain, speaks in rapid Spanish to a group of sophomores. In a room across campus, Annabelle Carbajal, the district’s migrant student coordinator, looks out at the faces of students whose parents work in the nearby fields, telling them she’s there to help. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. This story is part of the State of Change project, produced by High Country News partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

National Park Service survey finds widespread harassment

Nearly 40 percent of National Park Service employees experienced some form of harassment over a 12-month period, according to long-awaited survey results released by the agency. The survey assessed sexual harassment, hostile work environment and gender discrimination in the nation’s parks, monuments and recreation areas. About 19 percent of respondents reported gender-based harassment; 10 percent said they encountered sexual harassment; and .95 percent said they experienced sexual assault. Some employees reported harassment based on their race, age or disability as well. About 50 percent of the Park Service’s permanent employees responded to the survey; a second survey, aimed at seasonal employees, is still in the works. On Oct.

Gina McCarthy holds out hope on climate policy

Gina McCarthy was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, starting in July 2013. Under her leadership, the agency undertook an ambitious climate change agenda, curbing emissions from vehicles and working toward the Clean Power Plan, an effort to further cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Many of those regulations are now being undone by her successor, Scott Pruitt, who as attorney general of Oklahoma initiated multiple challenges to EPA regulations. High Country News recently caught up with McCarthy in Lander, Wyoming, as she prepared to address a crowd at the 50th anniversary of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. High Country News: In terms of their impact on Western states and Alaska, what accomplishments at the EPA were you most proud of, and which of these are most threatened by the current administration? Gina McCarthy: Well at this point, I’d say that the current administration is really relooking and reconsidering just about every decision that’s been made under the Obama administration, and I think they’ve made it clear that they want to rethink all the climate efforts.

Coal. Guns. Freedom?

I saw these three words on a little sticker affixed, discordantly, to the window of a car in a small Colorado town. It struck me as funny at first: Coal and guns being elevated to the status of platonic ideals or, even more loftily, the refrain of a bad country song. All it was missing was Jesus, beer and Wrangler butts. A few days later, though, as I sat on a desert promontory overlooking northwestern New Mexico, the sticker didn’t seem so funny. As the sunrise spilled across sagebrush plains and irrigated cornfields, it also illuminated a narrow band of yellow-brown clouds on the horizon.

Trump administration erodes environmental protections

The Trump administration has been steadily undoing environmental protections established by the Obama administration. Rules designed to fight climate change have been especially targeted. Many such efforts are still underway because the Administrative Procedure Act and other laws require agencies to go through a lengthy process to rescind or rewrite a rule. That includes drafting a proposal, weighing costs and benefits, seeking public comment and submitting major rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. Executive orders and other policies are easier to rescind.

Why the Bundy crew keeps winning in court

Last month a Las Vegas jury acquitted two men — Ricky Lovelien of Montana and Steven Stewart of Idaho — for their parts in the 2014 armed standoff between the federal government and supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy. The jury found co-defendants Eric Parker and Scott Drexler not guilty of most charges but deadlocked on some. When it comes to trying the Bundys and their supporters, federal prosecutors now have a terrible record, winning just two convictions after two trials of six defendants in Nevada this year. Last fall, Bundy’s sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five others were acquitted for leading an armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. The recent acquittals in the Nevada case raise big questions for prosecutors.

At Bundy Ranch trial, questions on guns and violence

As the nation reels from violent protests that left one person dead and 19 others injured in Charlottesville, Virginia, a trial of Cliven Bundy’s armed supporters in Nevada is raising thorny issues around the threat of violence and its relationship to free speech. Defendants in the first of three Bunkerville trials, which wrapped up this week, have described their actions as being protected by the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution. But prosecutors say the trial is about men who used the threat of violence to defy law enforcement, and that the law does not protect people who intimidate, threaten or assault others. During the six-week trial of Eric Parker, Scott Drexler, Steven Stewart and Ricky Lovelien, the prosecutors and defense team painted starkly different pictures of the events of April 12, 2014, when armed supporters of the recalcitrant rancher Cliven Bundy stopped the Bureau of Land Management from seizing cattle grazing illegally in southern Nevada. The defense characterized the Bunkerville standoff as a peaceful protest in which no one was hurt: Bundy supporters didn’t actually use the rifles they carried, but had them in case the BLM or National Park Service opened fire.

Interior’s new sage grouse recommendations at a glance

The Interior Department has finished a sweeping review of 98 West-wide sage grouse management plans, part of a broader effort to examine what President Donald Trump deems potential barriers to energy extraction on federal public lands. The review, which took place across the 10 Western states with existing sage grouse plans, ended with a contentious report filed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. A panel of federal officials authored the report, which was released to the public on Monday. The report suggests scaling back protections for the imperiled bird, in an effort to give states (and likely industry) more flexibility. Some governors and industry groups say the recommendations open the door to more development.

Legal scholars dispute whether monuments are permanent

No president has ever abolished a national monument, and it has been more than 50 years since a president shrank one. Nor has Congress revoked any significant monuments. The high regard given these special places is part of what makes President Donald Trump’s order to review all large monuments designated since 1996 so extraordinary. Courts have never decided whether a president has the legal authority to change or undo a designated monument, and now this uncertainty has sparked a clash of legal titans. A multitude of legal experts — including 121 law professors — argue that presidents lack the power to alter or revoke monuments.