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.

Will Trump put a ‘hired gun’ for ranchers in top BLM post?

Nearly a year after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the agency that manages 246 million acres and that is critical to the functioning of the American West still has no permanent leadership. In November, Brian Steed, the former chief of staff for Utah State Rep. Chris Stewart, R, became the third person in 11 months to temporarily take on the duties of Bureau of Land Management acting director. One potential pick for the director job is Karen Budd-Falen — a long-time antagonist of the bureau. In other administrations, her background would make her an unlikely pick. In the Trump administration, she’s a contender.

For endangered species, politics replace science

Prairie dogs are complicated creatures. In addition to confounding property owners by burrowing on land slated for shopping malls or horse pastures, they sometimes defy accepted biological principles. Unlike many social animals, instead of dispersing as they age, prairie dogs stick close to home, preferring to live cooperatively with relatives. In fact, prairie dogs are actually more likely to immigrate after their kin disappear. And at least one prairie dog expert thinks the socially complex animals speak a real language.

It’s not only trees — wildfires imperil water too

The Fourmile Canyon Fire, sparked by a backyard burn west of Boulder, Colorado, in 2010, caused $220 million in damage and destroyed 168 homes. It also scorched nearly a quarter of a watershed that supplies water to the nearby community of Pine Brook Hills. The problems didn’t end there: Long after the blaze was put out, intense rainstorms periodically washed sediment and other particles downstream, disrupting water treatment and forcing the local water district to stop pulling water from Fourmile Creek, leaving it reliant upon water already collected in its reservoir. “The water coming down Fourmile Creek would get so dirty that we simply would shut down moving any water (from the creek),” for days or even weeks, says district manager Robert de Haas. “If we hadn’t built the reservoir” — in 2006 — “we’d have been in big trouble.”

This story first appeared at High Country News.

What Trump’s Supreme Court pick holds for Indian Country

During the Senate hearings that put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court this year, Democrats made it clear they were leery of his conservative judicial record. Gorsuch was confirmed in April along party lines, and no Western Democrat voted in his favor. But Gorsuch has a strong background in Indian law and a record of recognizing tribal sovereignty and self-determination, and, those concerns notwithstanding, his nomination may well represent a potential positive development on big cases in Indian Country. In a court dominated by East Coast justices, Gorsuch is from the West, the source of many Indian law cases. He grew up in Denver, where he later spent 10 years as a circuit court judge.

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.