Days after a highly anticipated report was delivered to President Donald Trump on the future of 27 national monuments, New Mexico politicians and conservation groups already are threatening lawsuits even though the report remains shrouded in secrecy. After delivering the report on Friday, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to release it. Attorney Susan Jane Brown with the Western Environmental Law Center is confident the courts eventually will conclude the Federal Land Policy and Management Act forbids the president from making changes to the monuments. “In terms of an administration that claims it wants to cut red tape and make things easier for the public to utilize their public lands, all this process is going to do is result in enduring litigation,” she states. The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte national monuments in New Mexico made the original list for possible alterations.
The U.S. Department of the Interior issued a press release about Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent visit to the Sabinoso Wilderness in northern New Mexico—and a land transfer that would allow the federal government to open up a “landlocked” wilderness area to the public. The announcement left many involved with the issue confused. That’s because the secretary didn’t say he was denying or approving the land transfer. Rather, he said he “intend(s) to finalize the process to consider whether to accept” the donation of 3,595 acres of private land. In other words, he would start the process of making a decision.
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Zinke is visiting New Mexico this week as part of his review of national monuments throughout the country, including New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments. Zinke will visit northern New Mexico—but not Rio Grande del Norte itself— Saturday with U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall. The Interior head’s schedule primarily focuses on southern New Mexico and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. That has led to speculation the secretary will not order a review of Rio Grande del Norte near Taos, but will call for changes to the 496,000-acre monument in southern New Mexico. President Barack Obama designated the monument near Las Cruces in 2014 after a decade of planning and public meetings.
Today is the final day to share your thoughts about national monuments as part of a review by the federal government. Earlier this spring, the U.S. Department of the Interior solicited public comment on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of monuments larger than 100,000 acres that were designated from 1996 onward. This includes two monuments in New Mexico, the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in the southern part of the state. The review was spurred by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s opposition to national monuments, including President Barack Obama’s 2016 designation of Bears Ears and President Bill Clinton’s 1996 designation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. “We’re now getting something done that people thought would never get done, and I’m doing it in honor of you guys,” President Donald Trump said in April during the signing ceremony for the order directing Zinke to review the monuments.
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.
One week after announcing his candidacy for New Mexico State Land Commissioner, Garrett VeneKlasen received a “cease and desist order” from the current commissioner, Republican Aubrey Dunn. The order came from Dunn’s son, Blair, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate as a Republican last fall and helped run Gary Johnson’s last gubernatorial campaign. Blair Dunn sent the order to the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, of which VeneKlasen is the executive director, and eight media outlets including NM Political Report. The order called political statements made by VeneKlasen, a Democrat, untrue and misleading. It references a radio ad from VeneKlasen’s campaign accusing Aubrey Dunn of using the office for personal gain.
As we wrote earlier today, fire protection officers were busy keeping an eye on New Mexico’s national forests over the three-day weekend. Related story: Fire protection officers strain to keep up with holiday crowds
This morning, the numbers came in: In the Jemez District of the Santa Fe National Forest, officers found 19 abandoned campfires. They found 13 on Monday alone. That brings the total this year to 49. Across the entire Santa Fe National Forest, officers found 41 abandoned or unattended campfires over Memorial Day weekend.
While thousands of people poured into the mountains to enjoy the three-day weekend, federal employees hustled around the forests, trying to keep visitors safe, protect special areas and prevent wildfires. It’s not an easy job. Like many public lands, national forests in New Mexico and across the country have experienced a jump in visitors in recent years. Fire Protection Officer Ron Gallegos has worked full-time for the U.S Forest Service for 37 years. Just shy of 60 years old, he grew up spending time in the area where he now works, the Jemez District of the Santa Fe National Forest, and fishing the Rio Cebolla.
Garrett VeneKlasen announced plans to run for New Mexico Commissioner for State Lands on Friday morning. “We are in a state of crisis in New Mexico, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that,” said VeneKlasen. He is currently executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, which represents sportsmen and women across the state and is focused on the conservation of water, lands and wildlife. “I was tired of wringing my hands and complaining about how things are run in that office, and I have some really good and visionary new ideas.”
The State Land Office administers 9 million acres of surface lands and 13 million acres of subsurface mineral rights. Those lands are managed for beneficiaries of the state land trust, which include schools, universities and hospitals. Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, is the incumbent and can run for a second term next year.
If you saw this week’s wrap up of New Mexico’s most important environment news (which you definitely should read) you’ll have noticed a picture of the Four Corners Power Plant from the 1970s. That photo and thousands more are from the Documerica Project. In the 1970s, the brand-new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hired freelance photographers to document pollution, everyday life and the agency’s activities. The U.S. National Archives digitized more than 15,000 photographs from the series and included them in their online catalog. Many of the images show how air pollution was affecting cities and illustrate the unhealthy environmental conditions that low-income and communities of color live with on a daily basis. There are photos of coal miners and a discouragingly-contaminated Baltimore Harbor in 1973 and from Louisville in 1972, when thousands of people had to be evacuated after a barge carrying liquid chlorine threatened to spill.