What will Zinke do with the extra $2.5 billion in his budget?

Since his confirmation in March 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s push to trim the department he oversees while opening more public lands to energy development has been lauded by Republicans and denounced by Democrats. When it came to the budget, however, both sides agreed on one thing: No big cuts. In the omnibus federal budget, which recently passed with solid bipartisan support, Congress decided the Department of Interior was worth nearly $2.5 billion more than the administration had proposed. The Trump administration had proposed substantial budget cuts at a time of record visitations to public lands, billions of dollars of maintenance backlogs and some of the lowest staffing levels in decades at agencies like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. But in the appropriations bill signed March 23, the Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM each received more than a quarter billion dollars more than requested, and the National Park Service got almost $650 million more than the secretary asked for.

New app helps document environmental damage on public lands

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Recreational visitors to public lands have a new tool to document any damage they see and upload their report to a database. Brian Sybert is executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. He said the new mobile app, TerraTRUTH, is needed because public lands are at risk now that the Trump administration has begun easing protective regulations to allow expanded oil and gas drilling. He said hikers or other outdoor users can help track damages they see by downloading the app. “And then once that’s downloaded onto your phone, you can get out onto the ground in national monuments, national conservation lands and document, through use of the app, things that might be negative impacts on the ground,” Sybert said.

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.

State moves to update oil and gas permits, while on the federal level, BLM cuts public protest period

The New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) Air Quality Bureau will host a hearing on Monday about proposed changes to construction permits for oil and gas facilities. The process kicked off in the summer of 2016, and the public comment period closed at the end of January. According to the department, the general construction permit codifies air protection rules for industry to “streamline the application process and to provide consistency in the oversight process.”

The issue is the latest in a line of moves that environmental groups say reverse protections for people and natural resources. Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that if finalized, the changes would make New Mexico’s new oil and gas construction permits among the weakest in the United States. “This is especially egregious when you consider the methane hotspot in the San Juan Basin and the importance of that issue in New Mexico,” Goldstein said.

NM Environment Review: Copper Flat mine, Dunn’s demand, Los Alamos fee and more

Earlier this month, we wrote about a proposed copper mine near Hillsboro. In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for how the New Mexico Copper Corporation’s  proposed open pit mine, mill, waste rock pile, stockpile and other facilities might affect things like local wildlife, water supplies and vegetation. Many local residents and downstream farmers as well as New Mexico’s two U.S. senators pointed out problems with the analysis. At that time, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission also said that the BLM didn’t adequately consider the project’s impacts on New Mexico’s ability to meet its Rio Grande water delivery requirements to Texas. (A big deal since New Mexico is currently being sued by Texas in the U.S. Supreme Court over those water deliveries.)

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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.

BLM delays methane rule, while EPA plans ‘red team-blue team’ debates over climate change

On Thursday, the Trump administration continued to make its priorities clear when it comes to industry, the environment and climate change. Just days after President Donald Trump and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary announced changes to national monuments, Zinke’s agency delayed plans to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. On Thursday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management published a rule to delay implementation of the Obama-era requirement until January 2019. Methane, a greenhouse gas, contributes to the warming of the planet. It is also a marketable product—the same natural gas many people use to cook with and heat their homes.

Defense wants ‘domestic terrorism’ out of Bundy case

When the third in a series of trials over the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada gets underway, prosecutors will be able to use testimony from an expert in extremism and domestic terrorism, the judge in the case has ruled. Defense attorneys for one of the accused Bundy supporters, Ryan Payne, of Montana, had sought to keep much of the federal agent’s testimony out of the case, saying his expertise on militias and terrorism would prejudice the jury. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. Jury selection for the trial—which includes Payne, Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan—begins next week. The men are facing a raft of charges related to the armed confrontation, near Bunkerville, Nevada, which prevented federal agents from confiscating cattle that had been illegally grazing on public land for decades.

Park Service group to feds: ‘Pendulum is swinging too far to the side of development’

Retired National Park Service employees spoke with reporters today about the impacts of oil and gas development on some national parks—particularly from adjacent lands overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Coalition to Protect America’s Parks sent a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, expressing concern over the “alarming” number of oil and gas proposals near parks and what they see as overall efforts by the department to reduce protections for national parks in order to encourage oil and gas drilling. “As former land managers, we understand the need to balance competing priorities,” the former NPS employees wrote. “But we fear the pendulum is swinging too far to the side of development.”

The coalition represents 1,400 retired, former and current National Park Service employees. The letter to Zinke cites concerns about six parks in particular, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the energy-rich San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico.

Deadline looms for NM comments on oil and gas methane rule rollbacks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico residents have until Wednesday to submit comments on stricter standards for methane leaks from new and modified oil and gas operations. The tougher rules were approved under the Obama administration, but they’re among those the Trump administration has promised to roll back. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has argued that the oil and gas industry didn’t have enough input on the new standards aimed at preventing air pollution. New Mexico rancher Don Schreiber said he opposes any rollback. He attended dozens of public meetings and said hundreds of thousands of comments were already submitted supporting the changes.