New EPA head has long history of ties to mining interests

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal and uranium mining lobbyist, has been named the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, after the abrupt resignation of Scott Pruitt. Pruitt announced his decision on Thursday, amid a series of ethics investigations into his improper use of taxpayer money and penchant for using employees to conduct personal errands. Wheeler has made a career out of representing fossil fuel interests and rolling back environmental regulations. His relationships with senior officials from the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy, his lobbying background and deep ties to polluting industries have some people worried that his influence could extend beyond the parameters of the EPA. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Zinke grilled about edited science report

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast. House Democrats grilled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this week about National Park Service officials deleting all references to the human cause of climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report. Zinke told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that he and other political appointees at the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, have not seen the draft. And he repeated a vow that he will not censor scientific reports.

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.

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.

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.

Interior Department mired in investigations

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has brushed off criticism over his expensive use of private and military planes for travel, telling conservative supporters that the whole issue is just “a little B.S.”

But several watchdog agencies, congressional Democrats and legal experts believe it’s more than that. After only eight months in office, Zinke’s taxpayer-funded travel, meetings with political donors and other actions have led to several official probes. “We’ve been tracking Zinke and what he’s been doing at the Department of Interior,” says Daniel Stevens, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign for Accountability. “It led us to look into whether he’s violated any rules or laws.”

This story originally appeared at High Country News. In August, Interior’s Office of Inspector General — which investigates reports of government corruption — opened a preliminary investigation into phone calls Zinke made to Alaskan Republican Sens.

Scandals pile up for Interior secretary

In recent weeks, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has taken a lot of heat for his decisions. Conservation groups have lambasted him over the secretiveness of his department’s monuments review. The final review has yet to be made public, though a draft of the report leaked to the press in September. Conservationists have also critiqued his moves to undo years of collaborative planning for sage grouse protection. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

In monuments report, a skewed view of protections

In late August, Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted a report detailing the results of his review of 27 national monuments to the White House. Zinke’s suggestions, kept secret at the time, were recently made public by the Washington Post. The report calls for boundary changes at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which straddles the border between Oregon and California; and looser restrictions on activities at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte National Monuments, both in New Mexico. It also proposes trims or changes to allowed activities at three marine monuments and one monument in Maine. This story originally appeared on High Country News and is reprinted with permission. Monuments are intended to protect significant landmarks, structures, or “objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal land under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Despite public support, Zinke recommends changes to NM’s national monuments

National media outlets released a leaked copy of the national monument review submitted by U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the White House in August. Screenshots of the document, labeled as “Draft Deliberative – Not for Distribution,” were released Sunday night. The 19-page report Zinke sent to President Trump includes recommendations about the two national monuments up for review in New Mexico, Rio Grande del Norte near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces. Sign up for our weekly environmental email here. Widely expected to recommend changes to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Zinke’s review also calls for “amendments” to Rio Grande del Norte.

Federal moves on wildfires, shortening environmental studies + upcoming public meetings

On Tuesday, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed his agency to “adopt more aggressive practices” to prevent and combat wildfires. We’ll keep you posted on what that actually means, and what it will mean for New Mexico. E&E news reported this week that Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order restricting the length of environmental studies to 150 pages or less, or less than 300 pages for “unusually complex projects.” According to the story, “More broadly, the memo gives Bernhardt the potentially far-reaching responsibility for overseeing the department’s efforts to clear away ‘potential impediments’ and ‘streamline’ the environmental review process.” Before claiming the Number Two position at Interior, Bernhardt was a lobbyist whose clients included mining and energy companies and the nation’s largest irrigation district, California’s Westlands Water District. He represented Westlands in four different lawsuits against the department where he now works. The Associated Press reports that the New Mexico Department of Transportation is putting up warning signs along the stretch of Interstate-10 near the border with New Mexico that’s become increasingly prone to dust storms, putting drivers at risk.