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To Fight a Plague, Local Governments Lean on Trust. Could They Lose It?

Felicity Barringer & Francisco L. Nodarse
Dec 3 2020

To keep the virus under control and health-care resources within capacity, counties and towns rely on trust and try to cajole residents to comply with mandates, rather than punish them for flouting rules.

Jeff Kuhr, a public health official in rural Mesa County, Colorado, spoke to a live briefing on Facebook in the spring of 2020.

Prime Time for Local Governments Jeff Kuhr, a public health official in rural Mesa County, Colorado, spoke to a live briefing on Facebook in the spring of 2020.   Mesa County Public Health

By Felicity Barringer and Francisco L. Nodarse

Back in March, when the COVID-19 virus first exploded and the federal government abdicated its role while state governments gyrated through an ever-shifting series of mandates, rural counties found themselves on the front lines of a confusing war. To keep infections under control and health-care resources within capacity, counties and towns relied heavily on an unofficial and almost intangible resource: the bond of trust between citizens and the government closest to them.

In the new upsurge of cases, they still depend on trust. From California’s Central Valley to Colorado’s Western Slope and Idaho’s Teton Valley, this reservoir of trust has some cracks, but endures. As infections climb, small communities are crucibles of tension and turmoil, riven because residents inhabit two different worlds. In one, the virus is no worse than the flu; shutdowns and mask mandates show government overreach. In the other, COVID-19 is a fearsome plague to be contained by any means necessary.

The most common response: elastic enforcement. Cajole people to comply with controls. Don’t insist. “The hardest thing is enforcement,” said Jose Sigala, mayor of Tulare, a city of 67,000 people in California’s agricultural heartland. “Nobody wants to be the bad cop. Cops don’t want to be the bad cop. City officials don’t want to be the bad cop.” Governors in California and Colorado establish tiers of restrictions based on the outbreak’s local severity, but it is up to locals to enforce them. Or not.

A simple premise guides Matt Lewis, the sheriff in western Colorado’s Mesa County: “not to criminalize a public health emergency.” With low caseloads and few deaths, his county sailed through the first months of the pandemic. That changed dramatically in the past month. “We went from six deaths to 25 in no time,” said Jeff Kuhr, the executive director of the Mesa County Health Office, which serves a population of 154,000 in an area where dry ground rises up against angular mountains. As December began, the number of deaths had climbed to 63.

In Three Rural Western Counties, a Varying COVID-19 Picture

Map of American West with three rural counties in Colorado, Idaho, and California highlighted and case counts.

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Surging cases “mean the work we have to do increases tremendously,” Lewis said. “We need to be an example of following health department rules. We need to be the calm, steadfast force in our community as it goes through mounting fear.” When a local CrossFit gym stayed open in defiance of state orders, it was the sheriff whom the county’s health office called in. As Lewis recalls,“We sat with the owner and said, ‘Let’s find a happy medium.’” The solution: members continued using their key cards, the owners put up a sign limiting use to 10 people, and video cameras monitor compliance.

“I took the gym owner to the health department and was being a peacekeeper,” said Lewis. Facing defiance from the gym or a local amusement park, Kuhr, the health officer, would say to himself, “‘Is this the battle you want to choose?’….Public health is physical, mental, and economic health. I don’t want to be seen as part of a pattern of shutting people down.”

Code enforcement has always been discretionary. As John Lollis, the city manager in Porterville, a city of 60,000 in Tulare County, said, “Even before COVID, getting compliance without penalizing folks” was the norm. “Whether it’s building codes, fire codes or the municipal code, our intent is not to red-tag you.”

Tulare County’s sheriff, Mike Boudreaux, lives by that ethic. “We’ve spent years developing our community trust,” he said. “But it’s very difficult for law enforcement to continue that trust, if I’m going to go out and cite people for not wearing a mask. That’s not law enforcement’s role.” He added, “We go to school with these families, play soccer with these families, go to church, to stores, to movie theaters. You have to have the discretionary ability to enforce or not enforce for the overall good.”

Early in the pandemic, he said, “I went to the health department and said, ‘How many masks can you give me?’” Boudreaux then told his deputies to hand them out. “We put out an informational pamphlet in Spanish and English,” he said. “We told people, ‘Here’s the importance of this. Here’s a free mask.’... At the end of the day, COVID, we hope, goes away completely. Our community is going to be working with us forever.”

Who Makes the Rules? Where Does Accountability Rest?

Local officials ran for office expecting to referee zoning disputes, trash pickups or building codes. “Nobody gets into office and expects to have a pandemic. This is new territory for everybody,” said Amy Shuklian, vice chair of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. “We’ve been frustrated with everything coming at us differently all the time” as state orders were revised. The county has 466,000 people, many of them Latinx agricultural workers who often live in poor communities. By Dec. 1, COVID-19 had killed 312 people.

A core frustration for her and others has been the handoff of responsibility from higher authorities. Bob Heneage, a commissioner in Idaho’s Teton County said, “Harry Truman once said, ‘The buck stops here.’ Now you’ve turned that concept on its head – we’ve got a trickle-down buck that stops at local government.” Teton County hugs the border with affluent Jackson, Wyoming; its population is about 12,000. As December began, it had had two deaths from COVID-19.

On Oct. 26, as statewide case numbers began to soar, eventually passing 100,000, Idaho Gov, Brad Little, complained that local officials, to whom he had handed responsibility, had failed. “The eventual shift to a localized approach was the right thing to do, but it’s not worked as well as it should, because the virus is relentless, and in some parts of the state there simply has been insufficient effort to protect lives,” Little said.

A sign greets travelers entering Victor, Idaho, about 3 miles east of the Wyoming border.

A sign greets travelers entering Victor, Idaho, about 3 miles east of the Wyoming border.   User “Daniela” via Flickr

In an earlier interview, Mayor Will Frohlich of Victor, a Teton County town of 2,400, pointed out, “Once a decision goes to a local level, that’s very dangerous… When you put 100 percent of the responsibility on local officials with extremely limited bandwidth, that’s when things start to fall apart.”

Victor’s politics are more purple than those of red areas nearby.“There’s definitely more buy-in than less buy-in” to restrictions, Frohlich said. A local mask mandate, he added, prompted spontaneous support. “They say: ‘Thank you for doing this;’ ‘You shouldn’t have to be doing this.’” Is there opposition? “Absolutely.” This split is common around the rural West. “As a city government, we found ourselves in a no-win situation. The city council is trying to ride the middle, and that makes no-one happy,” said Randy Groom, the city manager of Visalia. “Either they want nothing or they want everything.”

At a May 19 meeting of Tulare supervisors, one Porterville resident, said, “It would be great if you guys could declare yourselves a sanctuary county from the governor.” By a 3-to-2 margin, the board then voted to defy Governor Gavin Newsom’s restrictions, adopting less rigorous mandates. Shuklian, the vice-chair of the board, was one of the two who opposed defying the state. Later she said, “I’ve never gotten so many emails. They were thanking me for not taking that vote.”

Who Trusts Whom

Public health authorities set up a testing site at the Mesa County fairgrounds in March.

Public health authorities set up a testing site at the Mesa County fairgrounds in March.   Mesa County Public Health

How does the increasingly fraught relationship with constituents compare with normal times? Attendance at public meetings has grown, as have protests and sharp emails.

Sometimes pre-existing relationships helped officials navigate challenging conditions. Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County’s Board of Health, and Diane Schwenke, the head of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, both have roots in Nebraska. They enjoy Cornhusker football games together. When the virus hit, Schwenke joined a team of health professionals and law-enforcement officials that Kuhr headed.

“Because of our relationship, we started collaborating on reopening plans,” she said. Last summer, “We were the second [Colorado] county granted a variance [by the governor’s office] so we could start the reopening process. We were allowed to open restaurants to in-room dining.” She added, “There needed to be strong channels of communication to the business community specifically. We had a relationship before, so it was really easy to begin the dialogue.”

In Teton County, collaboration with local mayors and health professionals framed the commissioners’ design of COVID-19 protocols. The eight-county regional health board was not proactive, said Cindy Riegel, a county commissioner. When the pandemic began, “I would say, yes, there was trust in local officials … because we were doing something,” she said. “There’s trust issues everywhere,” added Riegel, who pushed for restrictions. “A lot of people … were just confused why we didn’t have a mask order in place” as vacationers arrived in June.

Downtown Driggs, Idaho.

Downtown Driggs, Idaho.   Ken Lund via Flickr

In early July, the Eastern Idaho towns of Victor and Driggs put in mask mandates. Teton County commissioners sought to follow. The regional health authority, Eastern Idaho Public Health, preempted them with a regional order. When it was rescinded in three weeks, the county put in its own. “The majority of people in our community support mask requirements,” Riegel said. But not all. “I got an email saying: ‘Who do you think you are taking over the job of the public health district and enacting your own ordinance and going against what they are recommending?’”

John Lollis sees an emotional undercurrent in such attacks. “The things that gave you joy, and the freedoms that we had, we don’t have now… Anger and mistrust of government is about the things that relate to us personally. Some will say it’s about wearing a face covering. But the real core of it is: ‘I can’t do the things I’m used to doing, the things that make my life worth living.’”

Local Governments Have Always Had More Support than Distant Ones

Randy Groom in Visalia, Tulare County’s biggest city with 137,000 people, said, “People absolutely don’t trust the state, whether the governor or appointed officials. They say, ‘They’re messing with us, driving the economy into the ground, going to kill us. Local officials may push us more than we want, but they get us.’”

Recent polls on trust in local government had small sample sizes, but did support its importance. In an Economist/YouGov poll in late September, 52 percent of westerners rated local government handling of the virus excellent or good — more than in other regions. By contrast, only 29 percent of westerners rated the federal government’s handling good or excellent; 47 percent felt the same about state efforts.

An Edelman “Trust Barometer” poll of businesses in September found about 28 percent of respondents in the West felt decisions to return to work should be based on state and local guidelines — more than any other region of the country. (In the South it was 17 percent; in the Northeast and Midwest 23 percent.) Westerners believed state and local guidance was more reliable than decisions by managers or workers.

Measuring Trust in the Government Response to Covid-19

An Edelman “Trust Barometer” poll of businesses in September found about 28 percent of respondents in the West felt decisions to return to work should be based on state and local guidelines — more than any other region of the country.Click the headers to sort.

“On what basis should businesses and organizations in your country decide when it is time for employees to return to the workplace or remain in the workplace if you’ve already returned?”

Click to view in a new window.

Source: Edelman Trust Barometer

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Deborah Gilk of the UCLA School of Public Health examined how inconsistent messages affect community trust in a 2007 study. “Multiple consistent messages are usually more effective than single messages or inconsistent messages,” she wrote. But as COVID-19 knowledge grew, messages changed. “We all like lives of certainty, and we’ve never had as much uncertainty as we have now,” said Lollis, the Porterville city manager.

In Visalia, inconsistent approaches to COVID-19 mean paradoxical sights everywhere. “Things have reverted to the Prohibition era,” Groom said. “Everything’s turned into a speakeasy. You can still get a drink or a haircut, but you have to go in the back door. I would see people crossing the street in karate outfits, but not going out the front door” of a “closed” studio.

Evaluating Risk

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux greets cars at a “Mask & Food Giveaway.

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux greets cars at a “Mask & Food Giveaway.   Tulare County Sheriff’s Office

Risk perception is a key to the political cleavage. As Visalia’s Groom explains: “Here’s what people are saying to themselves... ‘I don’t know anybody that has been hospitalized or died, I know people who are positive and I know people who got a little sick, but I don’t think it’s that serious.’”

Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, said, “there’s a certain sentiment around here that this is just a political game. I’ve heard statements like, ‘It will all be over in November.’” Said Jose Sigala, mayor of the city of Tulare, “The skepticism is generated from President Trump on down. If the president doesn’t worry about it, why should I?”

Sheriff Boudreaux does know someone who died of COVID-19; he won’t tolerate “flagrant disregard” for restrictions. He warns homeowners hosting large parties to stop. “Don’t gather 200 people at a football game and expect me to look the other way….I still have to look out for the community and their belief system, but also … I have to look out for the reality of the people I represent” and try to protect their health, he said.

Tulare County’s school superintendent, Tim Hire, thinks news stories exaggerate risk. “One thing I struggle with is the media’s influence on this pandemic,” he said. “I think we report in such a way that it creates drama, it creates fear.” He said businesses should be able to choose what safety measures to enforce, and patrons should be able to choose the places they feel comfortable. “We’ve taken away people’s ability to choose.”

The Role of Science

The Central Valley towns of Exeter, Farmersville, and Visalia seen from the east.

The Central Valley towns of Exeter, Farmersville, and Visalia seen from the east.   Mike Trimble via Flickr

In Visalia, Groom said, “I think city council members believe the facts and the science,” but “they are unwilling to irritate their constituents who either don’t believe the facts or believe it’s overly politicized. They aren’t as compelled by people on the side of science.”

How do Tulare citizens approach science? Selectively. Farmers, after all, depend on scientific findings to increase their yields. “We have some farmers out here, they farm by spreadsheet and science,” said Fukuda of the Tulare Irrigation District. That’s not their approach to COVID-19. “The media played it so much as a political thing that people responded, right or wrong, depending on what political party they are in.”

In the summer, an Idaho state legislator made his distrust of scientific expertise clear. In August, as several lawmakers advocated for stripping public health districts of authority to close schools, State Sen. Steve Thayn from Gem County, near the western edge of the state, said, “Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach and I’m very fearful of an elitist approach….I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism, especially when you say, ‘Well, we’re doing it for the public good.’” The measure he supported died.

Local officials like Bob Heneage, the Teton County commissioner, feel science must be a bedrock for decisions. “When I first got elected, I really thought most of what I was going to be dealing with were typical local issues -- land-use planning, affordable housing, all quality-of-life and health, safety and welfare issues. But not life-and-death issues.” Now, he said, “we are forced into making decisions that ultimately will be life or death for somebody... To not base decisions on science? I can’t imagine that.”

He remains troubled by his board’s role. “For us to attempt to address a global pandemic at the local level is so completely absurd,” he said. “It’s trying to put out a raging fire with a squirt gun.”

What will become of trust in local governments? “I don’t see that changing,” said Lollis. “In my experience, you can come to a council meeting and you can talk to the council. In other levels of government, that [kind of contact] is limited.” He added: “Talk about trust. Is someone willing to meet with you, listen to you, dialogue about your concerns and interests?” Riegel, who was reelected to the Teton County commission last month, thinks the pandemic gave people a close-up look at local government, enhancing trust.

If they are right, when the era of COVID-19 ends, trust between local officials and their citizens may be weakened, but is likely to survive.


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Edited by Geoff McGhee.


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Federal Subsidies Accelerate the Draining of the Ogallala Aquifer. For decades, farmers have overdrawn the groundwater from the nation’s largest aquifer, which covers parts of eight states. New research shows that state and federal policies encourage the depletion, which now threatens drinking water supplies. Federal subsidies increased 65% in 2020, partly in payments to cover the pain of losses from trade wars. The subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, creating a vicious cycle of overproduction that requires intensive use of water. The Counter

New Mexico Ranchers Face Historic Drought, forcing some ranchers to sell their animals as there will not be enough grass to support the animals through the winter. The state is facing patches of extreme and exceptional drought, compounded by several summers of record heat and little rainfall. The pandemic is exacerbating the impact of the drought by hurting meat-packing plants and closing restaurants. Albuquerque Journal

Researchers Still Don’t Know Why So Many Birds Died This Fall. Thousands of bird deaths have been recorded across the western U.S. and Mexico. Researchers say the mass die-offs are unusual, finding piles of dead birds in one spot. It is unclear whether these incidents across the country are related or not, and scientists have posited causes ranging from extreme weather events and wildfire smoke to drought. Sierra Club Salt Lake Tribune

Placer County, Calif. Is America’s Riskiest Place for Wildfires. Computer modeling conducted by analytics firm Climate Check shows 17 counties, mostly clustered in the West, face the country’s greatest wildfire risk. Experts say development and population growth in remote areas and on the edge of cities, creating increased growth in the wildland urban interface, is responsible for much of the increased risk. E&E News

Congress Seeks Answers on Alaskan Mine Project. Democrats in the House of Representatives have launched an investigation into the Pebble Mine project, seeking to determine whether the developers misrepresented its plans to Alaskan Natives and the government. House leaders raised concerns that the developers privately planned a much larger and longer project while downplaying the mine to the public. If completed, Pebble Mine would be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: November 17, 2020

Hoping to Lock In Drilling Rights on Alaska’s Pristine Coastal Plain, the outgoing Trump administration is asking oil and gas firms to select the places they hope to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The idea is to ensure a lease sale in the wilderness area of nearly 1.6 million acres can occur before the inauguration of a longtime opponent, President-Elect Joe Biden. Washington Post

Federal Judge Says Interior Department Ignored Climate Concerns in granting new Wyoming oil and gas leases. The judge blocked the move and called on federal regulators to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and conduct its environmental analysis and consider possible negative effects on the climate, before drilling on 282 lease parcels on 300,000 acres of federal land could be occur. Casper Star-Tribune

Canadian Environmental Groups Working With Shell Canada and Others to create a national carbon-offset system. The program is something that the government announced last year but has no built-in deadlines to follow. Shell is one of several oil companies pushing the federal government to create a national greenhouse gas offset program. Carbon offsets allow companies and individuals to invest in environmental projects in order to balance out their own greenhouse gas emissions. CBC

The Lights of Growing Communities Attract Deer. Deer Attract Cougars. Research shows that as light pollution grows, it mimics deer’s preferred dusk and dawn grazing times. But there are still enough dark spots for predators to hide and hunt, according to both satellite data and GPS data from 117 cougars and 486 mule deer in the southwest. Salt Lake Tribune

The Head of California’s Clean Air Agency Could Lead EPA under President-Elect Joe Biden. Mary Nichols has kept California focused on efforts to control greenhouse gases. But at the Air Resources Board, disquieting news surfaced about allegations of persistent slighting of Black employee in the agency, which is opening a discussion of the charges with all employees. Bloomberg News Sacramento Bee

Black Cowboys Reclaim Their History in the West Though historians estimate that as many as one-fourth of the cowboys in the late 1800s were Black, many of them have been erased from the history of the “Wild West.” But this history is remembered by men who gather at a ranch in South Phoenix owned by a retired Black trucker from Indiana. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: November 9, 2020

Gray Wolves To Be Removed From Endangered Species List. While federal wildlife officials hail the move as a success story, showing the wolves’ recovery, some contend that protections should remain in place until the wolf populations are more stable. Others remain hopeful that turning over control to state and tribal governments would better encourage the species’ recovery. The move will have most impact in states in the Mountain West where wolf numbers haven’t rebounded. Boise State Public Radio NPR

U.S., Mexico Sign Rio Grande Water Agreement to settle dispute over Mexico falling short of its treaty obligations to deliver the U.S. water from the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Mexico, which fell behind on its water deliveries for a second consecutive cycle, agreed to transfer to the U.S. ownership of water in two border reservoirs. The agreement will nearly deplete Mexico’s water storage in those reservoirs, potentially harming those who depend on the water, including farmers. If it does not rain, and the reservoirs are not replenished, the U.S. has agreed to provide “humanitarian support” in the form of supplemental water to Mexico. Circle Of Blue

Arizona’s Biggest Utility to Inject Aid Into Indigenous Communities losing or about to lose coal jobs. Arizona Public Service, which has committed itself to providing carbon-free electricity, proposes offering $144 million in aid to three coal-country and tribal communities. For decades, these communities produced the fuel that powered engines pushing Colorado River water uphill, with development and population growth transforming the areas around Phoenix and Tucson. The company will eventually close all its coal-fired plants. The Navajo Generating station closed last year; the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington is scheduled to close by 2031. Arizona Republic

Nevada Voters Seal Renewable Energy Goals in their State Constitution, approving a ballot question to constitutionally mandate that at least 50% of Nevada’s energy comes from renewable sources by 2030. While Nevada’s state legislature passed a bill mandating the same quota in 2019, the ballot question seals the goal in the constitution, preventing subsequent administrations from overturning the target. Vox The New York Times

Dakota Access Pipeline Fate Uncertain After Court Hearing with federal judges appearing to lean in favor of requiring additional environmental review before approval. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is expected to rule in the next four to five months.The judges focused on whether the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental review was adequate, or a closer look is required. A court ruling against the Army Corps of Engineers could make it easier for pipeline opponents — including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Indigenous communities — to halt the pipeline’s progress during an expanded review. Bloomberg

Dealing With Deadbeat Dams Is a Focus for utilities and other companies around the West. The Public Policy Information Center presents a Q & A with an expert at the Cetner of Watershed Sciences at the university of California Davis, looking at what will be done with the aging dams that represent most of the 100,000 dams in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ dam database. PPIC

Newsom to Appoint New Chair of Caliofrnia’s World-Leading Air Board. The California Air Resources Board is the state’s leading policy-making body on climate change and air pollution; its current head, Mary Nichols, is ending her term. The next chair must ensure the state meets its climate targets, including cutting air pollution in Los Angeles and ending sales of new internal-combustion cars. The chair must also win its legal case against federal efforts to end the state’s right to regulate vehicular greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental justice groups seek a chair who will focus on conventional air pollution, believing that policies to further cap-and-trade carbon reduction efforts allow companies to continue polluting. Politico

Department of Homeland Security to Spend Millions on Five Miles of Border Wall in Arizona. The DHS is working to build a wall in Guadalupe Canyon, home to the Chiricahua Apache, in an effort to fulfil President Trump’s campaign promises. Experts contend that the construction will likely have little impact on undocumented immigration into the U.S. The construction could damage a key habitat corridor between northern Mexico and Southwestern U.S. that is frequented by ocelots, black bears and jaguars. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: November 2, 2020

The Weed Invasion of Desert Landscapes Means They Now Burn as never before. The loss of a million Joshua trees in California’s Eastern Mojave Desert this summer foreshadows fire-driven replacement of landcover throughout the West. The invasive, flammable bromes are now the plants that are invading coastal closed-canopy forests. A close-up look at why the how the face of the land is changing, inviting the fires of the future. The Nation

Arizona Regulators Want to Eliminate Carbon-Based Electricity by 2050. The new regulations require that by 2035, half of electric utilities’ power should come renewable energy like solar and wind in 2035. Fifteen years later, utilities must fulfill customer demand either by offering nuclear-power energy, renewables, or energy-efficiency measures such as subsidizing low-watt lightbulbs or attic insulation for customers. The impact on customer bills remains unclear. Arizona Republic

A Bankruptcy Court Rules Exide May Leave California Taxpayers With the Cleanup Bill for its shuttered battery recycling plant near Vernon. The soil around the abandoned plant is riddled with lead, a powerful neurotoxin. Community groups have opposed the lack of regulation and contamination from the company for years. The bankruptcy filing, approved by a judge, means Exide has no responsibility for eliminating the waste that threatens the health of the surrounding communities and their largely Latinx, working-class population. Los Angeles Times

Who Determines the Fate of 3.1 Million Acre-Feet of Colorado River Water? California’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County has ownership rights, blocking a challenge by a large local farming operation that had sought to pre-empt the irrigation district’s right to distribute and market the water. But during years of litigation, the farmer, Michael Abatti, succeeded in getting the irrigation district to abandon its plan for how cuts to water allocations would be made in drought years. The Desert Sun

Legume-Based Pulse Crops See a New Demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. This resurgence in demand for pulse crops; such as lentils, dry peas, chickpeas, and beans coincides with a revival of regenerative agriculture as well as increased interests in healthy plant-based diets. Pulse crops are central to regenerative agriculture, as they work to return lost nutrients, like nitrogen, to the soil. Continued increases in stewarding and consumption of pulse crops could have highly beneficial effects on public health. KTVQ/Montana Ag Nework

Articles Worth Reading: October 27, 2020

Snow Hits Colorado’s Cameron Peak, East Troublesome Fires Sunday, bringing critical relief. The Colorado wildfires — some of the largest in the state’s history — have forced evacuations and turned deadly in some areas. As of Sunday, the Cameron Peak fire has burned over 200,000 acres, with the East Troublesome fire following close behind, burning about 192,000 acres. The snow is expected to dampen the fires, giving firefighters a critical chance to bring the blazes under control. Denver Post Washington Post

Trump Reverses His Decision to Reject Wildfire Relief for California, approving a package of wildfire disaster relief hours after the administration said the state should not receive the aid. The aid will be used for remediation for six wildfires that have burned nearly 2 million acres. It will also add to the 68 fire-related aid packages for California that Trump has approved. His change of heart came after Gov. Gavin Newsom and Rep. Kevin McCarthy urged the president to provide the aid. The New York Times

Watchdogs Push New Mexico to Limit Use of U.S. Nuclear Waste Dump, as the federal government looks to extend and expand operations at the country’s only underground nuclear waste repository. The Energy Department’s application for renewing its permit for 10 years proposes abandoning the original 2024 date, when it had agreed to to close and decommission the 20-year-old dump, where tons of waste has been stored in salt caverns. Opponents say the state has failed to hold the Department of Energy accountable for cleaning up the contamination and dealing with radioactive waste. Associated Press

Trump Administration Adds 1,275 Miles to the National Trail System. The administration announced the creation of 30 new national recreational trails in 25 states, including new trails in California, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona. Organizations like the American Hiking Society and PeopleForBikes praised the Department of the Interior for the expansion. The trail designations advance the Trump administration’s goal of increasing public access to outdoor recreation, according to a Department of the Interior press release. National Park Service

Public Lands Decisions Across West Questioned after ruling on status of acting federal agency chief William Perry Pendley. A federal judge determined Pendley had served unlawfully for 14 months as the head of the Bureau of Land Management. Sixty environmental organizations in Colorado and across the West argue that Pendley’s decisions, which include a plan to allow drilling on public lands across six counties in Colorado, should not stand. The state of Montana has called for the courts to throw out Pendley’s decisions. Denver Post

Alaska Seeks to Block Federal Approval of an Emergency Hunt for A Native Village, despite a dire food shortage. The lawsuit against the Federal Subsistence Board came after it approved an emergency out-of-season hunt for the Organized Village of Kake at the start of the pandemic. If the state prevails, rural communities and federally recognized tribes will be prohibited from requesting emergency hunts. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: October 20, 2020

Revitalizing Indigenous Stewardship with Cultural Burning on the central California coast, the Amah Matsun Land Trust seeks to effectively manage fire-prone lands using the stewardship of Indigenous groups. In the Quiroste Valley, the Native Stewardship Corps (NSC) are working in uplands above the meadow and riparian valley that contain dense stands of Douglas fir and coyote brush with little to no understory. These stands have encroached upon the open coastal prairie grassland. Due to the dense canopy cover, little sunlight reaches the forest floor, thus allowing little to no presence of grasses and forbs. This reduces biodiversity, and threatens the coastal prairie, which was once much more widespread. Cultural burning could help restore the grasslands. The land trust plans a Zoom conference to discuss traditional Native American land management. Amahmutsun Land Trust

Environmental Activists and Hoover Dam Operators Are Joining Forces, as hydro-electric industry groups and environmental activists have publicly committed to collaborate to minimize the environmental harm of existing hydro-electric dams. This union of warring factions from industry and the environmental movement is an instance in a fledgling but growing trend of large-scale industries, joining non-profit organizations and institutions to explicitly address the best ways to counter the threat of runaway climate collapse. The New York Times

Washington State Firm to Abandon Coal, Which May Keep Coal Pollution Going in Montana. Puget Sound Energy’s plan to sell for $1 its stake in Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station needs approval by agencies in both states. If it gets them, it can meet Washington State rules to abandon coal-burning resources by 2025. Montana’s NorthWestern Energy, which wants to keep one unit of the plant going until 2042, would have more say in its future. E&E News

A Push for Statehood For the Navajo Nation comes as congressional Democrats raising the possibility of making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into states, voices from the Southwest are reviving the idea of a state, perhaps called Dinétah, to give the region a more powerful voice in national affairs, and increase federal payments. Indian Country Today

Reaching Beyond El Niño Observations, Scientists Examine Distant Ocean Conditions as a key think to predict Western droughts, particularly those affecting the Colorado River, two years in advance. Researchers looked at the most extreme drought years in the past 120 years and found they almost always followed a distinct pattern of unusual warm spells in the tropical reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. up to four years in advance, followed by warming in the northern Pacific two year later. Science

Pursuing Endangered Salmon, California Sea Lions Range Deeper into the Columbia River. NOAA fisheries and researchers at the University of Washington published a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology detailing increased predation of salmon by sea lions. The Columbia River is home to the Chinook Salmon Run, an extremely important ecological niche for the movement of nitrogen throughout the watersheds of the West coast. California sea lions, facing hunger in their more coastal native habitats, have in recent years begun traveling farther and farther upstream to hunt salmon. These hunting migrations are most prevalent before they depart for southern California breeding grounds. Devdiscourse

As Consensus Favoring Prescribed Burns Increases, Rates of Controlled Fires Still Fall in Washington State. Like many states in the West facing challenging fire seasons, Washington has been slow to financially invest in the requirements for effective controlled burning. Crosscut

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »


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