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WED: Panel Appoints Replacement To Fill New Mexico House Vacancy, + More

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Newly-appointed state Rep. Kay Bounkeua

Panel Appoints Replacement To Fill New Mexico House Vacancy - Associated Press

An environmental activist has been sworn in to fill a New Mexico House vacancy created by now-former Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton's resignation amid a corruption investigation.

The Bernalillo County Commission on Tuesday appointed Albuquerque Democrat Kay Bounkeua to fill the District 19 seat. 

Bounkeua was among 10 applicants considered by the commission and is currently the New Mexico deputy state director for the Wilderness Society. She also recently served as the executive director of the New Mexico Asian Family Center.

Local media outlets reported that Bounkeua is believed to be the first Asian American woman to serve in the New Mexico Legislature. The 36-year-old daughter of immigrants from Laos said in a statement said she was honored "not only to break through the glass ceiling, but the bamboo ceiling attached to it."

Williams Stapleton resigned last month amid criminal investigations into her ties to a private contractor for the Albuquerque school district where she has worked.

Williams Stapleton has denied allegations of possible corruption.

New Mexico Governor Joins US Conservation Challenge - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order Wednesday making New Mexico the latest Western state to join an ambitious effort to conserve nearly one-third of America's lands and waters by 2030.

The Biden administration detailed its plans in May for achieving the goal, saying conservation and restoration of lands and waters was an urgent priority. Democratic officials and environmentalists see the effort as a tool to increase green space, protect drinking water sources and reduce wildfire risks.

To make significant progress on the decadelong commitment, experts have said Western states must play a key role in the effort.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said she wants to "bring people together" in New Mexico for the initiative that she hopes will make a difference for decades to come. 

Her executive order calls for the creation of a committee made up of key state agencies to draft a plan for reaching the goal. The group will meet four times a year and report back annually to the governor.

"I just want action," Lujan Grisham said before signing the order, "but if you don't have a guide … we're not going to get every opportunity that we deserve."

California was the first to formalize its 2030 conservation goal when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a sweeping executive order last fall. Nevada followed in May with lawmakers in the Democrat-dominated state passinga resolution.

About 12% of the nation's lands and one-quarter of its waters are currently protected, according to research by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Wilderness areas, game refuges, agricultural lands, ranches and other sites with conservation easements are among the protected parcels.

Nationally, the Biden administration is calling for the expansion of federal grant programs to create more local parks, increase access to outdoor recreation and for Indigenous communities to access funding for conservation priorities.

In New Mexico, members of Lujan Grisham's executive cabinet have been charged with finding ways to leverage state and federal funding and existing programs to help with the effort. 

They must also consider the importance of working lands, such as farms and ranches, as well as tribal sovereignty. 

The order acknowledges that "agricultural production through farming and ranching represents historic, current and future land use and embodies cultural traditions that are at risk due to drought, development, climate impacts and reduced water availability."

A handful of rural New Mexico counties have passed resolutions in recent months opposing the effort. 

Elected leaders in those communities have voiced concerns that designating more wilderness areas and imposing more restrictions would compromise the livelihoods of residents and businesses dependent on the landscape.

Republican state Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte said almost half of all land in New Mexico — the fifth largest state in the U.S. — is already owned and managed by either the state or federal government.

"We all know that our family-owned, private land is better managed, utilized and preserved," she said. "This 30x30 initiative set forth by the governor is a thinly veiled land grab, and the people of New Mexico will not stand for it."

Environmentalists praised Lujan Grisham's move, arguing that it would help protect New Mexico's outdoor heritage and the traditions of agricultural-based communities.

Theresa Pasqual, executive director of Acoma Pueblo's Historic Preservation Office, said it marks the start of a conversation that will allow local communities to figure out what would work best for them.

"We start that conversation by thinking about what's in our own backyard," she said.

Lawsuit Challenges New Mexico's COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate – Associated Press

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a New Mexico nurse and an agricultural worker challenges the constitutionality of recent public health orders requiring people with certain jobs to get COVID-19 vaccinations and restricting admittance to the state fair.

The lawsuit filed last week in federal court asks a judge to block enforcement of an order requiring health workers, teachers and certain other workers to get vaccinated. The lawsuit also seeks to block a state mandate that requires anyone attending the New Mexico State Fair to be fully vaccinated.

The suit, which was filed against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase, calls Lujan Grisham a "tyrannical governor willing to punish children and destroy livelihoods."

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the administration does not comment on pending litigation but that state actions to protect the public's health and safety have been repeatedly upheld by courts.

Attorney A. Blair Dunn filed the suit on behalf of Jennifer Blackford, a registered nurse at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, and Union County Extension Agent Talisha Valdez,

Many employers already are requiring vaccinations, with Los Alamos National Laboratory among the latest to do so.

Under the lab's policy, full vaccination will be mandatory for all regular employees and on-site contractors and subcontractors. It also will apply to all employees working on-site as well as those working remotely.

"To meet our laboratory's critical mission requirements amid rising COVID-19 case rates in northern New Mexico and beyond, we must protect the entire workforce from the spread of this potentially severe disease. The best tool we have is vaccines," Director Thom Mason wrote in a memo.

More than 85% of lab employees and contractors already are fully vaccinated.

Statewide, nearly 67% of people 18 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the New Mexico Department of Health.

Supreme Court Orders 'Remain In Mexico' Policy Reinstated - Mark Sherman, Associated Press

The Supreme Court says the Biden administration likely violated federal law in trying to end a Trump-era program that forces people to wait in Mexico while seeking asylum in the U.S.

With three liberal justices in dissent, the high court yesterday refused to block a lower court ruling ordering the administration to reinstate the program informally known as Remain in Mexico.

It's not clear how many people will be affected and how quickly. Under the lower court ruling, the administration must make a "good faith effort" to restart the program.

There also is nothing preventing the administration from trying again to end the program, formally called Migrant Protection Protocols.

A federal judge in Texas had previously ordered that the program be reinstated last week. Both he and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused the administration's request to put the ruling on hold.

Justice Samuel Alito ordered a brief delay to allow the full court time to consider the administration's appeal to keep the ruling on hold while the case continues to make its way through the courts.

The 5th Circuit ordered expedited consideration of the administration's appeal.

The court offered little explanation for its action, although it cited its opinion from last year rejecting the Trump administration's effort to end another immigration program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In that case, the court held that the decision to end DACA was "arbitrary and capricious," in violation of federal law.

The administration has "failed to show a likelihood of success on the claim that the memorandum rescinding the Migrant Protection Protocols was not arbitrary and capricious," the court wrote Tuesday in an unsigned order.

The three dissenting justices, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, did not write an opinion expressing their views of the case.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said it regrets that the high court declined to issue a stay. The department said it would continue to challenge the district court's order.

The American Civil Liberties Union called on the administration to present a fuller rationale for ending Remain in Mexico that could withstand court scrutiny.

"The government must take all steps available to fully end this illegal program, including by re-terminating it with a fuller explanation. What it must not do is use this decision as cover for abandoning its commitment to restore a fair asylum system," said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's immigrant rights project.

During Donald Trump's presidency, the policy required tens of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to turn back to Mexico. It was meant to discourage asylum seekers but critics said it denied people the legal right to seek protection in the U.S. and forced them to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities.

The judge, U.S. District Judge Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk in Amarillo, Texas, ordered that the program be reinstated in response to a lawsuit filed by the states of Texas and Missouri, whose governors have been seeking to reinstate some of the hard-line anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration.

The Biden administration argued in briefs that the president has "clear authority to determine immigration policy" and that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had discretion in deciding whether to return asylum seekers to Mexico.

The policy has been dormant for more than a year and the administration argued that abruptly reinstating it "would prejudice the United States' relations with vital regional partners, severely disrupt its operations at the southern border, and threaten to create a diplomatic and humanitarian crisis."

The Trump administration largely stopped using the "Remain in Mexico" policy at the start of the pandemic, at which point it began turning back virtually everyone crossing the Southwest border under a different protocol — a public health order that remains in effect.

President Joe Biden suspended the program on his first day of office and the Homeland Security Department ended it in June.

Kacsmaryk was nominated to the federal bench by Trump. The 5th Circuit panel that ruled Thursday night included two Trump appointees, Andrew Oldham and Cory Wilson, along with Jennifer Walker Elrod, nominated to the appeals court by President George W. Bush.

At the high court, at least five of the six conservative justices, including three Trump appointees, voted for the restart of the program. Under the court's opaque treatment of emergency appeals, the justices don't always say publicly how they voted.

Scientists Launch Effort To Collect Water Data In US West - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday announced a new kind of climate observatory near the headwaters of the Colorado River that will help scientists better predict rain and snowfall in the U.S. West and determine how much of it will flow through the region.

The multimillion-dollar effort led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory launches next week. The team has set up radar systems, balloons, cameras and other equipment in an area of Colorado where much of the water in the river originates as snow. More than 40 million people depend on the Colorado River.

Alejandro Flores, an associate professor of hydrology at Boise State University, said the weather in mountainous areas is notoriously difficult to model and the observatory will be a "game changer."

"We have to think about the land and the atmosphere as a linked system that interact with each other," he said in a call with reporters. "Up until now, there have been a lack of observations that help us understand this critical interface."

The West is in the midst of a more than 20-year megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change. That, along with increased demand on the Colorado River led to the first-ever shortage declaration in August, and there's an increasing threat of deeper, more widespread water cuts. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico won't get their full allocations of river water next year.

Scientists will use the observatory to gather data on precipitation, wind, clouds, tiny particles, humidity, soil moisture and other things. Along with a better understanding of the hydrology, they hope to learn more about how wildfires, forest management, drought and tree-killing bugs, for example, play a part in water availability.

A big issue in predicting water supply in the West centers on soil moisture and content, said Ken Williams, the lead on-site researcher and Berkeley Lab scientist. The monsoon season largely was a dud across the Southwest for the past two years, which means more melting snow soaks into the ground before reaching streams and rivers when it does rain, he said.

Climate experts said during a separate briefing Tuesday that southern Arizona and parts of New Mexico have seen impressive rainfall totals so far this monsoon season, with Tucson marking its wettest July on record. Mike Crimmins, a professor at the University of Arizona, called it an "amazing reversal" for the desert city.

Some parts of the Southwest have seen as much as four times their normal precipitation levels. But Crimmins noted other spots like Albuquerque, New Mexico, are either at average levels or still lagging.

"We have both really wet conditions for the short term, but we also have longer-term drought still hanging out there because we have these longer-term deficits that we cannot solve with just one or two or even three months of precipitation," he said.

To reverse the longer-term trends, the region would need to see back-to-back wet winters and summers that are hard to come by, Crimmins said.

The new climate observatory, called the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory, brings together federal scientists, university researchers and others to build on a previous effort to study part of the upper Gunnison River basin in Colorado that shares characteristics with the Rocky Mountains.

For the Rio Grande basin, the data could help water managers as they juggle longstanding water sharing agreements among Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, Williams said. It also could help improve weather forecasting and experiments to modify the weather, such as cloud seeding to produce more precipitation.

The data will be available to other researchers and provide a benchmark for any collection beyond the two-year project, scientists said.


Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.


Navajo Nation Reports 37 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More Death Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 37 new COVID-19 cases and one more death.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 32,315 coronavirus cases and 1,398 known deaths since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The vast Navajo Nation spans parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez has said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 by the end of September or be required to submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

More than 80% of the tribe's workers are already fully vaccinated, but Nez said getting the rest inoculated is needed to ensure the workforce on the reservation can serve tribal members.

Document Hints At Solving New Mexico Education Inadequacies – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

New Mexico education officials this month touted a plan to address an ongoing lawsuit over educational opportunities for Indigenous and low-income students as an accomplishment of the outgoing Education Secretary.

But a draft of the document obtained by The Associated Press shows that it offers few specifics for fixing systemic inequities in the state's public school system.

The 100-page document outlines strategies to resolve a 2018 state court ruling that found New Mexico failed to provide "adequate" education for most students required under the state's constitution.

In most cases, the draft reiterates the general goals of the state's Public Education Department without laying out specific plans to solve problems identified in the ruling.

It prioritizes increasing access to high-speed internet, but does not suggest providing high-speed internet to all students or to all students unable to attend school in-person, which District Court Judge Matthew Wilson ordered this year.

The draft was presented to a summit of tribal leaders when they met last week with state government officials.

The education department plans to release a full version of the proposal by Dec. 1, after getting additional feedback, the document states. That leaves about four weeks for the public to comment before legislation starts to be filed next year.

The final draft will likely drive policy discussions ahead of the 2022 legislative session where lawmakers will hash out the state's education budget.

"The timing is driven by the need for giving the public time to weigh in before the (legislative) session," said Public Education Department spokeswoman Carolyn Graham.

State Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat who sponsors much of the state House legislation supporting Indigenous issues, and other prominent Native American education advocates complained that they had not been given a copy of the document by state education officials.

Lente says feast days and other religious holidays in December will limit the public's ability to participate.

He said they should release the document sooner so there is time for people to have input.

"It's insulting to think that they expect the public who yes, education is absolutely a priority, but during the holiday season, to take time out of, out of their life, and out of their holiday," Lente said, "on something like this that they've had all year to do."

The draft focuses on what needs to be done to address the lawsuit, but not necessarily who will do it or how.

The 2018 ruling found the state offers second-rate education to marginalized groups, and hasn't hired enough qualified teachers who can serve Indigenous students, English language learners or disabled children. It also found children in poverty were not receiving an adequate education.

The education department policy draft sets the goals of increasing teacher training and recruitment, driving down dropout rates and absenteeism, and increasing funding for ways to support students outside of class, from counseling to at-home internet and computers.

One of the few specific recommendations in the report cites the need to increase pay for teachers who obtain Spanish bilingual certifications or Native American language and cultural certificates, as well as technical support and training for schools for absenteeism interventions. Boosting pay for those hard to fill positions would attract more candidates, the draft said.

While follow-up rulings from state court judge Wilson has set a specific standard for high-speed internet and required students to have access, the draft does not.

Former Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart has said that the state follows a federal standard that sets minimum upload and download speeds. The judge issued a higher standard, based on outcomes, saying that all students should be able to participate in a two-way video chat with their teacher.

Wilson also ordered the education department to identify which students lack essential technology. The department has not released the data.

Education officials said more detailed recommendation items will be included in the version released to the public.

The state education department "is developing 90-day action plans that will include specific measurable actions as well as identifying the people responsible for those actions, the timelines, and the metrics for success," Graham said.

The education department stressed that the draft is not the first effort taken at resolving the lawsuit.

Since the 2018 ruling, New Mexico changed the state education funding formula so that schools serving Indigenous areas would keep millions in federal funds instead of having it subtracted from their state funding. In response to the pandemic, the education department has funded the purchase of laptops for students stuck at home and paid for temporary internet access.

The lawsuit named Martinez-Yazzie for the Hispanic and Indigenous families who joined the lawsuit in 2014 during Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the lawsuit last year.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs have estimated in the past that the case covers about 80% of New Mexico's K-12 students. They include Native American students, English Language learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students.

Because the closure of in-person schooling during the pandemic disproportionately impacted those types of students, it's unlikely that the lawsuit will be dismissed any time soon.

Recommendations Target US Oil, Gas Leasing Across The West - Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

An Indigenous leader from New Mexico and former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called on the federal government yesterday to overhaul its oil and gas leasing program to ensure the protection of cultural resources, saying for far too long tribal expertise has been ignored to the detriment of sacred landscapes.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo and Babbitt highlighted recommendations outlined in a new report that looks at the government's leasing policies and how they have been implemented across the West over several decades. It seeks ways to better protect areas including Utah's Bears Ears National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

The recommendations are centered on how land managers can incorporate tribal expertise into decision-making to better understand what resources could be at risk before permitting and development begins. They also call for the Bureau of Land Management to take a lead role in determining which areas can be developed rather than industry nominated parcels for drilling.

Vallo and others expressed optimism Tuesday that an ongoing review of federal leasing policies by President Joe Biden's administration will come to some of the same conclusions and that changes could be on the horizon.

The Democratic administration recently resumed leasing after a judge blocked its suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land. More than a dozen states had argued that the administration bypassed comment periods and other bureaucratic steps required before such delays can be undertaken and the moratorium would cost the states money and jobs.

The Biden administration is appealing the ruling and has emphasized that the pause was needed to begin addressing worries about climate change.

The battle over drilling in the West has spanned multiple presidential administrations, with federal officials long reluctant to overhaul what has been a significant sector of the U.S. economy.

Paul Reed, an archaeologist and Chaco scholar who prepared the report, said the current approach prioritizes development over preservation and that the federal government has failed to consult with tribes.

Vallo echoed those concerns. Even though tribal consultation occurs, he said federal policies and processes are not necessarily designed to incorporate the recommendations of Indigenous communities.

"Until we have some equity here and until we see that our voice and our recommendations and our knowledge is considered in decision-making, we will not have achieved the government-to-government or nation-to-nation relationship that we should all be working towards," Vallo said.

Acoma Pueblo and other Southwest tribes that have connections to the Chaco region have been working for years to protect a wider swath of land around the national park. Federal legislation is pending that would create a bigger buffer around the park, but there is disagreement between tribes about the size of that buffer.

Babbitt, who served during the Clinton administration, talked about visiting the Chaco area a couple years ago and spending time with tribal members and archaeologists. He said he had a revelation.

"I always thought of Chaco as just a site," Babbitt said. "What I learned was Chaco is a culture, an extraordinary culture spread across a vast landscape that speaks to their (past inhabitants') presence on the land. It's not just a couple of ruins, as we say."

A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the canyon floor, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular ceremonial subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert.

Reed and other archaeologists say there's still much that has not yet been uncovered about Chaco. Unchecked oil and gas development, he said, is a threat to fragmenting landscapes like Chaco and others around the West.

According to his report, the 12 western states have more than 1.65 million archaeological, historical and traditional cultural sites in their respective management databases. He also notes that no more than 15% of any Western state has been surveyed, meaning there are more cultural resources out there.

Advocates are pushing for more surveys to be done, and more specifically for industry to be responsible for taking inventory of a leasing area.

With the help of federal funding, Vallo said some tribes are partnering on an extensive ethnographic study of the area that would provide data and a cultural perspective for federal land managers. The fieldwork has begun but it will likely be another year before the study is complete.