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FRI: Study details impact of early Chaco Canyon residents, +more

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A growing body of research suggests Chaco Canyon was host to daily living, rather than only being used for ceremonies and large gatherings.

Study details environmental impacts of early Chaco residents — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati say they have more evidence that Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico was more than just an ancient gathering spot for Indigenous ceremonies and rituals.

The researchers analyzed pollen content and the chemical composition of soils to help document environmental impacts of the early residents who called the area home, which is now a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site.

Their findings, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, focus on changes resulting from tree harvesting that sustained daily life at Chaco.

The researchers reported a gradual degradation of the surrounding woodlands beginning around 600 B.C., much earlier than previously thought.

While some of the mysteries surrounding Chaco are still debated in academic circles, there's agreement that the massive stone buildings, ceremonial structures called kivas and other features that dot the landscape offered a religious or ritualistic experience for the ancestors of today's Native American pueblos. Many of Chaco's structures are aligned with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.

David Lentz, a biology professor and lead author of the study, said many researchers have the idea that Chaco was too arid to sustain day-to-day living and that the infrastructure built over many centuries at Chaco was used only as a periodic ceremonial center and storage facility.

Lentz said that explanation is too simplistic and that his team turned up evidence to support human management of the area's environment to support daily life.

Amid the shift from people hunting and gathering to underatking agriculture, the researchers noted measurable changes — such as juniper trees decimated for building needs, food resources and firewood for cooking.

"This is a very arid area," he said. "In arid woodlands, the trees are essential for holding the soil in place. When the puebloan inhabitants removed those woodlands, the result was eventually severe erosion and the deterioration of croplands."

Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, was not involved in the study and said the new research confirms what he has believed for years — that Chaco and some of its surrounding sites were residential and ritual centers. He estimates that Chaco had thousands of full-time residents.

Another Chaco scholar, Gwinn Vivian, came to the same conclusion while studying Chaco's agricultural capacity decades ago.

Reed said the latest study provides helpful data on the nature and extent of Chaco's agricultural processes and other uses of the natural environment by the people who lived there.

"It is a strong counterpoint to the mistaken idea that corn and other crops could not be grown in the quantities necessary to sustain a large, residential population in Chaco Canyon," he said.

Scientists in recent years also have uncovered previously indiscernible sections of roads that connect sites throughout northwestern New Mexico to the heart of Chaco.

Earlier excavations also turned up everything from copper bells to marine shells and the skeletons of scarlet macaws, suggesting the inhabitants were trading with communities to the south either by making long treks or passing goods from village to village.

Many researchers have documented the shift of people moving away from Chaco due to various factors, including a changing climate in the late 11th century.

The study by the University of Cincinnati team noted that the landscape modifications by Chaco residents triggered serious environmental ramifications.

"At the cost of major reduction of tree density in the local woodlands, their activities ultimately contributed to a destabilizing environmental impact prior to their final exodus," Lentz said.

___

This story has been corrected to show the organization name is Archaeology Southwest, not Southwest Archaeology.

Strike by school bus driver in Las Cruces over after 1 day — Associated Press

A school bus drivers strike in Las Cruces is over after one day, at least for now.

Union officials said that drivers and attendants agreed to return to work Friday after not reporting for work Thursday to staff bus routes for Las Cruces Public Schools due to a dispute with the bus service management company.

The union officials' statement said the employees wanted to demonstrate their willingness to find solutions to contract issues and honor their commitment to students.

However, the statement also said "further disruptions to student transportation could occur" if an agreement can't be reached with Student Transportation Services-New Mexico.

Union members have voiced concerns about pay, treatment of employees and safety of buses and equipment.

The company has said it was bargaining in good faith and that progress was made on all open issues.

Bus driver shortages have strained schools across the state, as education officials struggle to hire and train more workers. Some offer free training, signing bonuses and other perks for new employees.

'Rust' armorer attorneys blame producers for 'unsafe' set — Jake Coyle, Associated Press

Attorneys for Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who was in charge of weapons on the movie set where Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, say she doesn't know where the live rounds found there came from, and blamed producers for unsafe working conditions.

Gutierrez Reed was the armorer on the set of "Rust." The 24-year-old, who had worked on one previous feature film, hasn't spoken publicly about the accident.

"Ultimately this set would never have been compromised if live ammo were not introduced," said attorneys Jason Bowles and Robert Gorence in a statement. "Hannah has no idea where the live rounds came from. Hannah and the prop master gained control over the guns and she never witnessed anyone shoot live rounds with these guns and nor would she permit that."

During a news conference Wednesday, Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said there was "some complacency" in how weapons were handled on the set of "Rust."

Investigators initially found 500 rounds of ammunition — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and what appeared to be live rounds. Industry experts have said live rounds should never be on set.

Additional ammunition, a dozen revolvers and a rifle were more recently seized in the search of a white truck used for storing props including firearms, according to an inventory list filed Friday in court.

Investigators with the Santa Fe Sheriff's Office declined to provide further information about the newly seized weapons and ammunition. It was unclear whether live rounds were encountered.

Attorneys for Gutierrez Reed said she is "devastated and completely beside herself" over the death of Hutchins. They argued that producers on the film were cutting corners that sacrificed safety.

"Hannah was hired on two positions on this film, which made it extremely difficult to focus on her job as an armorer," they said. "She fought for training, days to maintain weapons, and proper time to prepare for gunfire but ultimately was overruled by production and her department. The whole production set became unsafe due to various factors, including lack of safety meetings. This was not the fault of Hannah."

Veteran prop master Neal W. Zoromski earlier told The Los Angeles Times that he declined an offer to work on "Rust" because producers insisted that one person could serve as both assistant prop master and armorer. Zoromski said those are "two really big jobs" that couldn't be combined. He called the production "an accident waiting to happen."

A spokesperson for the producers of "Rust" didn't immediately respond to emails Friday. They have previously said that they are cooperating with the police investigation.

Others have raised questions about the production. The film's gaffer, Serge Svetnoy, earlier faulted the movie's producers for "negligence."

"To save a dime sometimes, you hire people who are not fully qualified for the complicated and dangerous job," Svetnoy said in a Facebook post.

On the morning of the shooting, Gutierrez Reed told detectives that she checked the dummy bullets — bullets that appear real, save for a small hole in the side of the casing that identifies them as inoperable — to ensure none were "hot," according to a search warrant affidavit made public Wednesday.

When the crew broke for lunch, the guns used for filming were locked in a safe inside the props storage truck, Gutierrez Reed said. The ammunition, however, was left unsecured on a cart. There was additional ammo inside the prop truck.

After lunch, the film's prop master, Sarah Zachry, removed the guns from the safe and handed them to Gutierrez Reed — Gutierrez Reed told investigators.

According to a search warrant affidavit released last Friday, Gutierrez Reed set three guns on a cart outside the church, and assistant director Dave Halls took one from the cart and handed it to Baldwin. The document released Wednesday said the armorer sometimes handed the gun to Baldwin, and sometimes to Halls.

Halls told investigators that he failed to fully check the revolver. Normally, he told detectives, he would examine the barrel for obstructions and have Gutierrez Reed open the hatch and spin the drum where the bullets go, confirming none of the rounds is live.

This time, he reported, he could only remember seeing three of the rounds, and he didn't remember if the armorer had spun the drum. He then yelled out "cold gun" to indicate that it was safe to use.

Messages left with Halls haven't been returned.

NMSU drops testing option, requires workers to be vaccinated Associated Press

New Mexico State University is dropping a previously offered alternative of weekly testing for COVID-19 and announced it will require all of its over 7,500 employees to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

The policy change is being made to comply with federal requirements for federal contractors and includes student employees, the university said in a statement  Wednesday.

"The NMSU system maintains millions of dollars in federal contracts that support research and development in a broad range of disciplines," NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu said in the statement. "We are among hundreds of universities across the country who are considered to be federal contractors."

The university said employees may apply for a medical or religious exemption to the vaccine requirement.

The requirement applies to undergraduate and graduate student employees, contract and temporary employees and employees working remotely, including in other states, the university said.

Students who are not university employees still have the option to not get vaccinated and instead test weekly for COVID-19, the university said.

The university said it has 7,561 employees, including faculty members, staff and student workers, and that more than 85% have already submitted proof of vaccination.

Baldwin shooting highlights risks of rushed film production - By Jake Coyle AP Film Writer

The fatal shooting by Alec Baldwin on a movie set has put a microscope on an often-unseen corner of the film industry where critics say the pursuit of profit can lead to unsafe working conditions.

With a budget around $7 million, the Western "Rust" was no micro-budget indie. The previous best-picture winner at the Academy Awards, "Nomadland," was made for less. But the New Mexico set where Baldwin shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins  had inexperienced crew members, apparent safety lapses and a serious labor dispute.

For some in the business, the failures reflect larger issues in a fast-evolving movie industry.

"Production is exploding, corners are being cut even more and budgets are being crunched down even more," said Mynette Louie, a veteran independent film producer. "Something's got to give."

The shooting happened at a busy time: Production is ramping up following the easing of pandemic restrictions. Streaming services are increasing demand for content. And all the while, the industry is wrestling with standards for movie sets.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said there was "some complacency" in how weapons were handled on the set. Investigators found 500 rounds of ammunition — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and suspected live rounds, even though the set's firearms specialist, armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed, said real ammo should never have been present.

Attention has focused on the 24-year-old Gutierrez Reed, who had worked on only one previous feature, and assistant director Dave Halls, who handed the gun to Baldwin. According to a search warrant affidavit, Halls called out "cold gun" to indicate it was safe to use but told detectives he did not check all of the weapon's chambers.

The lack of proper weapons protocol stunned veteran film workers.

"This was incompetence, inexperience and — I hate to say this — lack of caring about your job. If there's a whole bunch of ammunition thrown together in a box, that's not how it's done," said Mike Tristano, a longtime professional armorer.

Several "Rust" camera crew members walked off the set amid discord over working conditions, including safety procedures. A new crew was hired that morning, according to director Joel Souza, who spoke to detectives. He was standing near Hutchins and was wounded by the shot.

The New Mexico chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union called reports of nonunion workers being brought in "inexcusable." The union will soon vote on a new standards agreement covering 60,000 film and TV crew members — a deal reached with major studios after IATSE prepared for the first strike in its 128-year existence.

In a statement, "Rust" executive producer Allen Cheney said the six producers on the film collectively had more than 35 years of experience in film and television. He called "Rust" a "union-certified production."

James Gunn, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" filmmaker, suggested a slipshod culture could be partly to blame.

"Dozens have died or been grievously injured on movie sets because of irresponsibility, ignoring safety protocols, improper leadership and a set culture of mindless rushing," Gunn said on Twitter.

The gaffer on "Rust," Serge Svetnoy, faulted the movie's producers for "negligence."

"To save a dime sometimes, you hire people who are not fully qualified for the complicated and dangerous job," Svetnoy said in a Facebook post.

Veteran prop master Neal W. Zoromski told The Los Angeles Times that he declined an offer to work on "Rust" because producers insisted that one person could serve as both assistant prop master and armorer.

Gary Tuers, property master of "Tomorrow War" and "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," said the shooting was "an indictment of the modern production culture, which for the last 30 years has pursued tax credits and found every way imaginable (and several that weren't) to sacrifice crew health and safety in the name of budget consciousness."

"This tragedy was an apparent accident," he wrote on Instagram. "But it was also a predictable outcome of the incentive structure within the modern film industry."

Several companies came together to finance and produce "Rust," including Baldwin's El Dorado Pictures. The film, which is based on a story by Souza and Baldwin, was financed in part by Las Vegas-based Streamline Global, which describes its business model as "acquiring films that offer certain tax benefits" that may "reduce the owner's federal income tax liability from income earned from other sources."

BondIt Media, an independent film financier, also bankrolled "Rust." The Santa Monica, California-based company has helped finance other male-fronted action thrillers like Liam Neeson's "Honest Thief," Mel Gibson's "Force of Nature" and Bruce Willis' "Hard Kill."

Even before the shooting, the most likely destination for "Rust" was probably video on demand. Last year, Baldwin promoted the movie to buyers at the virtual Cannes film market. The actor told The Hollywood Reporter that the script reminded him of "Unforgiven," a 1992 Western starring Clint Eastwood.

Days after the shooting, the production of "Rust" was suspended indefinitely.

The movie was being made under a tax provision called Section 181, which applies to films costing $2.75 million to $7.5 million. It can allow investors to break even before a film reaches any screen, particularly in a state with generous tax credits like New Mexico. The state has been a popular place for productions in recent years. Some of its regulations, including for on-set weapons experts, are less stringent than in California.

In his 30-year career, the armorer Tristano hasn't often experienced producers or crew members who cut corners on safety. But when safety is in question, he has not hesitated to pull his team off a set.

"Whenever I was on a set where there was a lot of panic going on, or the AD (assistant director) was rushing, I would say, 'OK, I'm locking the guns back in the truck,' " Tristano said. "I'd say, 'When you guys are ready to do it right, we'll do it. If you don't like that, fire me.' "

Unions, school bus company, trade blame in Las Cruces strike - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

Unions and a school bus company blame each other for a school bus driver strike that shut down much of the public-school transportation serving 3,500 students in Las Cruces.

Drivers picketed the office of southern New Mexico district school bus contractor STS New Mexico on Thursday, demanding better pay and working conditions, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports.

Bus driver shortages have strained schools across the state, as education officials struggle to hire and train more workers. Some offer free training, signing bonuses and other perks for new employees.

The shortage has led the company to push mechanics into driving service, meaning there aren't mechanics to fix buses when they break down, a bus driver union representative told the Sun-News. 

"We're just going to do the best that we can do," STS General Manager Van Wamel told the paper.

District officials told parents by text message Thursday to "please make alternative transportation arrangements if possible."

A coalition of unions representing school workers said the the bus company is responsible for its strike, and suggested it would end Friday.

"Today's one-day unfair labor practice strike was avoidable, but due to the continued failure of STS-NM to meet our demands surrounding student safety, worker dignity, and fair treatment of employees, the Las Cruces Transportation Federation regrettably was forced to take this drastic action," said local union president Dean Abrams.

Abrams said negotiations began in July.

The school also notified parents Wednesday evening, said spokeswoman Kelly Jameson, adding that children who cannot make it to school will be provided online work and an excused absence.

The bus company is pinning culpability for the shutdown on the union, saying the group increased wages over the past two years and a new demand for increased pay "makes it difficult to reach a fair and reasonable agreement."

"We truly regret the inconvenience the union strike has caused and are doing everything we can to continue providing service to our students," said Joshua Weinstock, spokesman for The Kincaid Group, which operates STS in Las Cruces.

Jameson said that special education students with transportation specified in their individualized learning plans won't be affected by the strike.

US Proposes Changes To Mexican Gray Wolf Management -  - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Federal wildlife officials are proposing to change the way Mexican gray wolves are managed in the American Southwest, saying removing population limits and setting goals for genetic diversity will help the endangered species recover. 

The proposal also would allow more wolves to be released into the wild in New Mexico and Arizona, and place restrictions on permits issued to ranchers or state wildlife agencies that allow the killing of wolves if they prey on livestock, elk or deer.

Management of the predators has spurred numerous legal challenges over the decades by both ranchers and environmentalists. The latest proposal follows one of those court fights. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the proposed changes would better align with revisions made to the species' recovery plan.

The Mexican gray wolf, the rarest subspecies of the gray wolf in North America, has seen its population nearly double over the last five years. A survey done earlier this year showed at least 186 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. Ranchers and rural residents have argued that's an undercount and a more accurate number is needed. 

Environmental groups consider the proposed changes a step in the right direction but say more needs to be done to ensure a viable population of Mexican wolves. 

They say the boundaries established by the Fish and Wildlife Service for recovery of the wolves in New Mexico and Arizona are among the limiting factors. If the animals travel beyond the boundaries, they can be trapped and relocated, returned to captivity or potentially killed.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department captured a wolf in August that was roaming near Flagstaff outside the recovery project's boundaries and relocated it to an area near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Environmentalists said the wolf known as m2520 has trekked back. Arizona Game and Fish spokesman Tom Cadden said late Thursday that the department is monitoring the wolf's location and behavior.

Environmentalists also have called for reforms aimed at limiting conflicts with livestock and releasing more captive packs into the wild. 

"We stand ready to return to court on behalf of lobos (wolves) if the final rule is insufficient to conserve this critically imperiled species," said Kelly Nokes, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center.

Ranchers in the mountainous regions of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico where the wolves roam say livestock deaths due to predation are escalating as the population grows. The latest report from wildlife managers put the number of confirmed livestock deaths for the year at 95.

The wolf recovery team uses feeding caches to draw wolves away from cattle, but ranchers say the wolves are becoming more brazen and that efforts to scare them away using range riders on horseback or flagging along fence lines hasn't worked. They also say they don't receive timely compensation for livestock lost to wolves.

"It is an incredible management hurdle for those of us on the ground to deal with the wolves," said Tom Paterson, who ranches along the New Mexico state line and is a member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "Even if we put our cattle on private pastures where we are every day going around and looking, they still kill our cattle."

Paterson has lost several cows and calves this year. He described a trail of blood that stretched 150 feet (46 meters) along a creek and cases in which cattle were attacked and their unborn calves eaten.

"This is a broken program," he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is planning virtual public hearings and information sessions on the proposed changes. The public will have 90 days to comment.

Once common throughout the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico, the Mexican wolf was all but eliminated by the 1970s, prompting the U.S. government to develop a captive breeding program. There are about 350 Mexican wolves in more than 55 zoos and other facilities throughout the United States and Mexico.

For tribes, 'good fire' a key to restoring nature and people - By John Flesher AP Environmental Writer

Elizabeth Azzuz stood in prayer on a Northern California mountainside, arms outstretched, grasping a handmade torch of dried wormwood branches, the fuel her Native American ancestors used for generations to burn underbrush in thick forest.

"Guide our hands as we bring fire back to the land," she intoned before crouching and igniting dead leaves and needles carpeting the ground.

Others joined her. And soon dancing flames and pungent smoke rose from the slope high above the distant Klamath River.

Over several days in early October, about 80 acres (32.4 hectares) on the Yurok reservation would be set aflame. The burning was monitored by crews wearing protective helmets and clothing — firefighting gear and water trucks ready. They were part of a program that teaches Yurok and other tribes the ancient skills of treating land with fire.

Such an act could have meant jail a century ago. But state and federal agencies that long banned "cultural burns" in the U.S. West are coming to terms with them — and even collaborating — as the wildfire crisis worsens.

Wildfires have blackened nearly 6,000 square miles (15,540 square kilometers) in California the past two years and more elsewhere amid prolonged drought and rising temperatures linked to climate change. Dozens have died; thousands of homes have been lost.

Scientific research increasingly confirms what tribes argued all along: Low-intensity burns on designated parcels, under the right conditions, reduce the risk by consuming dead wood and other fire fuels on forest floors.

To the Yurok, Karuk and Hupa in the mid-Klamath region, the resurgence of cultural burning is about reclaiming a way of life violently suppressed with the arrival of white settlers in the 1800s.

Indigenous people had their land seized, and many were killed or forced onto reservations. Children were sent to schools that forbade their languages and customs. And their hunter-gatherer lifestyle was devastated by prohibitions on fire that tribes had used for thousands of years to treat the landscape.

It enriched the land with berries, medicinal herbs and tan oak acorns while killing bugs. It opened browsing space for deer and elk. It let more rainwater reach streams, boosting salmon numbers. It spurred hazelnut stems and bear grass used for intricate baskets and ceremonial regalia.

Now, descendants of those who quietly kept the old ways alive are practicing them openly, creating "good fire."

"Fire is a tool left by the Creator to restore our environment and the health of our people," said Azzuz, board secretary for the Cultural Fire Management Council, which promotes burning on ancestral Yurok lands.

"Fire is life for us."

PERSECUTION AND PERSEVERANCE

Nine years ago, Margo Robbins got a facial tattoo — two dark stripes from the edges of her mouth to below her chin, and another midway between them. It once was a common mark for Yurok women, including her great-grandmother.

"I got mine to represent my commitment to continuing the traditions of our ancestors," said Robbins, 59, whose jokes and cackling laugh mask a steely resolve.

She would become a leading voice in the struggle to return fire to her people's historical territory, much under state and federal management. The more than 5,000-member tribe's reservation courses along a 44-mile (70.8-kilometer) stretch of the Klamath.

Since 1910, when infernos consumed more than 3 million (1.2 million hectares) western acres, federal policy had considered fire an enemy. "Only you can prevent forest fires," Smokey Bear later proclaimed in commercials.

"They considered tribal people arsonists, didn't understand the relationship between fires and a healthy forest," said Merv George, 48, a former Hoopa Valley Tribe chairman who now supervises Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Northern California. "I heard stories of people getting thrown in jail if they were caught."

But when George joined the U.S. Forest Service as a tribal relations manager in 2008, western wildfires were growing bigger and more frequent; officials knew something needed to change.

Two national forests — Six Rivers and Klamath — joined a landscape restoration partnership with the Karuk tribe and nonprofit groups. It released a 2014 plan endorsing "prescribed," or intentional, burns.

A year earlier, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, had approved a small cultural burn on Yurok land.

It was a victory for Robbins. As a young girl of Yurok, Hupa and Irish descent, she learned the basketry fundamental to her native identity. Tribes use baskets for gathering food and medicinal plants, trapping eels, ceremonial dancing, cradling babies, even prayer.

"Weaving is really, really soothing. It's kind of like medicine for your soul," she said, displaying finely crafted baskets at a Yurok firehouse near the village of Weitchpec.

But weaving materials had become scarce, particularly hazel wood. Burns in bygone days helped the shoots grow straight and strong. Under no-fire management, hazel was stunted by shrubs, downed trees, matted leaves.

With grandchildren on the way, Robbins wanted them carried in traditional baby baskets. She needed tribal forests to produce high-quality hazel once more. That meant fire.

After the state-sanctioned Yurok small burn, Robbins and other community members established the Cultural Fire Management Council to push for more.

They allied with Karuk and Hupa activists and The Nature Conservancy to create the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, which conducts training burns that have drawn hundreds of participants from across the U.S. and other countries. It has expanded into Oregon, Minnesota and New Mexico. 

"It's really exciting and gives me a lot of hope that the tide is changing," Robbins said. "We revived our language, our dances, and now, bringing back fire, we'll restore the land."

'FINALLY BEING HEARD'

To prepare for the one this month in the Klamath region, Yurok leaders studied weather forecasts, scouted mountainous burn areas, positioned water tanks, uncoiled fire hoses, equipped and drilled 30-plus crew members.

As Azzuz finished her ceremonial prayer, the wormwood that coaxed the first flames was replaced with modern "drip torches" — canisters of gasoline and diesel with spouts and wicks. Team members moved quickly along a dirt trail, flicking droplets of burning fuel.

Smoke billowed. Flames crackled and hissed. Tangles of green and brown foliage were reduced to ash. Young Douglas firs that squeeze out other species were another target.

But larger trees — oaks, madrones, conifers — were largely unscathed, aside from patches of scorched bark.

"It's beautiful and black," Azzuz exulted. "By next spring, there will be a lot of hazel shoots."

Hour by hour, torch bearers moved down the slope, igniting swaths of forest floor. Co-workers in radio contact watched firebreaks, ready to douse or beat down stray flames.

There were young and middle-aged, native and non-native, novices and veterans — some from area tribes, others from far away.

Jose Luis Dulce, a firefighter in his native Spain and Ecuador, said he wanted to help revive Indigenous techniques in Europe and South America. Stoney Timmons said his tribe — the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians of California — wants to host its own training session next year.

"I'm getting some good lessons to take back," Timmons said.

The exercise was especially satisfying for Robert McConnell Jr., who spent years with Forest Service wildfire crews, attacking from helicopters and driving bulldozers. Now a prescribed fire specialist with Six Rivers National Forest, he works with fire instead of against it.

"I get to feel like I'm Indian again when I get to burn," he said. "It's encoded in my DNA. It's like there's a spark in my eye when I see fire get put on the ground."

As shadows lengthened, cheery yips gave way to shrieks: "Log! Log!" A chunk of flaming timber jounced down a sharply angled slope, smacked onto a two-lane road and hurtled into a thicket below, igniting brush along the way.

Although crew members quickly extinguished the flames, the runaway log was a reminder of the job's hazards.

Nick Hillman, 18, his face glistening with grimy sweat, was unfazed. "I know my ancestors want me to be doing this," he said.

When Yurok forestry director Dawn Blake helped light the hillside, she felt a connection with her grandmother, who wove baskets and set fires in the area long ago.

"We've been talking and begging about doing this for so long, just spinning our wheels," said Blake, 49. "It feels like we're finally being heard."

BIGGER AMBITIONS

But tribes want to go beyond training exercises and "family burns" on small plots. They're pushing to operate throughout the vast territories their ancestors occupied.

"My ultimate goal is to restore all this land back to a natural state," said Blaine McKinnon, battalion chief for the Yurok Fire Department and a leader of the recent cultural burn.

Relations with federal and state authorities have improved, but complaints persist about permits denied, burns postponed and heavy-handed oversight.

Cultural fire leaders say pledges of cooperation from agency higher-ups aren't always carried out by local officials, who fear dismissal if fires get out of hand.

It's a fair point, said Craig Tolmie, chief deputy director of Cal Fire, which struggles to balance the tribes' desires for more fire with opposition from a jittery public.

"People have really been traumatized and shocked by the last two fire seasons," Tolmie said.

Under state laws enacted this year, tribal burners and front-line regulators will work more closely, he said. One measure requires his department to appoint a cultural burning liaison and provide training and certification for prescribed fire "burn bosses."

Another makes it easier to get liability insurance by raising the bar for requiring burn professionals to pay for extinguishing out-of-control fires — a rarity but always a risk. Lawmakers also budgeted $40 million for a prescribed fire insurance fund and tribal burn programs.

Still, prescribed burns alone can't rid forests of more than a century's accumulation of woody debris, Tolmie said, arguing that many areas should be "pre-treated" with mechanical grinding and tree thinning before fires are set.

Ancient wisdom and scientific research show otherwise, said Chad Hanson, forest ecologist with the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute in California. Regulators are "trying to extort tribes" by making cultural burns contingent on logging, he said.

Bill Tripp, the Karuk tribe's natural resources director, said the solution is empowering tribes to handle prescribed burns while Cal Fire and the Forest Service focus on suppressing wildfires.

The mid-Klamath area is ideal for a teaching center where cultural burners could "guide us into a new era of living with fire," said Tripp, who learned from his great-grandmother and was setting small blazes in his remote village by age 8.

Tribes are uniquely positioned to train younger generations about stewardship-oriented fire management, said Scott Stephens, an environmental policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

"We'd need literally thousands of people doing this burning to ramp it up to a scale that's meaningful," he said.

Talon Davis, 27, a member of the Yurok crew, welcomed the opportunity "to show the world what good fire is." He is Robbins' son-in-law; his own toddler has been carried in her baskets, as she wished.

"This is how we're supposed to care for Mother Earth," he said. "Put fire back on the ground, bring our home back into balance."

Interior preps guidelines for Native youth service corps Associated Press

The Interior Department issued draft guidelines Thursday for a new conservation corps that will allow Native youth to work on projects that benefit their own communities. 

The department scheduled a series of consultations in late November and early December to get feedback on the guidelines from Native American tribes, Alaska Native corporations and Native Hawaiians. 

The Indian Youth Service Corps was created through a bill that expanded the Public Lands Corps Act in 2019. The Interior Department was tasked with coming up with the guidelines on how it will be implemented.

Tribes and Alaska Native corporations will be able to work with the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce departments to carry out conservation projects on public land, tribal land and Hawaiian homelands. Projects can include restoring trails, removing invasive species, gardening, sampling water or soil, and preserving historic structures.

Apprentices in vocational programs could work on construction, electrical or plumbing projects.

Anyone between the ages of 16 and 30, or veterans who are 35 and younger are eligible to apply for the temporary positions. 

"The Indian Youth Service Corps program has the potential to transform the lives of Indigenous youth all across our country," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a news release. "Young people are the future stewards of our lands, waters, and resources."

Congress did not appropriate funding for the program. The Interior Department said federal agencies are encouraged to redirect existing funding to support the service corps.

Navajo Nation reports 97 more COVID-19 cases, but no deaths – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 97 more COVID-19 cases, but no deaths for the 19th time in the past 29 days.

The tribe had reported 119 additional cases on Wednesday along with nine coronavirus-related deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 36,508 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll remains at 1,484.

Based on cases from Oct. 8-21, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory notice for 48 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

"Unfortunately, in-person family and social gatherings are leading to more cases of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation," tribal President Jonathan Nez said. "In addition, residents who travel to cities off our Nation and let their guard down often bring back the virus to their households. We have to do better and we have to remind our loved ones to take precautions and wear a mask in public whether they are on or off the Navajo Nation."

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.