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SUN: Study investigates tools for Wildfire Control, The distance of abortion access in the Mountain West, + More

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Alice Fordham
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KUNM
Smoke bellows from a smoldering portion of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in northern New Mexico.

Study evaluates tools to control wildfire in sagebrush steppe– By Rachel Cohen, Boise State Public 

Invasive plants like cheatgrass are expanding in Western rangelands, speeding up the fire cycle in the sagebrush steppe, along with climate change, and threatening the most widespread ecosystem in the country.

But much more research has been done to evaluate wildfire mitigation tools in forests.

With funding from the Bureau of Land Management and the National Interagency Fire Center, a handful of researchers from universities in Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Utah teamed up to study different strategies to reduce fire intensity on the sagebrush landscape over the course of a decade.

The researchers looked at six sagebrush sites where annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass have also crept in.

They tested out prescribed fire, mechanical thinning, an herbicide and a control to see how they measured up according to a couple of goals.

“One is to reduce the fire behavior, so make it easier for firefighters to stop the fire,” said Dr. Eva Strand, an associate professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Idaho, who was an author of the study.

The other variable was the overall health of the habitat – for example, how sagebrush grew back over the course of the decade compared to invasive plants.

At several intervals, the researchers measured the vegetation in the different plots. They used those results to create fire behavior models that showed how quickly a fire would spread across a given landscape and how high the flames might be.

The results, published in the journal Ecosphere this month, showed burning and thinning reduced the overall amount of combustible vegetation, even through the 10-year mark, but the herbicide did not.

Another takeaway, according to Strand, was that while prescribed fire is a healthy management tool in forests, that’s not always the case in the sagebrush ecosystem.

“In an area where you have a lot of annual grasses to begin with, you probably wouldn't want to do a prescribed fire treatment,” she said.

That’s because the burns can make the cheatgrass problem worse, which can in turn speed up the fire cycle. But, this method works better in sagebrush at higher elevations.

Strand is also leading research evaluating fuel breaks used slow down fire in southern Idaho.

The growing distances across the Mountain West's 'abortion deserts' – Robyn Vincent, KUNC

When Julie Burkhart learned about the Supreme Court draft opinion that would end abortion protections, she let out an involuntary shriek from her airplane seat. “Because it felt like such a gut punch,” Burkhart said. “And then after that, getting into the opinion and reading that — it was chilling.”

Burkhart, who lives in Colorado, has long been at the center of the abortion access battle, one that is deepening in the Mountain West and across the nation. She's worked to expand access to reproductive rights for decades. Her mentor Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Witchita, Kan., was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009.

Tiller’s death, and trends limiting abortion access nationwide, compelled Burkhart to place a greater focus on what she calls “abortion deserts.”

Four years after Tiller’s death, Burkhart opened an abortion clinic in his former Witchita location, making it the only place to obtain an abortion within 200 miles.

Today, she's focused on another abortion desert — Wyoming, where there is just one provider in the entire state. Women’s Health and Family Care is located in Jackson, the exclusive mountain town in the far northwest corner of the state. It only offers medication abortions up to 10 weeks gestation.

Burkhart has had Wyoming on her radar for years, and little has changed in terms of its abortion resources. So her nonprofit, Wellspring Health Access, is opening the state’s only surgical abortion clinic this summer in Casper, a central Wyoming town of roughly 60,000 people. And she is moving forward despite protesters congregating outside the clinic each week, despite an act of suspected arson, and despite a new trigger law signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon in March that will outlaw most abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

The law's sponsor has called Wyoming's trigger law "an opportunity for women to work with life-affirming centers, to work with resources in their community, to help remove barriers so that they can carry to term.”

But Burkhart says such arguments gloss over social inequalities. She points out that people of color and those with lower incomes are disproportionately affected by abortion deserts. In Wyoming, that includes Indigenous women, who face a maternal death rate more than twice that of white women. She and a group of Wyoming advocates chose Casper for the clinic’s central location, but they plan to offer mobile services for women living on the Wind River Reservation some 100 miles away and in other remote communities.

Liza Fuentes, a senior research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for reproductive rights, says these systemic inequities have deep roots. Black women (who face the highest maternal death rates) and Indigenous women have long been denied the rights and resources to take care of themselves and their families as a consequence of multiple policies — “not just abortion bans, not just the Hyde Amendment, but the fundamental segregation of health care, the disproportionate application of criminal enforcement all affects the ability of women of color to decide if, when, and how to have a child and raise those children in a healthy environment.” she said.

For many women of color living in places that have restricted abortion access, Fuentes says, the distance to the next nearest provider becomes much farther, so to speak, when you factor in cost of travel and taking time off from work.

That distance might take you to Colorado, which seems a continent away from Wyoming when it comes to abortion access. It recently codified the right to an abortion. Now advocates anticipate the state’s abortion providers will shoulder a disproportionate burden due to trigger laws not only in Wyoming but in Utah and Idaho as well.

Texas's abortion ban might offer a preview. Dr. Warren Hern, for one, says he is seeing “double the number of patients” at his Colorado clinic since the Texas law went into effect last September.

The 83-year-old physician has witnessed the long and tumultuous trajectory of reproductive rights in America. In 1973, when the Roe decision legalized abortion, he helped launch a nonprofit abortion clinic in Boulder. Today he describes his private practice as “an abortion intensive care unit.”

“We see patients from all over the country — and we have for decades — who can't be seen in other places because the situations are more complicated,” he said. “The patients are further along. Many have fetal abnormality.”

Hern says his patients sometimes come in sobbing because of those fetal abnormalities, conditions diagnosed in the second trimester that jeopardize the health of the mother or baby.

Through it all, he continues to see his work as a calling. He remembers his days as a Peace Corps physician in Brazil, where abortion is a crime. He describes one hospital where there were two wards full of women suffering from unsafe abortions. Half of those women in the abortion wards died because they were too sick to save, he said. Now he worries there will be more illegal – and dangerous – procedures across the West’s abortion deserts if Roe is overturned.

The prospect of this weighs heavy on Jennica Heywood. The Utah resident had an abortion in 2015.

“It was a really difficult decision. I've always wanted to be a mom. I’ve always wanted to have children,” she said.

Heywood was 20 and in an abusive relationship when she decided to have an abortion. She says a lack of education made it hard for her to discern the sexual coercion she experienced.

“Because there is little to no sex education here in Utah, coercion is not necessarily something that is understood, explained, covered or given any sort of weight,” she said.

She was confused about fundamental things even, such as how pregnancy occurs, how quickly it can happen.

Today, Heywood uses the word “gratitude” a lot. Gratitude that she could access a safe abortion through Planned Parenthood, “gratitude” that she did not have a child with the wrong partner. She wonders if she would ever be able to break away from the “abusive, manipulative relationship” she was in otherwise.

Back in Wyoming, Julie Burkhart has been assessing vandalism at the Casper abortion clinic. On May 25, someone set fire to the building, an act of suspected arson, and the damage is delaying its planned June opening. But Burkhart’s moving forward regardless, even as she braces for the Supreme Court to deliver a devastating verdict.

“At the end of the day, what do we want? We want to be able to provide reproductive health care services in the state of Wyoming, and we want to keep it legal,” Burkhart said. “And in this environment, that’s pretty big."

Haaland announces moves to boost clean energy production on public lands in the Southwest – By Yvette Fernandez, KNPR, Kristen DeSilva, KNPR, KUNR Public Radio

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited Las Vegas on Tuesday to announce new efforts to support the growing clean energy economy and green jobs in Nevada and the Southwest.

Climate change poses an existential threat to our environment, health and economic wellbeing, according to Haaland.

In Las Vegas, Haaland announced two new developments to foster renewable energy efforts. One is a new policy to reduce by 50% rent and fees charged for wind and solar projects on public lands for existing and new projects.

“It will incentivize industry to partner in responsible solar and wind development and help encourage and inspire to invest and compete in the clean energy economy,” she said.

A second development is the creation of five new renewable energy coordination offices to handle the increasing number of applications by wind, solar and geothermal developers through the Bureau of Land Management.

The coordination offices include a national office at BLM’s headquarters, state offices in Arizona, California and Nevada, as well as a regional office in Utah.

Both projects are within the Biden administration’s goal of a net-zero economy by 2050.

“The Bureau of Land Management continues to take bold steps to attract renewable energy investments on public lands in a way that is environmentally sound,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “This will help support our clean energy economy by creating good-paying jobs, increasing our energy security, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Roswell 'ballot bins' urge residents to pick up, not litterBy Juno Ogle, Roswell

A little humor can go a long way in delivering a serious message, Kathy Lay learned, so now Roswell residents and visitors can vote with their cigarette butts on questions about UFOs, aliens and New Mexico's ubiquitous chile question.

Keep Roswell Beautiful has placed three yellow "ballot bins" at downtown bus stops that pose the questions "Is there life on other planets?" "Did aliens crash near Roswell?" and "Red or green?" Smokers can vote for their answer by placing their cigarette butts in the corresponding side of the bin.

Lay, the city's volunteer and outreach coordinator and staff liaison for Keep Roswell Beautiful, said the bins are part of the organization's litter prevention campaign, the Roswell Daily Record reported. Lay said when she was researching what kind of campaign the organization could do, she was surprised to see many references to cigarette butts being the No. 1 most-littered item and the dangers they pose to the environment.

"Both of those facts shocked me," she said.

According to a 2009 study at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California-San Francisco, cigarette filters are made of plastic materials that will break down under sunlight but are not bio-degradable. Further studies show the filters contain residues of the chemicals used to grow and process tobacco and manufacture cigarettes and can leach more than 4,000 chemicals into soil and water.

The study also stated that 5.6 trillion cigarettes were consumed worldwide in 2002 and that an estimated 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts wind up as litter worldwide.

"Even after those filters have turned into plastic dust, the toxins remain in the soils, and so we're trying to keep them out of the general land areas and especially out of the waterways," Lay said.

Because the cigarette butts are light, they can be easily be blown around and could eventually end up in the Spring River or Hondo River and then the Pecos River, she said. Their small size can also make them more difficult to remove from waterways, as they can get caught in vegetation, she said.

"The one fact that blew me away is that one cigarette butt in a liter of water kills half the fish," she said. "If they get in small pools, two or three cigarettes in that area will make that part of the water toxic and start killing fish," she said.

In designing the campaign, Lay said she didn't want it to appear to be critical of those who do smoke.

"I didn't want to come across as if it was trying to attack anyone, I just wanted people to understand how serious it was and how harmful they were so that people who do smoke would understand the impact and take actions that would change their behavior," she said.

She began to research campaigns on cigarette litter and found that a humorous approach using the ballot bins — voting with your butt — has seen success.

"Every place they did these, it got a lot of buzz. Everybody would laugh and then they look into what is it about, and then they were more open to receiving the message and not feeling that it was shoving it down their throat," she said.

She chose the questions as a fun way to reflect local and state culture, she said.

"I just wanted to hit just a couple of the things that are unique to Roswell and unique to New Mexico," she said.

The campaigns are popular in Europe, and unable to find U.S. supplier for the ballot bins, she ended up buying them from the United Kingdom.

Lay said as she learned about the effects cigarette filters can have on wildlife, she wanted to incorporate animals into the campaign while keeping the humor. She worked with the city's graphic designers and videographer to create billboards, social media graphics and videos featuring animals mostly native to New Mexico for a #NoButts4Me angle of the campaign.

The graphics feature animals such as an elk saying "No one wants to see your butts" and giving facts and disposal tips about cigarette filters. The short videos — posted on the Keep Roswell Beautiful Facebook page and city YouTube channel — feature different "talking" animals.

The bins have been in place for a couple of months. Lay said bus stops were chosen because those are areas where cigarette butt litter is often noticeable as people discard a cigarette before getting on the bus.

Lay collects the cigarette butts herself, she said, and sends them to a New Jersey company, Teracycle, that recycles cigarette waste. Anyone 21 or older can register to send cigarette butts to the company for free.

According to the company website, users can print off a mailing label to send a package of waste to the company.

Lay said there aren't plans at this point to add more bins. The message is the most important part of the campaign, she said.

"I don't know that they're going to be that instrumental in stopping litter in that spot. I do think they're instrumental in getting people's attention. It's a tool, not just for the immediate area, but as a tool to leverage to get the word out," she said.