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WED: New Mexico lawmakers seek assurances amid prescribed burns, + More

Tina Shaw
Tina Shaw, USFWS
Wikimedia Commons
Tina Shaw

New Mexico lawmakers seek assurances amid prescribed burns - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are looking for assurances from the U.S. Forest Service that the agency is taking preventative measures to ensure that future prescribed fires don't turn into disasters.

They sent a letter this week to Forest Chief Randy Moore, pointing to the largest wildfire in state history that was sparked last year by the federal government. It charred more than 530 square miles of the Rocky Mountain foothills, destroying homes and livelihoods.

"A disaster of this proportion cannot happen again," U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Gabe Vasquez wrote.

The letter comes as the agency moves ahead with a $1 billion investment to reduce the risk of wildfire across 45 million acres in the Western U.S. It's a massive undertaking that involves more than 20 landscapes that are considered at highest risk. They stretch from arid New Mexico and Arizona to Idaho and Montana.

The New Mexico lawmakers said they understand the role that prescribed fires will play as land managers look to restore overgrown and unhealthy forests amid climate change.

Still reeling from the damage caused by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon blaze, they told Moore that trust can be restored in the agency's methods through communication with communities about upcoming burns — and by explaining how protocols have been modified to ensure prescribed fires remain contained.

"The U.S. Forest Service admitted fault, but we have a long way to go before they regain the trust of New Mexicans," Leger Fernández said in a statement. "This letter requests that the (Forest Service) clearly explain what they plan to change to prevent another grave error like this. Our lands, forests, waters and communities cannot afford anything less, and our people deserve it."

Moore has yet to issue a formal response to the lawmakers, but he promised in an address earlier this year that collaboration with communities and Native American tribes is a priority for the Biden administration.

Prompted by the New Mexico blaze, the agency last spring halted all prescribed burn operations for 90 days while it conducted a review of procedures and policies. By the end of the moratorium, managers learned that they can't rely on past success, and must continuously learn and adapt to changing conditions, Moore said.

A report on the cause of the New Mexico fire pointed to a series of missteps by the agency, most notably that officials underestimated the amount of timber and vegetation that was available to fuel the flames — and the exceptional, dry conditions that had been plaguing the area for years.

Federal agencies have completed reviews of more than 30 fires between 2017 and 2022, including three in New Mexico.

In 2005, the federal government conducted what officials at the time called the first known attempt to take a comprehensive look at escaped prescribed fires and near misses, reviewing 30 cases to discover recurring lessons, and whether there were emerging trends or gaps in knowledge.

Common problems with the burn plans included complexity, risk assessments and the lack of fire behavior calculations — similar to the issues encountered years later, with New Mexico's historic fire.

Just weeks ago, the Santa Fe National Forest delayed a project to burn debris piles in northern New Mexico due to snow and wind.

Managers promised that the burned piles will be monitored closely, and every precaution will be taken to ensure the piles are out before the arrival of spring winds and warming trends.

Federal maps show there are pile burns and other prescribed burn operations planned or currently underway across the West.

Ex-Navajo President Zah guided by love for people, family - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Peterson Zah, a monumental Navajo Nation leader who guided the tribe through a politically tumultuous era and worked tirelessly to correct wrongdoings against Native Americans, has died.

Zah died late Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a lengthy illness, Navajo President Buu Nygren's office said. He was 85.

Zah was the first president elected on the Navajo Nation — the largest tribal reservation in the U.S. — in 1990 after the government was restructured into three branches to prevent power from being concentrated in the chairman's office. At the time, the tribe was reeling from a deadly riot incited by Zah's political rival, former Chairman Peter MacDonald, a year earlier.

Zah vowed to rebuild the tribe, and to support family and education, speaking with people in ways that imparted mutual respect, said his longtime friend Eric Eberhard. Zah was as comfortable putting on dress clothes to represent Navajos in Washington, D.C., as he was driving his old pickup truck around the reservation and sitting on the ground, listening to people who were struggling, he said.

"People trusted him, they knew he was honest," Eberhard said Tuesday.

Aspiring politicians on and off the Navajo Nation sought Zah's advice and endorsement. He rode with Hillary Clinton in the Navajo Nation parade a month before Bill Clinton was elected president. Zah later campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency.

He recorded countless campaign advertisements over the years in the Navajo language that aired on the radio, mostly siding with Democrats. But he made friends with Republicans, too, including the late Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain, whom he endorsed in the 2000 presidential election as someone who could work across the aisle.

Zah was born in December 1937 in remote Low Mountain, a section of the reservation embroiled in a decades-long land dispute with the neighboring Hopi Tribe that resulted in the relocation of thousands of Navajos and hundreds of Hopis. He attended boarding school, graduating from the Phoenix Indian School, and rejected notions that he wasn't suited for college, Eberhard said.

Zah attended community college, then Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship where he earned a degree in education. He went on to teach carpentry on the reservation and other vocational skills. He later co-founded a federally funded legal advocacy organization that served Navajos, Hopis and Apaches that still exists today.

Under Zah's leadership, the tribe established a now multi-billion Permanent Fund in 1985 after winning a court battle with Kerr McGee that found the tribe had authority to tax companies that extract minerals from the 27,000 square-mile reservation. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, which increased payments to the tribe. A portion of that money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.

Despite never having held an elected position, Zah captured the tribal chairman's post in 1982, campaigning in a white, battered 1950s International pickup that he fixed up himself, drove for decades and that became a symbol of his low-key style, Eberhard said.

Under Zah's leadership, the tribe established a now multi-billion-dollar Permanent Fund in 1985 after winning a court battle with Kerr McGee that found the tribe had authority to tax companies that extract minerals from the 27,000 square-mile reservation. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, which increased payments to the tribe. A portion of that money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.

Zah sometimes was referred to as the Native American Robert Kennedy because of his charisma, ideas and ability to get things done, including lobbying federal officials to ensure Native Americans could use peyote as a religious sacrament, his longtime friend Charles Wilkinson said last year.

Zah also worked to ensure Native Americans were reflected in federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Zah told The Associated Press in January 2022 that respecting people's differences was key to maintaining a sense of beauty in life and improving the world for future generations. He struggled to name the thing he's most proud of after receiving a lifetime achievement award from a Flagstaff-based environmental group.

"It's hard for me to prioritize in that order," he said. "It's something I enjoyed doing all my life. People have passion, we're born with that, plus a purpose in life."

Zah said he could not have done the work alone and credited team efforts that always included his wife, Rosalind. Throughout his life, he never claimed to be an extraordinary Navajo, just a Navajo with extraordinary experiences.

That resonated with students at Arizona State University where Zah served as the Native American liaison to the school's president for 15 years, boosting the number of Native students and the number of Native graduates. Zah also pushed colleges and universities to accept Navajo students — regardless of whether they graduated in the Arizona, New Mexico or Utah portion of the reservation — at in-state tuition rates.

"It's thousands upon thousands of Native students not only from Navajo who he encouraged to stay in school, seek advanced degrees and was available to counsel when they hit the rough spots," said Eberhard, who worked for Zah while he was chairman. "He completely altered the way Arizona State University works with Native students."

Nygren said he first interacted with Zah as a student at ASU, struck by Zah's speech that he described as quiet and structured but powerful and vivid.

"To see him on the ASU campus brought a lot of inspiration to myself," he said. "I probably wouldn't have gone into construction management if he wasn't so influential at ASU."

Zah remained active in Navajo politics after he left ASU, as a consultant to other Navajo leaders topics ranging from education, veterans and housing.

"He was a good and honest man, a man with heart," former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said late Tuesday. "And his heart was with his family, with the people, with the youth and, certainly, with our nation, our culture and our way of life."

Police name suspect in Albuquerque double homicide - Associated Press

Authorities have identified a man who they say stabbed his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend numerous times before shooting himself at an Albuquerque home in late February.

Albuquerque police said Tuesday that Yoel Rodriguez, 48, had been in a long-term relationship with Danay Morales-Hernandez, but they recently broke up. Relatives told detectives that their relationship began in Cuba and the couple later moved to Florida, Texas and then to New Mexico.

Police say Rodriguez found out Morales-Hernandez, 36, was in a new relationship and showed up at the home where she was living with her two daughters and Omar Rodriguez-Hechemendia, 25, who had recently arrived from Los Angeles to visit her.

Rodriguez-Hechemendia had taken one of the girls to school when Rodriguez entered the home and stabbed Morales-Hernandez multiple times. Police said the woman's 2-year-old daughter was by her side when officers arrived.

After killing his ex-girlfriend, Rodriguez stabbed Omar Rodriguez-Hechemendia multiple times and attempted to shoot him.

Rodriguez-Hechemendia made his way into the street in front of the home, where motorists found him. He was taken to a hospital and later died.

Authorities said Rodriguez was found in the home, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Family members told detectives the couple had a long history of domestic violence, including an incident just months earlier in which Rodriguez was charged for shooting at Morales-Hernandez.

Family members told authorities she did not want to cooperate with prosecutors and dropped her restraining order against Rodriguez because she did not want the father of her children to spend time in prison.

New Mexico may curb paramilitaries near southern US border - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislators in New Mexico are advancing legislation to rein in paramilitary patrols that have popped up in recent years to halt migrants near the international border with Mexico and at a protest over a statue of a Spanish conquistador.

The bill places New Mexico among several states weighing changes this year to restrictions on paramilitary organizations.

Lawmakers in Oregon and Vermont also are considering initiatives aimed at limiting activities by private militarized groups. Legislators in Idaho are moving in the other direction by advancing a bill to repeal a state law banning private militias, despite criticism that the move could dangerously embolden existing paramilitary groups in the region. A narrow ban on municipal-run paramilitary groups would remain in place.

Democratic state Rep. Raymundo Lara of Sunland Park is cosponsoring the New Mexico initiative and says it gives district attorneys new tools and discretion by making it a crime for armed paramilitary organizations to engage in public patrols capable to causing injury or death with provisions regarding intimidation. The bill includes felony penalties including prison.

The bill emerged Monday from House committee vetting for a possible floor vote, with the backing of Democrats. Republican House legislators have raised concerns that the proposal could interfere with neighborhood-watch style groups that respond to crime or limit opportunities for businesses in New Mexico that have provided tactical training to visiting security forces.

Lara said the proposal doesn't interfere with private firearms training or New Mexico's relatively permissive gun laws that allow both open carry of firearms and concealed handguns with permit and training requirements.

"That's going to be up to the district attorney, whether they do an investigation ... (to) find out if they are connected in any way, if there's some kind of command structure," he said.

Lara said the proposal responds to incidents in 2019 in which armed members of the United Constitutional Patriots stopped migrants near the international border in southernmost New Mexico at Sunland Park, and in 2020 when men with long guns and tactical equipment showed up at a chaotic protest in Albuquerque about a statute of early Spanish settler Juan de Oñate, who is both revered and reviled.

The armed group in Albuquerque known as the New Mexico Civil Guard was recently barred by a state district court judge from publicly acting as a military unit without authorization.

James Grayson, a chief deputy state attorney general who previously worked on the case against the New Mexico Civil Guard, told legislators this week that prosecutors don't have adequate tools to address militarized groups that can pose a danger to public protesters and authorized law enforcement.

The bill from Lara defines a paramilitary organization as a group of three or more people with a command structure aimed at functioning in public as a combat, enforcement or security unit.

Banned paramilitary activities also include interfering with government operations or a government proceeding and actions that deprive others of their rights. Paramilitary groups also would be prohibited from posturing deceptively as peace officers.

At Sunland Park, the United Constitutional Patriots were eventually pressured into leaving by local law enforcement amid accusations of trespassing on railroad property. One member of the group was convicted of impersonating a federal officer, while another was convicted on federal firearms charges.

Armed civilian groups have been an intermittent presence on the border for years, portraying themselves as auxiliaries to the U.S. Border Patrol and operating in areas where agents are not stationed.

New Mexico Legislature votes to block local abortion bans - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An initiative that would shore up abortion access in New Mexico amid a flurry of local anti-abortion ordinances cleared a last major hurdle on Tuesday with state Senate approval.

New Mexico has one of the country's most liberal abortion access laws, but two counties and three cities in eastern New Mexico have recently adopted abortion restrictions that reflect deep-seated opposition to offering the procedure.

Democratic state Sen. Katy Duhigg, of Albuquerque, urged colleagues to support a bill that would prohibit local governments from blocking access to reproductive health care, including abortion, birth control, and prevention of or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

"It ensures the local governments can't block access to that care," said Duhigg. "Your ability to access life-saving health care is really limited by your zip code right now."

State Senate approval on a 23-15 vote nearly ensures the bill will reach Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a staunch supporter of abortion rights. The governor is one of 20 state leaders working together to strengthen abortion access. House approval of Senate amendments is pending before the bill can be signed.

The bill could impact abortion access for residents of neighboring states with abortion bans, including Texas.

The Democratic-sponsored bill would also ban local restrictions on gender-affirming care, which typically can include puberty-blocking medication, hormone therapy or surgeries. That provision is a counterpoint to proposed bans on gender-affirming care for minors or young adults in more than two dozen states.

An additional bill working its way through New Mexico's Legislature would protect abortion providers and patients from out-of-state interference, prosecution or extradition attempts.

In 2021, New Mexico's Democrat-led Legislature passed a measure to repeal a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures, ensuring access to abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

The local ordinances adopted in New Mexico are similar to the effort to ban abortion in local jurisdictions by Mark Lee Dickson, founder of the Texas-based Sanctuary Cities of the Unborn organization.

Anti-abortion ordinances, adopted over the past several months by officials in the cities of Hobbs, Clovis and Eunice, along with Lea and Roosevelt counties, reference an obscure U.S. anti-obscenity law that prohibits shipping of medication or other materials intended to aid abortions.

An hourslong debate on the state Senate floor Tuesday was peppered with emotional stories in support and opposition to the bill that touched on personal and family decisions about abortion and health care in the wake of rape and gender identity for young people.

"My granddaughter was saved because my daughter came to us to ask for help ... I have one grandchild; I would have been without any," said Republican state Sen. David Gallegos, of Eunice, who unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to require an ultrasound be performed prior to abortions for mothers "to see the life of the child."

Democratic state Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, of Silver City, said the bill would ensure medical care isn't withheld amid complex decisions about pregnancies.

"These are not decisions that are made lightly," she said. "Each pregnancy is unique and health care providers need to be able to provide the care that their patients need without government interference."

Separately, Democratic state Attorney General Raúl Torrez has urged the state Supreme Court to intervene against local abortion ordinances that he says violate state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

CYFD could become more transparent with new legislation - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

The identities of children and their families are often protected by the state Children, Youth and Families Department through the state’s Children’s Code, which greatly restricts disclosure about ongoing and past cases.

As the Albuquerque Journal reports, that lack of transparency has led to criticism about oversight and accountability at the agency.

Now, a bill moving its way through the legislature could change that.

House Bill 10 is scheduled to be heard before the House Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday morning. It would essentially open the doors to CYFD’s often undisclosed and privatized information.

Advocates like Alison Endicott-Quiñones, the legal director of Advocacy Inc., the largest provider of legal representation for children in foster care in New Mexico tells the Journal that “You can’t fix something you can’t see,” and too many pieces of the CYFD system are broken.

Bill to assist coal workers passes HouseNM Political Report, KUNM News

A bill to expand eligibility for funding that the Energy Transition Act of 2019 made available to employees who lost their jobs at the San Juan Mine or the San Juan Generating Station passed the House of Representatives on a 64-0 vote yesterday.

According to theNM Political Report the bill removes language in the ETA that limits the people eligible for displaced worker assistance to those who have been laid off within the previous 12 months.

But the funding was not available when the first workers lost their jobs in November 2020.

Funds were not available until last summer.

Bill sponsor Democratic Representative Anthony Allison said that the closures were a big blow “to many of our friends and relatives.”

New Mexico weighs tax credits for kids, electric vehicles - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislators on Monday advanced a package of state tax changes aimed at providing financial relief to New Mexico families with young children, residents of low or modest incomes and military veterans.

The package also includes incentives aimed a reducing climate-warming pollution by offering refundable tax credits to residents who purchase electric vehicles and install related car-charging equipment, along with home-energy storage system.

A legislative panel advanced the bill on a 9-4 vote toward a likely House vote. The Democratic-led Legislature has until noon on March 18 to send bills to the governor.

Democratic state Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, lead sponsor of the proposed tax changes, said the goal is to put more money in the pockets of working parents, retirees and veterans while bolstering small businesses and supporting climate goals.

"We focus on what I think is important to the state: progressivity in our taxes, reforms to personal income tax rates to lower taxes to low- and middle income filers, while ensuring those at the top of the income scale pay their fair share," Lente said.

Notably, the child income tax credit would increase to as much as $600, from $175, per child for families with lower incomes. Per-child credits would taper to $400 and $200 for families with higher earnings.

The entire package would cost the state more than $500 million in forgone government income. It still leaves room for direct individual tax rebates of $300, or $600 per couple, at a cost to the state of more than $400 million, Lente told the legislative panel.

The bill would overhaul income tax brackets with lower rates for some demographics and higher rates for top earners — as high as 6.9% for individuals making more than $250,000 annually.

The state's portion of the gross receipts tax on sales and services would decline by half a percentage point, settling at about 4.4% by July of 2024. Combined state and local gross receipts tax rates currently range from about 6% to 8.5% across the state, depending on location.

The bill would increase liquor excise taxes, with exceptions for small breweries and wineries, to provide more money for programs to treat alcohol dependency and prevent drunken driving. It would also eliminate a tax exemption for cigars, and extend income tax exemptions for military veterans on retirement pay above $30,000 through 2031.

The state would provide a $2,500 refundable personal income tax credit toward the purchase of an electric vehicle — or up to to $4,000 for low-income residents, with an additional $300 credit for car-charging equipment and installation. Eligible vehicles can't cost more than $55,000.

The proposal also is designed to increase tax collections on capital gains from income on investments.

Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce CEO Terri Cole urged legislators to reject the bundled tax changes, arguing that even selective rate increases are unnecessary amid a multibillion-dollar budget surplus.

"For businesses, this is a disappointing tax package," she said.

Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup said he favors cash rebates that are focused on people with fixed incomes and the poor, fearing universal rebates will lead to mark-ups on retail prices as rebate checks and transfers go out.

"It drives inflation up," he said.