WED: NM Tourism Department reports record $8.3 billion in 2022 visitor spending, + More
NM Tourism Department reports record $8.3 billion in 2022 visitor spending - Alice Fordham, KUNM News
The state Tourism Department reports that visitors spent a record $8.3 billion in New Mexico last year, sustaining more than 70,000 jobs statewide.
The money was spent by a record number of visitors. The department estimates that more than 40 million trips were made to New Mexico last year, of which about 17 million were overnight visits.
There was a slight increase in business travel, but most people visited for leisure, with more than half of them including an outdoor activity during their time in the state.
The influx of visitors spent nearly $3 billion on lodging and about $2 billion dollars on food and drink.
The department's new report notes that New Mexico benefited from being included in the Lonely Planet's list of 30 places to visit in 2023, with the guide suggesting visitors take the opportunity to learn about Indigenous culture.
And, the report states that nearly of that half of the tourism cash was spent in rural communities. Earlier this year, the Tourism Department awarded millions of dollars in grants to rural communities to advertise their unique cultural and environmental features.
Overall, the industry makes up about 7% of the state's total economy.
Heinrich joins call for U.S. to contribute to UN’s humanitarian efforts in Gaza - By Nash Jones, KUNM News
New Mexico’s senior U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich joined over 30 of his Democratic colleagues Wednesday in calling for the U.S. to support the United Nations’ efforts when it provides humanitarian aid to Gaza and the West Bank.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senators cite a UN appeal for $294 million in emergency aid for Palestinians, urging the Biden Administration to “join the international community in answering the call,” as well as helping with distribution.
Biden todayannounced $100 million in humanitarian aid for Palestinians, including emergency needs in Gaza. The White House confirmed to reporters at the Messenger that these are existing funds that won’t need Congressional approval.
A spokesperson for Heinrich’s office told KUNM it’ll be at Biden’s discretion whether to allocate those funds to the UN’s appeal, as the senators are urging.
In a statement, Heinrich wrote, “As we continue to stand by Israel’s right to defend itself, we must also state clearly that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad do not represent the Palestinian people.”
The senators cited UN estimates that Gaza will be without water and food within days, and that medical supplies are “running desperately short.” Of the over 1 million people who have fled Gaza, nearly half have turned to UN facilities for shelter, according to the letter.
Forest Service cancels prescribed burn near Santa Fe - Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News
The U.S. Forest Service announced today/yesterday [WED] that it cancelled a prescribed burn near the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.
The cancellation comes after two community meetings, including one earlier this month, which “came at the request of more than one community group,” according to the Forest Service.
The North Aztec Springs burn was going to occur on the northwest corner of the watershed, alongside the communities of Hyde Park Estates, Paseo Segundo, High Summit, Los Cerros Colorados, Cerro Gordo and Upper Canyon.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the cancellation came after evaluations of weather patterns and fuel moisture, which showed they didn’t comply with criteria set out in the prescribed fire plan.
Fire managers say they will plan to reschedule the burn for sometime next year when conditions improve.
State to decide before 2024 where to send $6 million for northwestern NM economic development - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
Setting up solar. Making housing more accessible. Boosting local food production. Starting up hydrogen energy productions. Expanding educational opportunities at local colleges.
These are all projects local, out-of-state and even international organizations are vying to set up in northwestern New Mexico to help communities recover from a massive coal plant shutdown that happened in 2022.
It’s up to the New Mexico Economic Development Department now to decide which initiatives to fund.
Dozens of community members, including Indigenous residents and environmental activists, waited hours at a public meeting on Oct. 12 for a chance to speak up about which of these organizations they want to see receive the money in San Juan County.
Many expressed support for very local, Indigenous-led projects.
They spoke to a community advisory committee that was formed by the 2019 Energy Transition Act to help recommend how the state should spend funds the Public Service Company of New Mexico legally had to make available due to the closure of its coal plant.
There’s a total of $20 million energy transition funds available. From that, the New Mexico Economic Development Department has about $6 million to distribute for non-fossil fuel-related development.
The community advisory committee recommended four companies for the state to reward the funds. These proposals are focused on either hydrogen, energy storage or coal ash reuse.
Many members of the public spoke against these projects.
The New Mexico Economic Development Department will consider the recommendations of the committee and reach out to lawmakers, stakeholders and the governor’s office to figure out how to best use the funds, said agency spokesperson Bruce Krasnow.
He said the department plans on choosing before the end of the year which projects will get funding.
Source NM reviewed the project proposals submitted in 2020 that the state economic agency posted online. Funding requests range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars.
Twenty-six separate initiatives are seeking different ways to boost the local economy in the Four Corners county.
At last week’s public meeting, many community members said they want to see funding go to hyper-local, Native-led organizations.
About a dozen of the 26 projects are Indigenous-led or have collaborations with Native leaders or organizations.
Even fewer are actually based within 100 miles of the inoperative San Juan Generating Station — the area supposed to reap the benefits of the energy transition funds — though many of the proposals have worked in or near San Juan County before.
Multiple projects propose pursuing renewable energy initiatives, educational opportunities that would create college courses or new teaching positions, or ways to boost food security, like creating local markets and co-ops.
The four organizations the community advisory committee recommends to equally split the $6 million are Big Navajo Energy, Kinetic Power, Libertad Power and SonoAsh.
Libertad, partly based in San Juan County, and Big Navajo Energy, based about 50 miles away in Red Valley, Arizona, would create hydrogen energy facilities.
Santa Fe-based Kinetic Power is focused on hydroelectric energy storage, and Canada-based SonoAsh proposes reusing coal ash. All four projects would operate in San Juan County.
It’s still up to the state at the end of the day where to send the $6 million, and it could still pick from the other proposals the committee didn’t recommend.
Community members and activists argued against the hydrogen-involved projects, bringing up the potential for greenhouse gas emissions or substantial water usage.
Eleanor Smith is a community organizer with Tó Nizhóní Ání (Sacred Water Speaks). She voiced concerns about the negative impacts hydrogen would have on the environment and climate. Smith (Diné) said they would support renewable energy developments like wind and solar instead.
“Here on Navajo, we have been decimated by the fossil fuel industry for decades,” she said.
The tragedies continue today.
State-appointed convener Jason Sandel, an oil executive, said everyone has different interpretations if hydrogen energy is a form of fossil fuels. This echoes an ongoing national debate about potential negative environmental consequences following the Biden administration’s announcement last week dedicating $7 billion to hydrogen hub projects around the U.S.
New Mexico did not receive any of this funding for federally subsidized hydrogen hubs.
How clean hydrogen actually is depends on how it’s produced, and most hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
However, the hydrogen companies the committee recommended last week have committed to using water rather than natural gas.
Many public commenters asked, where is that water coming in the southwest from during a drought?
Joseph Merlino, managing partner at Libertad Power, told Source NM that Libertad’s project wouldn’t actually be taking up that much water because the proposed system, which would produce around 15 to 30 tons of hydrogen per day, isn’t that big. He said the company is also exploring possibilities of pulling from non-freshwater sources, like municipal wastewater systems or greywater.
“It’s not that big a water contract. It won’t be a problem sourcing that water,” he said.
It’s understandable that people are unsure about hydrogen, Merlino said, especially since it’s a new technology.
“We certainly welcome scrutiny,” he said. “We’re always happy to have reasonable conversations with folks and answer questions about what we’re trying to do.”
A few different proposals not recommended by the committee would set up more solar energy in the Four Corners region. Native Renewables is one initiative multiple people supported last week. The proposal aims to set up solar for 500 families on the Navajo Nation using $12 million.
Wendy Atcitty is the Indigenous energy program manager for Naeva, a Native-led rights advocacy organization. Atcitty (Navajo) told Source NM a lot of people in northwestern New Mexico are living without electricity, despite living somewhere labeled as a “sacrifice zone.”
Many homes on the Navajo Nation, which takes up a majority of San Juan County, historically have lacked access to electricity.
“After decades of helping build the energy economy out here, it just doesn’t make sense,” Atcitty said.
Another proposal the committee didn’t choose to recommend was from Navajo Technical University, which had a goal to set up a program to train displaced coal plant workers in advanced manufacturing, transferring skill sets developed at the generating station.
An employee with the university said at the meeting that although Navajo Tech wasn’t chosen, the school can find other avenues of funding.
The much smaller, local organizations can’t, and that it is a “disservice to underfund” other community projects, he said.
Multiple community and committee members questioned how the four projects were chosen in the first place.
Sandel said these initiatives have a strong potential for leveraging the $6 million effectively for the community. He said the goal is to create long-term jobs, and he’s concerned that there isn’t longevity in other proposals submitted, like with the solar industry projects.
“I fully recognize and acknowledge and embrace there is an active conversation about what type of economic development is needed and wanted inside of the community, and that consensus might not be possible,” he said.
Kimberly Simpson, a committee member from the city of Bloomfield, tried to table action on deciding which projects to recommend, but nobody seconded the motion so it didn’t move forward.
The final vote to recommend the four projects was 5-2.
State-appointed conveners Sandel, Tom Taylor and Glojean Todacheene as well as San Juan County Commissioner Steve Lanier and San Juan College board member John Thompson voted to recommend the four companies.
Simpson and Joseph Hernandez voted against it.
Jeff Blackburn, Aztec city manager, and Warren Unsicker, city of Farmington director of economic development, abstained.
Feds object to judge’s nod to settle Rio Grande SCOTUS case - By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
Whether the water is low or high, the Supreme Court fight over Rio Grande water stretches on.
The latest iteration of the legal fights that span decades, is the Texas claim before the U.S. Supreme Court that New Mexico groundwater pumping below Elephant Butte Reservoir shorts the downstream state its rights to the river’s water.
This would be a violation of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, which splits the water between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
A recent settlement proposal between the three states was accepted by a federal judge overseeing the case as special master in July.
Not everyone is on board.
The federal government officially laid out its objections to the special master’s recommendation that the U.S. Supreme Court adopt a compromise to end the lawsuit over the Rio Grande’s water between Texas and New Mexico.
In a 96-page document, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar and other Department of Justice attorneys lay out three legal arguments arguing why the high court should reject the deal.
First and foremost, they argue, settlement is impossible without the federal government’s consent.
A settlement requires consent from each party, and the agreement adds a “host of obligations,” on the federal operation of the Rio Grande Project, which delivers water in a series of canals and ditches to two regional irrigation districts and to Mexico.
Finally, the federal government argues the settlement violates the compact by moving the location of water deliveries, and fails to recognize a “1938 baseline,” of minimal groundwater pumping.
The proposed settlement uses a mathematical model to determine splitting the water, based on drought conditions from 1951 until 1972, when drought and development pushed pumping to increase significantly. Much of the region’s agriculture and its entire residential use is pumped from groundwater.
The federal government argues using the model violates the Compact.
“But the baseline on which the Compact was predicated was the baseline that existed when the Compact was signed — not decades later, after groundwater pumping in New Mexico had greatly increased and drawn water away from the Project,” the federal government wrote.
The region is already expecting the state government to curb pumping – with the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer announcing the need to cut 17,000 acre feet to meet the settlement using the proposed model.
TheElephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 supported the federal government’s position in legal briefs of their own.
They agreed that the state compacts have no authority over the operation of the Rio Grande Project.
The Supreme Court has accepted the federal government’s arguments over a special master’s recommendation in this case before. In 2018, justices unanimously admitted the Department of Justice as a party into the case.
Additional responses and replies from the party will be collected into 2024, and there’s no expectation of scheduling a hearing with the Supreme Court until then.
Prosecutors seeking to recharge Alec Baldwin in fatal shooting on set of Western movie 'Rust' — Associated Press
Special prosecutors are seeking to recharge actor Alec Baldwin in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on the set of a Western movie in 2021, describing Tuesday their preparations to present new information to a grand jury.
New Mexico-based prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis said they'll present their case to the grand jury within the next two months, noting "additional facts" have come to light in the shooting on the set of the film "Rust" that killed Halyna Hutchins.
Baldwin, a coproducer of the film, was pointing a gun at Hutchins during a rehearsal inside a rustic chapel on a movie-set ranch near Santa Fe when the gun went off on Oct. 21, 2021, killing the cinematographer and wounding director Joel Souza.
"After extensive investigation over the past several months, additional facts have come to light that we believe show Mr. Baldwin has criminal culpability in the death of Halyna Hutchins and the shooting of Joel Souza," Morrissey and Lewis said in an email. "We believe the appropriate course of action is to permit a panel of New Mexico citizens to determine from here whether Mr. Baldwin should be held over for criminal trial."
They declined to elaborate on the additional information they may present to the grand jury.
Baldwin has said he pulled back the hammer — but not the trigger — and the gun fired.
Attorneys for Baldwin said the latest move by prosecutors is misguided.
"It is unfortunate that a terrible tragedy has been turned into this misguided prosecution. We will answer any charges in court," Luke Nikas and Alex Spiro said in an email.
Special prosecutors initially dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin in April, saying they were informed the gun might have been modified before the shooting and malfunctioned. They later pivoted and began weighing whether to refile a charge against Baldwin after receiving a new analysis of the gun.
The recent gun analysis from experts in ballistics and forensic testing based in Arizona and New Mexico relied on replacement parts to reassemble the gun fired by Baldwin — after parts of the pistol were broken during earlier testing by the FBI. The report examined the gun and markings it left on a spent cartridge to conclude that the trigger had to have been pulled or depressed.
The analysis led by Lucien Haag of Forensic Science Services in Arizona stated that although Baldwin repeatedly denies pulling the trigger, "given the tests, findings and observations reported here, the trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver."
An earlier FBI report on the agency's analysis of the gun found that, as is common with firearms of that design, it could go off without pulling the trigger if force was applied to an uncocked hammer — such as by dropping the weapon.
The only way the testers could get it to fire was by striking the gun with a mallet while the hammer was down and resting on the cartridge, or by pulling the trigger while it was fully cocked. The gun eventually broke during testing.
Authorities have not specified exactly how live ammunition found its way on set and into the .45-caliber revolver made by an Italian company that specializes in 19th century reproductions.
The weapons supervisor on the movie set, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and evidence tampering in the case. Her trial is scheduled to begin in February.
In March, "Rust" assistant director and safety coordinator David Halls pleaded no contest to unsafe handling of a firearm and received a suspended sentence of six months of probation. He agreed to cooperate in the investigation of the shooting.
In the revived case against Baldwin, first reported by NBC News, a grand jury would "determine whether probable cause exists to bind Baldwin over on criminal charges," special prosecutors said.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor who provides legal commentary as head of West Coast Trial Lawyers in Los Angeles, said prosecutors reserved the right to reopen the case by dismissing charges "without prejudice," and that he'd be surprised if a grand jury didn't return an indictment.
Unlike a jury trial in which guilt must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt," the standard on possible charges before a grand jury is a lower "probable cause" finding, Rahmani said.
"It's just a one-sided presentation by prosecutors," he said.
The 2021 shooting resulted in a series of civil lawsuits centered on accusations that the defendants were lax with safety standards. The cases have included wrongful death claims filed by members of Hutchins' family. Baldwin and other defendants have disputed the accusations that they were lax with safety standards.
The company Rust Movie Productions has paid a $100,000 fine to state workplace safety regulators following a scathing narrative of safety failures in violation of standard industry protocols, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires on set before the fatal shooting.
The filming of "Rust" resumed this year in Montana, under an agreement with the cinematographer's widower, Matthew Hutchins, that made him an executive producer.
AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton contributed from Los Angeles and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.
Father and other family members are convicted in New Mexico kidnapping and terrorism case — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press
Jurors on Tuesday convicted a father of terrorism charges in a case that stemmed from the search for a 3-year-old boy who went missing from Georgia and was found dead hundreds of miles away at a squalid compound in northern New Mexico in 2018.
Prosecutors told jurors that the boy's father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, and other members of his family had fled with the toddler to a remote stretch of the high desert so they could engage in firearms and tactical training to prepare for attacks against the government. It was all tied to an apparent belief that the boy would be resurrected as Jesus Christ and provide instructions.
Jurors reached their decision after deliberating for two-and-a-half days.
In a case that took years to get to trial, jurors heard weeks of testimony from children who had lived with their parents at the compound, other family members, firearms experts, doctors and forensic technicians. The defendants, who are Muslim, argued that federal authorities targeted them because of their religion.
Wahhaj's brother-in-law also was convicted of terrorism charges, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and kidnapping that resulted in the boy's death. Wahhaj's sisters were convicted on the kidnapping charges.
The badly decomposed remains of the boy were eventually found in an underground tunnel at the compound on the outskirts of Amalia near the Colorado state line.
An exact cause of death was never determined amid accusations that the boy, who lived with severe developmental disabilities and frequent seizures, had been deprived of crucial medication.
Prosecutor George Kraehe said during closing arguments last Thursday that the boy — Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj — was at the heart of the case and he urged everyone in the courtroom to remember the toddler's name. He repeated it while turning to look at the defendants as the boy's mother, Hakima Ramzi rushed from the courtroom in tears.
Prosecutors recounted the hurried journey the four defendants and their children took from Georgia to Alabama and eventually New Mexico. They left nearly everything behind, including other family members who sent numerous texts, emails and social media messages pleading with them to bring the boy home.
"They were running and hiding because they knew what they had done was wrong," Kraehe told jurors.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj's partner — Jany Leveille, a Haitian national — was initially charged with kidnapping and terrorism-related charges, but instead reached a plea agreement on weapons charges. She did not appear at the trial.
Prosecutors argued Leveille was charting the group's course based on messages that she received from God, detailed in passages in a journal.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj represented himself in court. He told jurors that the federal government was presenting a false narrative and that they needed to consider only the facts as they deliberated his fate and that of his two sisters and his brother-in-law.
"The government portrayed me to look like a monster," he said, explaining that his family was close-knit and they were trying to protect his son from evil spirits. He said they used a ritual known as ruqyah in which passages from the Quran are recited.
He told jurors it was one thing to be able to defend one's self from a physical attack, but that a spiritual attack — which he believed was happening to his son — required prayer.
Defense attorneys for Hujrah and Subhanah Wahhaj told jurors that they played no role in the boy's death and were only at the compound to care for their own children as they endured inhospitable conditions that included cold temperatures and harsh winds. They talked about how one of the women searched the internet to find information on trapping squirrels and birds, so the family could eat more.
Prosecutors argued that the women were part of what they described as a "sick end-of-times scheme" that evolved after the boy's death, and that they had "an avalanche of evidence" against all four defendants.
The defendants adopted what prosecutors called "a number of unique beliefs that set them on a dangerous path."
A sentencing date has yet to be scheduled.
According to prosecutors, the charges related to kidnapping resulting in death carry a mandatory life sentence. The charges of providing support in preparation for terrorist attacks on U.S. government officials and employees are punishable by up to 15 years in prison, while the charge of conspiracy to kill a government officer or employee carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Man who, in his teens, shot and killed Albuquerque mail carrier sentenced to 22 years — Associated Press
An Albuquerque man convicted in the 2019 shooting death of a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier has been sentenced to 22 years in prison, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico said Xavier Zamora received the sentence more than a year after pleading guilty to second-degree murder of a federal employee.
He also pleaded guilty to using a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in death.
According to prosecutors, Jose Hernandez was delivering the mail when he saw Zamora, who was 17 at the time, arguing with his mother outside her home.
Hernandez tried to diffuse the dispute.
Authorities say that's when Zamora struck and pushed Hernandez. The teen then retrieved a gun from the house and shot the mail carrier in the stomach.
Hernandez died 20 minutes later.
Zamora was found hiding in a nearby home a few days later.
The gun he used was never found, according to court documents.
Hernandez had been with the Postal Service for 12 years. He was also a husband and father of four.
Isotopes sold to Diamond Baseball Holdings, will remain in Albuquerque — KUNM News, Albuquerque Journal
The Albuquerque Isotopes have a new owner, but there’s no plans for any big changes when handing over the reins.
The Albuquerque Journal reports Diamond Baseball Holdings will be taking over the team pending MLB approval of the deal.
DBH executives said they plan to continue operating the Isotopes with a commitment to the community of Albuquerque in mind, and that General manager John Traub and the office staff will all remain in place.
Ken Young, current president and owner, will stay with the club as an advisor.
Young and Mike Koldyke led an ownership group that brought baseball back to the Duke City in 2003 when the Calgary Cannons moved here and became the Isotopes, after an Albuquerque Tribune poll asking residents to pick a name.
Sipapu, Pajarito owners take over operations of Sandia Peak Ski Area — Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News
A joint venture will breathe new life into the Sandia Peak Ski Area, which has plans to open this winter for the first time in years.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports Mountain Capital Partners and Sandia Peak Ski Co. will split ownership 50/50 , but MCP will take over all operations.
The ski area has been shuttered because of staffing issues and poor snowfall, but Scott Leigh, who will head the operation at Sandia for MCP, said the company is already planning on repairing neglected chair lifts and bringing on more staff.
MCP already owns 13 other ski, bike, and golf resorts around the southwest including Sipapu and Pajartito here in New Mexico.
General Manager Ben Abruzzo’s family had owned the ski area since the late 50s, but he said that complications became too much, and he sought out MCP as a solution.
Abruzzo said the company is better positioned to give the ski area the attention and energy it deserves, and Leigh said they are happy to accept the challenge.