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TUES: US judge OKs online publication of New Mexico voter records, + More

Maggie Toulouse Oliver
Susan Walsh
/
AP
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver

US judge OKs online publication of New Mexico voter records - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A conservative-backed initiative to publish voter registration records from across the country online for public consumption can move forward over the objections of New Mexico election regulators, a federal judge has ordered in a preliminary opinion.

Albuquerque-based U.S. District Court Judge James Browning issued an order last Friday preventing New Mexico state prosecutors from pursuing allegations of possible election code violations against the creators of VoteRef.com.

The VoteRef.com website provides searchable access to voter registration records by name and street addresses, often indicating when people voted in past elections.

The online records do not say for which candidates the people voted or how they voted on initiatives. Party affiliation is listed for voters in some states but not all.

The Voter Reference Foundation that created the website advocates for voting accountability by making voter information more accessible to the public.

Following the ruling, the foundation said it would post New Mexico voter rolls online starting Tuesday.

The decision doesn't apply to New Mexico voters enrolled in a confidential address program aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence and stalking.

New Mexico election regulators contend that the effort violates state restrictions on the purchase and dissemination of voter registration records — and is likely to discourage voter participation because people may opt out if they know that some of their voting information is being made public.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, in March referred the matter the attorney general's office for possible prosecution of the Voter Reference Foundation, which published New Mexico registration records online at the time after obtaining them through an out-of-state business. State law restricts the use of voter registration information to political campaigning and election- or government-related activities.

The foundation — backed by former GOP Senate candidate Doug Truax of Illinois — took its New Mexico records offline in response and sued the state in federal court, alleging violations of due process and free speech guarantees.

The judge's order blocks prosecution while the case advances toward trial and said that the Voter Reference Foundation is likely to prevail in its claim as the victim of viewpoint discrimination by election regulators. Browning said New Mexico state law "does not prohibit Voter Reference — or any organization — from posting voter data online."

The creators of VoteRef.com are "substantially likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Secretary of State's referral of Voter Reference to the Attorney General for criminal prosecution and her public statements about the referral are an unconstitutional prior restraint on protected speech," Browning said.

Truax, founder of the Restoration of America organization that funds VoteRef.com, said his group "won't be intimidated by politicians who, for some reason, don't want to give the people of their state easy access to election records they pay for." He is an advocate for limiting voting access largely to in-person voting on Election Day with photo ID requirements and no same-day registration.

VoteRef.com already publishes voter registration information online from at least 28 states and Washington D.C.

Toulouse Oliver spokesman Alex Curtas called the judge's opinion a "blow to protecting the privacy rights of every New Mexican voter."

"The fear now is that voters will be less likely to participate in our elections because their voting information — name, residential address, party affiliation, voting history, and year of birth -– will be made easily available online for anyone to obtain and potentially manipulate," Curtas said.

Some New Mexico neighborhoods this year have been the focus of door-to-door canvassing by volunteers for a group called New Mexico Audit Force that promotes unproven conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

The door knocking — ostensibly to verify individual voter registrations at peoples' homes — has generated voter intimidation concerns and counterclaims of threats against canvassers.

Southern NM struggles to receive funds for damage caused by Black Fire – By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

The Black Fire’s destructive effects still linger in the rural communities in southern New Mexico, and how these small counties and individuals will pay for recovery is still largely uncertain.

Commission chair Jim Paxon from Sierra County talked to the Legislative Finance Committee last week about infrastructure damage caused by the fire, and repairs the counties and their people are struggling to cover.

LACK OF FEDERAL FUNDING

The Burned Area Rehabilitation fund provides assistance for charred landscapes that aren’t likely to recover without human assistance, according to the Department of the Interior. But all of those funds are going to other fires in the state, including the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, Paxon said.

“That was a much more severe fire on the landscape. Plus, it affected a whole lot more people,” Paxon told Source NM. “We didn’t have any communities affected. It was just the individual ranchers and the structures that were lost were all on national forest lands — cabins and that sort of thing. And so our resulting risk to the communities is lessened. But still, it’s still there.”

Nearly all of the Black Fire burned on federal land, but ranches that use U.S. Forest Service land for grazing were damaged, too, and Paxon urged the legislative committee to put some pressure on the Forest Service to cover those costs. He said the legislative committee or even the Governor’s Office can put more political pressure on the Forest Service than the individual counties can for infrastructure damage to get repaired.

“I would ask and exhort you to apply all the pressure you can, because they are going to have to respond — especially if it’s unified and united,” Paxon said.

The legislative subcommittee plans to draft a letter to give to the full committee about the Forest Service’s role in managing federal land and resulting infrastructure damage from disasters. Paxon also talked with U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell’s office recently, who are investigating if there’s a way to get Forest Service funds to be directly applied to the victims of the Black Fire.

“We’re going to continue to put pressure on and see if there’s not a way to get them to redeem their responsibilities,” Paxon told Source NM. “This isn’t an adversarial situation. It’s trying to get support so they can get the dollars to the ground.”

RANCHERS’ STRUGGLES

While there aren’t many people living in the area where the Black Fire blazed, Paxon said five ranchers specifically had substantial damage to their lands. Sierra County and the National Resources Conservation Service requested that the ranchers assess their damage, which they’re trying to do, Paxon said, but the size of the ranch and the extent of the damage on their ranches determine how long that takes.

So far, ranchers have found damaged fences, water pipes and tubs, and solar technology, he said. About 600 to 700 cattle between the five ranches have been displaced by the fire.

Fences are an especially prevalent issue because the U.S. Forest Service won’t let the cattle graze unless they’re contained on a grazing-permitted pasture, Paxon said, but fences are expensive to fix. He said just one mile of fencing costs around $20,000-30,000 to replace in those rural areas. “With no fences, that means they’re not going to allow those cows back on,” he said.

Paxon brought up rancher Jack Diamond, who installed new fences last year that would have lasted decades. But after being damaged by the fire, about 20 miles need to be replaced, Paxon said. Diamond would likely have to hire someone to fix that, he said, and material costs are expensive, on top of the expense of just transporting them out there.

“It seems to be much more equitable if the Forest Service paid for the contract to bring a contractor in and built that fence and materials fees,” Paxon told Source.

But time is of the essence to get the cows back on the pastures, he said, as monsoon season allows the grass to grow for grazing, and planting seeds needs to happen while the soil is wet from the rains.

Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) suggested that the ranchers try to get funds from the emergency declaration Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared on Sierra County in early June, which provided $750,000 to the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for repairs and future damage prevention.

Conversations are ongoing with the department’s Deputy Secretary Kelly Hamilton to see if this would be possible, and while Paxon said he hopes for an answer soon, nothing is definitive yet.

Another potential avenue of funding Paxon has looked into is through the local Soil and Water Conservation District, which is ready to sponsor the five ranchers, Paxon said. Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces) suggested setting aside more state funding for the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which Rep. Patricia Lundstrom (D-Gallup) backed up.

But Muñoz said there can be limitations with the conservation districts because they would be spending state funding on federal land, which can get dicey.

Paxon fears that ranchers could be forced to sell their cattle or leave the business if they can’t afford all these repairs.

“It is very stressful on our livestock producers,” Paxon said. “The future is so uncertain that it’s causing them a lot of angst.”

A lot of these ranchers survive year to year financially, he said, and costs add up through feed, gas and groceries, and just trying to make ends meet.

COUNTIES’ ECONOMIC UNCERTAINTIES

Some of the counties are facing economic difficulties as well.

Chris Ponce, the commissioner for Grant County, said monsoon rains pushed ash and debris from the fire to roads and a lot of money from the county’s budget is going toward clearing it. Because they’re county roads, it’s the county’s responsibility to fix them and not the Forest Service, regardless of the burn scar intensifying the runoff issue.

Another economic issue stems from tourist sites that could be shut down because of flooding.

In rural communities like Grant County, people rely on tourism to boost the economy, Ponce said. But he fears what would happen to Grant County’s economy if the risk of flooding forced campgrounds and other areas to start shutting down, which hasn’t happened yet.

“What do we have here in Grant County? We have the Gila National Forest,” Ponce said.

Sierra County also depends on tourism, and Paxon said a lot of people visit the county to hunt in the Gila. But if things start shutting down, he said the county is worried about being able to “draw people in” on its limited budget.

“We’ve seen this fire change things,” Paxon said. “Change is not permanent, but it’s going to be many years before we recover, and we’re apprehensive about what the future holds economically.”

FBI: 170 missing Native Americans in New Mexico, reservation

In an effort to address the crisis of missing Indigenous people, the FBI announced Monday it is releasing a list of more than 170 Native Americans it has verified as missing throughout New Mexico and the Navajo Nation that stretches into Arizona and Utah.

FBI officials said at a news conference that the effort is being publicized to help locate the missing individuals, increase transparency and encourage relatives of missing Indigenous persons who aren't on the list to reach out to local law enforcement and file a report.

The project is in addition to the FBI's continuing efforts to call attention to unsolved Indigenous homicides and missing person cases it is investigating.

"For a long time, the issue of missing Native Americans has been in the news and a lot of people have been wondering if anybody is paying attention," said Special Agent in Charge Raul Bujanda of the Albuquerque FBI Division. "I am here to assure you the FBI has been paying attention and together with our partners, we are taking a significant step toward justice for these victims, their families and communities."

FBI officials said the list is the result of almost six months of work combining and validating different databases of missing Indigenous persons in New Mexico.

Many records of missing Indigenous persons were incomplete or outdated because the record was not updated once additional details were made available or once the person was located.

The FBI plans to update the names monthly.

Partners involved in the project include the U.S. Attorney's Office, Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services, New Mexico's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force, New Mexico Attorney General's Office, New Mexico Department of Public Safety, New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs, Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office and the City of Albuquerque Office of Equity and Inclusion.

US to plant 1 billion trees as climate change kills forests - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

The Biden administration on Monday said the government will plant more than one billion trees across millions of acres of burned and dead woodlands in the U.S. West, as officials struggle to counter the increasing toll on the nation's forests from wildfires, insects and other manifestations of climate change.

Destructive fires in recent years that burned too hot for forests to regrow naturally have far outpaced the government's capacity to plant new trees. That has created a backlog of 4.1 million acres in need of replanting, officials said.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said it will have to quadruple the number of tree seedlings produced by nurseries to get through the backlog and meet future needs. That comes after Congress last year passed bipartisan legislation directing the Forest Service to plant 1.2 billion trees over the next decade and after President Joe Biden in April ordered the agency to make the nation's forests more resilient as the globe gets hotter.

Much of the administration's broader agenda to tackle climate change remains stalled amid disagreement in Congress, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority. That has left officials to pursue a more piecemeal approach with incremental measures such as Monday's announcement, while the administration considers whether to declare a climate emergency that could open the door to more aggressive executive branch actions.

To erase the backlog of decimated forest acreage, the Forest Service plans over the next couple years to scale up work from about 60,000 acres replanted last year to about 400,000 acres annually, officials said. Most of the work will be in western states where wildfires now occur year round and the need is most pressing, said David Lytle, the agency's director of forest management.

Blazes have charred 5.6 million acres so far in the U.S. this year, putting 2022 on track to match or exceed the record-setting 2015 fire season, when 10.1 million acres burned.

Many forests regenerate naturally after fires, but if the blazes get too intense they can leave behind barren landscapes that linger for decades before trees come back.

"Our forests, rural communities, agriculture and economy are connected across a shared landscape and their existence is at stake," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement announcing the reforestation plan. "Only through bold, climate-smart actions ... can we ensure their future."

The Forest Service this year is spending more than $100 million on reforestation work. Spending is expected to further increase in coming years, to as much as $260 million annually, under the sweeping federal infrastructure bill approved last year, agency officials said.

Some timber industry supporters were critical of last year's reforesting legislation as insufficient to turn the tide on the scale of the wildfire problem. They want more aggressive logging to thin stands that have become overgrown from years of suppressing fires.

To prevent replanted areas from becoming similarly overgrown, practices are changing so reforested stands are less dense with trees and therefore less fire prone, said Joe Fargione, science director for North America at the Nature Conservancy.

But challenges to the Forest Service's goal remain, from finding enough seeds to hiring enough workers to plant them, Fargione said.

Many seedlings will die before reaching maturity due to drought and insects, both of which can be exacerbated by climate change.

"You've got to be smart about where you plant," Fargione said. "There are some places that the climate has already changed enough that it makes the probability of successfully reestablishing trees pretty low."

Living trees are a major "sink" for carbon dioxide that's driving climate change when it enters the atmosphere, Fargione said. That means replacing those that die is important to keep climate change from getting even worse.

Congress in 1980 created a reforestation trust that had previously capped funding — which came from tariffs on timber products — at $30 million annually. That was enough money when the most significant need for reforestation came from logging, but became insufficient as the number of large, high intensity fires increased, officials said.

Insects, disease and timber harvests also contribute to the amount of land that needs reforestation work, but the vast majority comes from fires. In the past five years alone more than 5 million acres were severely burned.

NM congressional delegation backs governor on request for more federal disaster relief - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

After Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged President Joe Biden to OK more federal assistance for New Mexico’s wildfire disaster in a letter Friday, the state’s bipartisan congressional delegation is now backing her up.

In a letter to the President Monday, Democratic U.S. Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury, along with Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell, and Democratic U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján urged approval of the state’s request.

The amendment to the existing disaster declaration would add coverage of any impacts from flooding as the state weathers its summer monsoon season. Two people were killed and a third is missing after a flash flood outside Las Vegas Thursday.

The request also includes lengthening how long the declaration applies, and requiring that the federal government cover 100% of eligible costs during that time — not just emergency protective work and debris removal, as it now stands.

In their letter, the federal lawmakers also told Biden they’d like to see temporary housing assistance added to the list of direct aid and Los Alamos and Sandoval counties added to the list of areas affected by New Mexico’s recent wildfires.

They noted they hope the federal government approves the request “as quickly as possible.”

Albuquerque park that's been a homeless encampment to close - Associated Press

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said Monday that the city's most visible unsanctioned homeless encampment will close next month.

Keller said the exact date for Coronado Park's closing hasn't been decided yet.

City officials said an estimated 120 people camp nightly at the park and occupants will be told about other housing options.

They said increasingly dangerous conditions such as narcotics trafficking and usage combined with prolonged damage to the park's irrigation and vegetation created safety concerns and were the leading factors in the decision to close the park.

"The status quo will not stand," Keller said in a statement. "This remains a complex issue and while we work to determine what's next for Coronado, we'll keep stepping up to get folks connected to the right services and resources."

Lawrence Rael, chief administrative officer for the city, said "homelessness at Coronado has been a challenge for nearly a decade, but we have to draw a line and simply stop a situation that is obviously unacceptable, regardless of what we do next."

Former Colombian soccer players to teach their skills in US - By Claudia Torrens Associated Press

A Colombian soccer fan who came to the U.S. as a political refugee is creating a training camp for young people in New Mexico with former players from Colombia as the instructors.

David Certain, who owns a coffee company, hopes one day to expand the program in the United States and also take it back to his home country.

Former Philadelphia Union player Carlos Valdés and ex-Colombia midfielder Víctor Pacheco are among those teaching the skills and disciplines of soccer to young people in Albuquerque this week, along with former midfielder Jorge Bolaño and ex-goalkeeper Julián Viafara.

Certain wants to create a physical but also emotional and mental training camp for young people who like to play soccer.

"You see a lot of talent that looks very robotic. We want to focus a lot on the emotional part, so that they can control their emotions a little more and know that, when there are emotions, it is normal", the 42-year-old Colombian said. "It is totally normal to feel failure when the goal is not scored, but how do you manage the moment after that? After that, a lot of kids get stuck."

The daily camp, which is the first project of the new Alianza Sports, ends Friday in Albuquerque. New Mexico United forward Devon Sandoval will also be involved.

Certain says he is working with companies to provide scholarships for the camp. Sessions are for 10-14-year-olds and the 15-20 age group.

Certain and his family fled Cali, Colombia, in 1999 after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) tried to kidnap him when he was 19.

Certain had an aunt in New Mexico and, after living in Miami for a while, the family moved to Albuquerque. Certain's 11-year-old son, who plays soccer, inspired him to create the program.

During work trips to Colombia, Certain was able to contact the former players, some of whom already teach soccer and have helped create the program.

"We are very excited, really, we are very happy with everything that has been happening," Valdés said from Colombia during a telephone interview. "It has not been an easy job, but I know that everyone who is part of it, and those who will go through this experience, will love it."

Valdés hopes that young people learn not only soccer techniques but also values such as discipline, respect, tolerance and teamwork.

"Getting involved in something in which everyone must go in the same direction helps develop skills that make you a better person," Valdés said.

Man, girl killed in New Mexico crash involving train and SUV - Associated Press

Authorities said Monday that a man and a 6-year-old girl were killed in a crash involving a Rail Runner commuter train and an SUV at a private crossing in New Mexico.

The collision occurred about 11:15 a.m. Sunday on State Route 313 near the San Felipe Pueblo, according to State Police, who announced Monday that the two victims were 30-year-old Derrick Tenorio of Santa Domingo Pueblo and a child passenger whose name was being withheld for the privacy of her family.

Rio Metro Regional Transit District officials said a vehicle had gotten on the tracks through a private crossing on the pueblo and was hit by a southbound train with about 90 people on board.

They said the train had just left Santa Fe and nobody aboard was injured.

Tenorio and the girl were pronounced dead at the scene, according to State Police, who added that the crash remains under investigation.

Authorities said that because the crossing is on private land, it doesn't have the mechanical arms that are commonly seen at railroad crossings but does have lights and signs.