WED: Governor Sees Possible Reopening By June, AG Reviewing CYFD Practices, + More

Apr 28, 2021

Governor Vaccine Progress Means New Mexico Can Open Soon - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday said she expects New Mexico to reopen completely by the end of June if the state reaches its goal of having at least 60% of residents fully vaccinated by then.

She made the announcement during a virtual briefing, proclaiming that the state was “conquering COVID.”

Lujan Grisham and state health officials said the state's pace of vaccinations has been as an overwhelming driver for the progress seen in recent months, with more than 60 people vaccinated for every new case of COVID-19 reported.

The latest state data shows that more than 41% of state residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated. New Mexico remains among the leading states when it come to vaccine distribution. Officials running one of the state's largest vaccination clinics in Albuquerque said the site's 100,000th dose was administered there Wednesday afternoon.

The Democratic governor predicted that New Mexico would be among the first states in the U.S. — if not the first — to have such a high percentage of its population fully vaccinated.

“This is cause for incredible celebration,” Lujan Grisham said.

State health officials said benchmarks used to assign risk levels to counties under New Mexico's color-coded system will be relaxed and will include vaccination rates. That change will take effect Friday, and the state's public health order will be updated to reflect new federal guidance on mask-wearing for those who are fully vaccinated.

While capacity limits at restaurants and other businesses would be lifted when the state reaches its vaccination goal, Lujan Grisham said she didn't want people to let their guard down. She said certain COVID-safe practices will remain for specific activities.

Republican lawmakers who have criticized the state's reopening framework as outdated said Wednesday that the changes were long overdue.

“We have been shouting for months that the people in our communities are suffering because of these continued illogical and unscientific protocols," said state Sen. Greg Baca of Belen. "While I am thankful that the governor has finally taken action to remedy some of these issues, I hope it is not too little, too late.”

State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said her agency is encouraging primary care doctors to help with the vaccination effort along with community health organizations and other advocacy groups.

UNM Researchers Get Federal Grant To Study Vaccine HesitancyAssociated Press

Researchers at University of New Mexico Health Sciences have been awarded $1.4 million in federal funding to explore why people are reluctant to get COVID-19 vaccines.

The yearlong project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is part of a national effort to understand and overcome barriers that keep people from getting vaccinated.

“Our goal is to make as much impact as we can in one year,” Lisa Cacari Stone, a professor and director of the Transdisciplinary Research, Equity and Engagement (TREE) Center, said in a statement. “We’re going to look at the hesitancy and take a deeper dive to understand the structural systems issues.”

The researchers will partner with more than 200 organizations that work in communities around the state to understand ethnic and rural-urban disparities, Cacari Stone said.

The focus will include Hispanic populations along New Mexico’s southern border, urban Native Americans and a rural community on the Navajo Nation. The team plans to issue monthly updates.

New Mexico AG Reviewing Practices Of Child Welfare WorkersSanta Fe New Mexican, Searchlight New Mexico, Associated Press

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said Wednesday he is "highly concerned" about government employees potentially deleting public information after questions were raised about the communication practices of the state agency that oversees foster children, juvenile justice and child welfare.

Balderas confirmed in an email that his office is reviewing claims that the Children, Youth and Families Department has been encrypting and routinely deleting texts. The practice was first revealed in a report by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit investigative journalism group.

Republican legislative leaders have asked for an investigation over transparency concerns. They and other critics said the practice could hamper investigations into how the agency cares for children or how other government employees conduct business amid a pandemic that has pushed more services and communication into the virtual realm.

"What we have seen over the past year is a government that has hidden itself away in a maze of virtual walls," said House Republican Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia. "For the leadership in any state agency to think that they can circumvent transparency by deleting public documents is a slap in the face to New Mexicans who have placed their trust in public service."

Searchlight New Mexico reported Tuesday that the app Signal has been used by the child welfare agency since at least the outset of the pandemic. The app can set chats to automatically delete, making them inaccessible under the state's open records laws. Some communication between state employees is considered public record.

Agency spokesman Charlie Moore Pabst told the Santa Fe New Mexican that federal agencies and others use such systems to provide stronger protection for sensitive information.

The agency's "adoption of paid Zoom with encryption and Signal is a best practice for public sector entities as they move to address the growing risk to cybercrime — a risk that has only grown with the advent of wide-scale remote work by state employees," Moore Pabst wrote in an email.

Renee Narvaiz with the state Department of Information Technology wrote in a text message that department's regulations and those of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act guidelines "require us to encrypt sensitive information to protect their integrity and confidentiality."

House Republicans on Tuesday requested the offices of the attorney general and the state auditor address potential open records violations and investigate how widespread use of encrypted communications and subsequent data dumping is within state government.

They also called on Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to detail whether her staff and or cabinet level staff have been encrypting and dumping data.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman in the governor's office, did not immediately answer questions about how widespread the practice might be or whether the governor would reassess its use by child welfare workers.

According to the Searchlight New Mexico report, standard text messages or emails can be accessed by attorneys, reporters and members of the public under the state's open records laws. However, messages sent via Signal are all but impossible to retrieve. Once deleted, virtually no traces of Signal conversations remain.

"You can't just encrypt and automatically delete communications between state employees," Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, told Searchlight New Mexico. "That's no different than putting official documents in the shredder at the end of every day."

The child welfare agency began using Signal last year as part of a information technology upgrade that agency Secretary Brian Blalock said was needed to protect confidential records of children in state custody and to facilitate secure, remote communications.

Blalock told Searchlight New Mexico that the agency routinely deletes communications on Signal but said the information was not subject to New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act.

Navajo Nation Reports 15 New COVID-19 Cases, But No DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 15 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths.

Tribal health officials said the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago now is 30,485 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The number of known deaths remains at 1,273.

The tribe reported no coronavirus cases and no COVID-19 related deaths on Tuesday.

"The Navajo Nation is moving closer to herd immunity, or as our health care professionals say 'community immunity,''' tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Wednesday.

Nez said more than half of the reservation's adult population has been vaccinated. But people still need to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

On Monday, the Navajo Department of Health loosened some virus-driven restrictions and transition to "yellow status."

Restaurants now are allowed to have in-door dining at 25% capacity and outdoor dining at 50% capacity.

Parks are permitted to open at 25% capacity but only for residents and employees.

Navajo casinos are open at 50% capacity, but only for residents and staff.

Wet Weather A Boost For Crews Fighting New Mexico WildfireAssociated Press

Rain and snow helped crews working to keep a wildfire from spreading in forested mountains in south-central New Mexico, officials said Wednesday.

The fire was located west of the Ski Apache ski resort in the Sacramento Mountains and its size was estimated at 12,000 acres (49square kilometers), with containment around 5% of its perimeter as of Wednesday.

Damp conditions lessened fire activity as the blaze reached the scar from a previous wildfire, meaning there was less live vegetation to burn but more dry debris on the forest flood, officials said.

The fire started Monday and its cause remained under investigation.

Evacuation notices were lifted Tuesday for most areas in the vicinity of the fire.

New Mexico Nuclear Waste Repository To Use Electric VehiclesCarlsbad Current-Argus. Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has announced plans to replace diesel vehicles and equipment with electrical and battery-operated components as part of a larger effort to improve airflow in the underground nuclear waste repository.

According to its website, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the only repository for nuclear waste disposal in the U.S. Department of Energy sites across the U.S. send their waste to the plant.

Plant officials began work on a new utility shaft and planned to restart a major ventilation fan after available underground air became restricted following an accidental radiological release in 2014 that contaminated parts of the mine, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported Saturday.

Over the weekend, officials moved forward with a multimillion-dollar project to rebuild the ventilation system known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System. It is expected to provide 540,000 cubic feet per minute of breathable air to underground workers when it is expected to be completed in 2025.

Carlsbad Nuclear Task Force Chair John Heaton said the group is working on multiple projects in the meantime to enhance workforce safety related to airflow, including converting all vehicles to electric.

"The main importance of it is worker safety. Running diesel creates many toxic fumes in the enclosed area," Heaton said. "There's a big major effort to go to all electrically run equipment so that there's no diesel."

Department officials said the underground fleet includes 80 vehicles, with 37 considered essential to the plant's operations. Officials said it could take about five years to replace or convert all 37 diesel vehicles.

Officials are also considering battery-electric vehicles that would run with zero emissions, and have already replaced the engines in some older diesel vehicles to reduce emissions.

Heaton said reducing diesel equipment could cut down on risks like fires or environmental contamination.

"There's a significant amount of diesel fuel that has to be held underground in storage for vehicles that are still diesel. That represents a risk itself," he said. "They've moved very quickly in purchasing the low emission vehicles. They want to replace everything underground and make it all run on electricity."

COVID Deaths And Hospitalizations Increase In New Mexico – Albuquerque Journal, KUNM

New Mexico health officials announced 181 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Tuesday and twelve additional deaths related to the virus.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that while case numbers remain fairly steady, the number of deaths and hospitalizations reported yesterday mark a rise in New Mexico, where daily deaths due to COVID-19 in April have mostly remained in the single digits.

The state announced yesterday 130 New Mexicans are now hospitalized with COVID-19. The Journal reports that’s a 35% increase since the beginning of the month, though remains well below the numbers seen at the end of last year.

High Court Justice, Who Authored End To Execution, To Retire - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil is retiring from the New Mexico Supreme Court at the end of June after more than eight years at the high court.

Vigil wrote the lead majority opinion in 2019 that set aside the death penalty for the final two inmates awaiting execution a decade after the state repealed capital punishment. She also authored recent opinions on utility regulation amid the state's transition away from coal-fired power plants.

With Vigil on the bench, the Democrat-dominated court has largely turned away challenges to the governor's emergency powers to restrict public gatherings and business operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Announcing her departure, Vigil gave thanks to advocates involved in reforming and modernizing the judiciary.

"Equally rewarding has been the opportunity to work with countless professionals and volunteers to bring forth initiatives designed to improve our system of justice," said Vigil, who joined the court in 2012 with an election victory of Justice Paul Kennedy, a Republican appointed by then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

Court administrators noted Vigil's recent work in providing alternatives to juvenile detention and lobbying at the Legislature to improve legal representation for children and parents in abuse and neglect cases.

Vigil was high school valedictorian at St. Catherine's Indian School in Santa Fe and is a graduate of the University of New Mexico law school. She owned and operated her own law office for years before becoming a district court judge in 2000.

Serving in the Santa Fe-based First Judicial District, she presided over 16,000 cases ranging from civil litigation to child abuse cases and administrative appeals.

The retirement triggers a vetting process for replacement candidates by a bipartisan nominating commission. Nominations are delivered to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to make an appointment.

Vigil's successor must stand for partisan election in 2022. The winner of that election will confront a retention vote in 2024.

Top-Tier Management Team Assigned To New Mexico Wildfire - Associated Press

A top-tier management team and additional air tankers and ground crews have been assigned to a wildfire burning in the Sacramento Mountains of south-central New Mexico.

The fire near the Three Rivers Campground and west of the Ski Apache ski resort was 5% contained by Tuesday evening after charring 18.75 square miles, according to a statement posted by fire managers.

The fire was reported Monday and its cause was under investigation, the statement said.

No injuries or structure damage has been reported. 

Smoke was blowing into the communities of Alto, Capitan, and Ruidoso, the statement said.

Advocates Detail 'Shadow Pandemic' Of Violence Against Women - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Cases of domestic violence against Indigenous women and children and instances of sexual assault increased over the past year as nonprofit groups and social workers scrambled to meet the added challenges that stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic, advocates said Tuesday.

Their testimony came in the opening session of a two-day summit focused on ending violence against Indigenous women and children. Native American leaders from pueblos throughout New Mexico and from the Navajo Nation gathered virtually for the event.

The victim advocates who shared their stories pointed to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that were instituted in the early months of the pandemic. Many domestic violence victims were stuck at home with their abusers, believing there was nowhere else to turn while advocates themselves faced challenges getting to work and finding new ways to connect with victims and share information about resources.

They called it "a shadow pandemic," saying it has had ripple effects for victims, law enforcement and advocacy groups.

Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said tribally based advocates and other organizers from Shiprock to Nambe and Santo Domingo used the past year to reinforce existing mutual aid networks and learned many lessons in doing so that will help "plant the seeds for change"' as communities begin to emerge from the pandemic.

"When we return to our gatherings and ceremonies, deer dinners, feasts and dances, though we will be missing some who we lost and loved dearly, the lessons of this past year will not be in vain," said the mother and Laguna Pueblo member. "It is my sincere hope that when we all leave our time here together, we are inspired to make things better — better for our women, better for our children and for all the people we love who might experience violence in their lives."

Charley said it's going to be different — it has to be.

The coalition, which organized the summit, and its partners have been working for decades to address a problem that only in recent years began to make headlines as more Indigenous people went missing or turned up dead. Native American women have been victimized at astonishing rates, with federal figures showing that they — along with non-Hispanic Black women — have experienced the highest rates of homicide.

An Associated Press investigation in 2018 found that nobody knows precisely how cases of missing and murdered Native Americans happen nationwide because many cases go unreported, others aren't well documented and no government database specifically tracks them.

Sherriann Moore is the deputy director of the Tribal Affairs Division within the U.S. Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women. She told those attending the summit that some programs have been reorganized to address tribal concerns about bureaucratic hurdles for accessing assistance and grant funding.

Moore also discussed the Biden administration's proposed spending for addressing violence against women, saying the recommendation of $1 billion would nearly double the current budget and would include money for new programs ranging from restorative justice and protections for transgender victims to support for women at tribal colleges and universities.

She urged tribal leaders to lobby Congress for more funding and to push for reauthorization of federal laws including the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act.

Gail Starr, clinical coordinator of the Albuquerque Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Collaborative, said the pandemic helped to illuminate how few safety nets there are, particularly for survivors of sexual assault and other violence. She and others talked about the need to find safe housing for them and even cellphones so they have a way to reach out for help.

Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Jenelle Roybal said her community north of Santa Fe is starting a pilot project in which tribal police will partner with the U.S. Marshals Service on cases involving missing and slain Indigenous victims. The pueblo also is focused on educating young tribal members about healthy relationships.

Roybal said education will be key to stopping the cycle, pointing out that half of the homeless women and children in the U.S. are fleeing from domestic violence.

"When you think about all the women and children who aren't receiving the help they need, it's very upsetting," she said. "Just moving forward and assisting each other is definitely what we need to do."

New Mexican Residents 16 Or Older May Now Schedule Vaccines Associated Press

Every New Mexico resident 16 or over who has signed up on the state's online coronavirus vaccine registry can now schedule their own appointments.

The announcement on Monday means residents between the ages of 16 and 40 now do not have to wait for the state to assign them a time.

Only residents 40 and older were eligible to select the time and place for their inoculations before Monday's update from the state Department of Health.

"It is definitely a milestone that is worth celebrating, but in the end, this is all about being able to get as many New Mexicans as possible to be vaccinated," Department of Health spokesman David Morgan said.

As of Tuesday, about 57% of residents 16 or older have been vaccinated with at least one dose, according to the state Department of Health database.

Roughly 41% of residents 16 or older have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the same database.

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, breathing trouble, sore throat, muscle pain and loss of taste or smell. Most people develop only mild symptoms.

But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia. Sometimes people with a coronavirus infection display no symptoms.

Prison Worker Alleges Retaliation For Report Of Rodents - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A mental-health worker at a state prison in western New Mexico says she was harassed and threatened by superiors after reporting details of an apparent rodent infestation, under a lawsuit filed Tuesday in state district court.

The lawsuit under the state's Whistleblower Protection Act was filed on behalf of Nicole Ramirez, a licensed social worker and mental health clinician at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility. The Corrections Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment by phone and email.

Advocates for improved prison conditions say supervisors of the 390-bed facility have failed for years to resolve a rat and mouse infestation at the kitchen in the women's lockup in the town of Grants. A separate federal lawsuit filed in February on behalf of two former inmates alleges cruelty and negligence in connection with the infestation that allegedly resulted in contact between prison food and rodent feces, urine and even rodents that plunged into vats of stew and oatmeal.

The new lawsuit says that Ramirez started work at the prison in December 2019 and immediately heard complaints from inmates about rodents and contact with food.

When Ramirez filed a complaint with the office of professional standards at the Corrections Department, she was confronted by a deputy warden and told that she would need to be disciplined, according to the lawsuit. Ramirez says she resigned amid concerns about a disciplinary writeup and her personal safety after a security access card stopped functioning.

"Nicole believed she had a professional responsibility to report the infestation because of the ongoing threat it posed to the physical and mental health of the women incarcerated at the prison," said Matthew Coyte, a member of the steering committee for the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project that represents Ramirez.

In a companion lawsuit this week, an advocacy group accused the Corrections Department of refusing to release Ramirez's internal complaint about the rodent infestation under state open records laws.

The Corrections Department and its food service contractor at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility have not yet responded in court to allegations of an infestation.

Attorneys say that inmates at the prison have been tormented by the risk of potentially fatal Hantavirus infection from contact with mouse droppings, though no Hantavirus infections were reported. A local wild mouse species is a known carrier.

New Mexico Settles Child Care Lawsuit, Promises Subsidies - By Cedar Attanasi,o Associated Press - Report For America

New Mexico's early childhood department has settled a lawsuit with anti-poverty groups, cementing access to child care subsidies for low-income residents.

Under the agreement announced between the Early Childhood Education and Care Department last Thursday, households can qualify if they earn up to 200% more than the poverty line, which is income less than $52,400 for a family of four.

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2018 against the Children Youth and Families Department and former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, alleging that eligibility for child care subsidies was reduced without following the proper rulemaking process.

Three years later, the advocacy group OLÉ and the legal group New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty have settled with the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who transferred child care authority to a new, cabinet-level department.

The groups say the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department even went beyond the demands of the lawsuit in making child care more accessible and affordable.

One requirement of the settlement is to give clearer notice to parents about program eligibility.

"ECECD is committed to ensuring that every eligible family in New Mexico can receive child care assistance in a fair, equitable, and transparent manner," said ECECD Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky. "In the nine months since our department officially launched, we have worked to change regulations to make it easier for families to apply for assistance, waived all parent co-pays until July 2022, and continue to seek ways to expand eligibility for child care assistance for families in our state."

Groginsky fought to keep child care centers open during the pandemic, even as unemployment often exceeded wages of the average worker. Child care facility owners credited her for keeping communication open by hosting a weekly phone call and offsetting low wages with direct cash bonuses to workers.

Resolution of the lawsuit is win for the nascent department in a challenging year that saw child care capacity fall due to distancing restrictions and demand spike because of school closures that persisted even as parents returned to their jobs.

Groginsky also expanded eligibility to parents who are graduate students.

"The department has sought out and listened carefully to parents, and the improvements to the program reflect that collaboration and the reality of working families," said Tim Davis, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. "The department has made changes that are truly groundbreaking and acknowledge that quality affordable child care is a bridge to opportunity for families and their children."

New Mexico To Fund Blimp Broadband Study For Rural Internet - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico is finalizing a $3.2 million contract to a dirigible manufacturer to study the viability of distributing high-speed internet from above the ground instead of underneath it, officials confirmed Tuesday.

Details of the contract to Sceye, pronounced "sky," are still in the works, says Economic Development Department spokesman Bruce Krasnow.

The company calls its silver, blimp-shaped, remotely controlled balloons "stratospheric platforms." For the internet study, they'll be launched well below the stratosphere, around 12 miles above the ground.

Sceye founder Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen — former CEO of the global public health company LifeStraw — said in a statement confirming the contract that the company will launch flights from Roswell, New Mexico. The company also has facilities in Moriarty.

The Economic Development Department award is one part of the state's response to a thin internet infrastructure laid bare by the pandemic.

Over 20% of students were left without internet at home at the start of the pandemic as schools shut their doors, with some offline until at least December. While internet access has vastly improved for students in the past year, much of the expansion is due to temporary hot spots that connect to distant cell phone towers at slow speeds.

State officials estimate that expanding high-speed internet to rural areas via buried cables will take years and cost upwards of $5 billion.

The Sceye study would test a cheaper solution that essentially suspends cell phone tower equipment up in the air. Cell phone towers can be obstructed by mountains, buildings, and even the curvature of the earth. But wireless signals travel easily through the air.

The state investment follows the national news of the abandonment of balloon-based internet efforts at Google's parent company Alphabet in January, and the announcement this year from SpaceX that it will eventually expand satellite internet service to lower latitudes including New Mexico.

Sceye's system could increase remote education capabilities and give New Mexico bargaining power over state cell phone and broadband contracts, Krasnow said.

Last August, the department said it would commit $5 million in incentives for Sceye to move its operations to New Mexico, but the agreement was never finalized because of COVID-19, Krasnow said. The benchmarks included investing $50 million and creating 140 jobs.

Vestergaard did not respond to a request for comment on future investment and employment plans Tuesday.

Sceye Inc is based in Moriarty, New Mexico, and is owned by Sceye S.A., a holding company in Switzerland.


This story has been corrected to show high-speed internet would be distributed from above ground, but not from the stratosphere; and to show the elevation of the stratospheric platforms for this test will be 12 miles not 31,000 miles above sea level.

New Mexico Tourist Wins $10.5M Las Vegas Casino Slot Jackpot – Associated Press

A visitor from New Mexico won a $10.5 million slot machine jackpot early Tuesday at a Las Vegas casino, the property reported.

The South Point Hotel Casino & Spa said the Megabucks payout was Nevada's largest jackpot of the year.

The player won on a $5 wager, according to a news release that said the winner did not want to be publicly identified.

Megabucks is manufactured and operated by London-based International Game Technology.

The jackpot at the south Las Vegas Strip property came just hours after a tourist from Alaska won more than $2.1 million with a $40 bet on a Monopoly Millionaire slot machine at The Cosmopolitan.

That winner's name also was not released.

Man Arrested After Girlfriend's Kids Give Note To Bus Driver Associated Press

A Las Cruces man was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence-related charges after his girlfriend asked her children to give their school bus driver a note saying she was in danger, police said Tuesday.

The bus driver called 911 after being handed the note Friday morning and police then found the woman with multiple cuts, bruises and scrapes "consistent with her claims of physical abuse," a police statement said.

Police later located Erik Alvarado, 40, and he was arrested on suspicion of three counts of aggravated battery against a household member — two for suffocation and one for strangulation — and other charges, the statement said.

The woman secretly wrote the note after Alvarado abused her overnight and took away her cellphone, preventing her from calling for help, the statement said. "Much of the abuse was done in the presence of the couple's toddler and their two school-age children."

Alvarado remained in jail without bond Tuesday and online court records didn't list an attorney for him who might comment on his behalf.

US Agency Seeks To Speed Up Native American Land Decisions - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

U.S. Interior Department officials on Tuesday moved to reverse policies adopted under former President Donald Trump that Native American leaders said were hindering efforts by tribes to establish, consolidate and govern their homelands.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued an order that allows regional Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to approve the transfer of private land that's not on a designated reservation into federal trust for tribes. Putting land into trust gives the federal government legal title to the property, while allowing tribes or individual Native Americans to use it for their own interests and not have to pay state and local taxes.

Interior officials in 2017 set a policy that said off-reservation trust land decisions had to be made by the assistant secretary at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

The change was opposed by the National Congress of American Indians, which said it would freeze off-reservation acquisitions and had been adopted without tribal consultation.

Haaland said in a statement that rescinding the policy will empower tribes to determine how their land is used.

"We have an obligation to work with tribes to protect their lands and ensure that each tribe has a homeland where its citizens can live together," said Haaland, the first Native American to lead a White House Cabinet agency.

The order and a pair of related legal opinions issued by Interior Deputy Solicitor Robert Anderson are meant to speed up decisions on more than 1,000 pending applications from tribes across the U.S. seeking to put more than 200,000 acres of land into trust. Applications sometimes lingered for years, costing tribes hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses and other costs, officials said.

Anderson also withdrew an opinion issued in Trump's last day in office that said Interior didn't have authority to take land into trust in Alaska.

Whether land is in trust has broad implications for whether tribal police can exercise their authority, for tribal economic development projects to attract financing and for the creation of homelands and government offices for tribes that don't have dedicated land.

"Tribal nations care for the social needs of their people, whether that's housing, health care or education," said Lance Gumbs, an ambassador for the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island, which was formally recognized by the federal government in 2010 after a 32-year campaign.

There are 574 recognized tribes in the U.S. and 326 reservations, villages, rancherias and other designated homelands, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Some reservations have multiple tribes but not every tribe has land of its own. Many reservations are just remnants of a tribe's original land base.

Gumbs, who is also a board member of the National Congress of American Indians, said the now-cancelled policy for approving land transfers had created a backlog at the Interior Department and added to costs for tribes.

"Land is everything....It makes it very difficult for tribes to take care of their people without this very important component," he added.

The Trump administration put 75,000 acre into trust over four years, versus more than 560,000 acres in the eight years of the Obama administration, Interior officials said.

The trust land system was adopted in 1934, when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in response to more than 90 million acres of tribal homelands that had been converted into private land under the 1887 Allotment Act.

Approximately 56 million acres are currently in trust. Combined that's an area bigger than Minnesota and makes up just over 2 percent of the U.S.