Wednesday, August 26, 2009

State sued for not providing farmworker worker compensation

The state of New Mexico is being sued by a group of non-profit organizations and one injured agricultural worker for not providing workers compensation to farm and ranch laborers in the state.

The group maintains that the exclusion of these workers from workers compensation coverage violates the equal protection clause of the New Mexico State Constitution.

At a press conference yesterday, the group was joined by Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farmworkers of America.

Huerta said it was time for New Mexico to “get into the 21st century.”

Over thirty other states have extended such benefits to farmworkers, she said, and “it’s time that the people who feed us, who put the food on our plate, get the justice they deserve.”

Huerta also noted that the extension of workers compensation, which is funded by employers, would provide an incentive to farm and ranch owners to make the working environment safer.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is Joe Griego, a dairy worker who worked as a milker for 15 years. He was recently attacked while working at a dairy in Los Lunas by a bull, which resulted in crushed ribs and injuries to his spinal cord. According to a statement, he’s been in constant pain since then and unable to work. The medical bills and lost wages “have decimated the Griego’s ability to make ends meet,” the statement says. His wife has taken a second job and the family receives public assistance.

During the last legislative session, state Rep. Antonio Lujan, D-Las Cruces, sponsored a bill to extend such benefits to farmworkers. But the proposal died.

According to a handout at the press conference, that bill included a provision to exempt small farms and ranches, so that only the large enterprises would be affected. This would have resulted in 11 percent of the farms and ranches in the state being affected, which employ 89 percent of the workers in the sector.

John Martinez, executive director of one of the plaintiff organizations — HELP, New Mexico, said at the press conference that the current law is “antiquated” because the majority of farmworkers in New Mexico work for large operations, not “mom and pops.”

“Whether you work for Intel, state government, or pick chiles as the sun goes down,” he said, “[you should be covered], the law is antiquated and must be changed.”

Griego is joined in the lawsuit by the organizations HELP-New Mexico, Inc., and Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. The plaintiffs are represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the Sargent Shriver National Poverty Law Center, and National Center for Social and Economic Justice.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mexican gray wolf advocates celebrate release of data

Conservationists have won a battle with the federal government over information they say will help improve a troubled program aimed at returning North America's rarest gray wolf to the Southwest.

A federal judge last week ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services to release specific information on the locations of conflicts between livestock and the Mexican gray wolves that are roaming New Mexico and Arizona as part of a reintroduction effort.

Conservationists applauded the decision, saying the coordinates will help determine if there are any problem areas and whether steps can be taken to limit wolf contact with livestock in those areas.

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s. In 1998, the government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line in a 4 million-acre territory.

There are now about 50 wolves in the wild, but that's half of what biologists had hoped to have by now.

The reintroduction effort has been hampered by illegal shootings, complaints from ranchers who have lost cattle to the wolves and removal of wolves that have violated the program's three-strikes rule. Federal agents can kill or trap and remove any wolf that has been involved in three livestock kills within a year.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wolf release in Mexico sparks concern in US

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — American wildlife officials and ranchers are raising questions over a plan to release a rare North American gray wolf to its historic range in northern Mexico: Will it stay south of the border and what can be done if it threatens livestock?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said this week it learned of the plan to release captive-bred Mexican gray wolves during a meeting with Mexican officials.

A male, female and two yearlings could be released in Sonora state, bordering Arizona and New Mexico, as early as October. Another release is planned for December and more could happen next year as part of an effort by both countries to return the wolves to the wild.

"I think we kind of assumed it would happen eventually but we didn't realize it was going to happen this quickly," said Charna Lefton, regional spokeswoman with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque.

The Mexican agency that oversees natural resources and the environment, known as SEMARNAT, did not immediately respond to telephone and email requests for comment.

While wildlife officials and conservationists generally support the move, Lefton says "everyone is asking the same questions."

What if the wolves cross into the United States? Will they be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act? Or will they have the same "nonessential, experimental" designation as wolves released as part of a reintroduction effort in New Mexico and Arizona?

The Fish and Wildlife Service has posed those questions to the agency's attorneys and are hoping for answers in coming weeks. The agency also plans another meeting with Mexican officials.

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s after a campaign by the federal government to control the predator.

A handful of wolves were captured in Mexico in the late 1970s to save the animal from extinction. In 1998, the U.S. government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line in a 4 million-acre territory. Biologists had hoped to have at least 100 wolves by now, but recent surveys show about half that. It's unclear how many wolves are in Mexico's Sonora state.

The wolves in Arizona and New Mexico do not have full protection under the Endangered Species Act because they are designated as "experimental," giving game officials greater flexibility to manage them and even allows permanent removal — by capturing or killing — after three confirmed livestock kills in a year.

Conservationists contend any wolves found outside the reintroduction area in the two states would be protected under the Endangered Species Act unless the Fish and Wildlife seeks a contrary rule.

Wolves returning to the wild in Mexico only complicates a troubled effort in the United States, especially if the animals cross the border, said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association.

"You've got the potential of wolves coming down on you from the north that have one endangered status, and you've got wolves coming from the south that may have a different status," she said. "How are you supposed to tell the difference?"

Conservationists are encouraged by Mexico's plans, saying more wolves in the wild will help ensure species survival. If the U.S. and Mexico populations mingle, that would bolster the animal's limited genetic pool.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bingaman Bill Helps Restore Public Lands While Employing and Training Young Americans

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman today introduced legislation that would expand a program that provides young people with job opportunities, while helping repair and restore the country's public lands. The bill also includes a provision authored by U.S. Senator Tom Udall to establish the Indian Youth Service Corps.

Bingaman's Public Lands Service Corps Act of 2009 expands on the existing Public Lands Corps by expanding the scope of corps projects to reflect new challenges such as climate change. Additionally, the bill would add incentives to attract new participants, especially from underrepresented populations, and paving the way for increased funding. Senator Tom Udall is a cosponsor of the bill.

"This bill expands on an already successful program that provides young American with educational and professional development opportunities, while helping restore our country's public lands," Bingaman said.

"This legislation will help ensure that future generations of young people can give back to their communities and gain important job and life skills by protecting our nation's natural heritage," said Udall. "This bill would also help address the needs of Native communities by allowing Tribes to develop their own corps projects."

Specifically the bill would do the following:

* Amends the Public Lands Corps Act of 1993 to expand the authority of the Interior and Agriculture Departments (including such agencies as the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service).
* Establishes an Indian Youth Service Corps so that Indian Tribes can start corps programs on Tribal lands to carry out priority projects determined by their communities.
* Authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to participate in the program, which would allow Corps members to work on restoring coastal and marine ecosystems along our oceans and the Great Lakes.
* Authorizes the establishment of residential conservation centers, and encourages those centers to be built using solar and other green technology with the involvement of Corps participants.
* Expands the scope of eligible projects to include activities such as assisting -- historical and cultural research, scientists in field research, visitor services and interpretation.
* Authorizes the Secretary, in project areas where Corps members can reasonably be expected to live at home, to provide transportation to and from project sites.
* Allows agencies to provide noncompetitive hiring status for Corps participants for two years after completing service. Current law allows such status for only 120 days.
* Eliminates the $12 million authorization ceiling for the program, which would make the program eligible for increased funding.
* Age range for the program is 16-25, and participants may serve either in crews or as individuals.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Multiplying like bunnies? Not this jackrabbit

Rabbits are certainly known for their propensity for multiplying, but one species of jackrabbit is having trouble keeping up. There are an estimated 150 white-sided jackrabbits left in the United States, and federal wildlife officials announced Wednesday they will study the elusive rabbit to determine if it needs to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

It's not lack of libido that's holding back the white-sided jackrabbit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the biggest threat is change to the rabbits' habitat brought on by drought, grazing, the suppression of wildfire and the encroachment of shrubs into the Chihuahuan grasslands of New Mexico's bootheel — the only place in the United States where the jackrabbit has been documented. Wildfire helps keep shrubs in check and revitalizes grasslands, which the rabbits depend on.

The rabbit also lives in Mexico, and those populations have also declined, said Nicole Rosmarino, a biologist with the Western environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

Rosmarino said the existing pressures on the white-sided jackrabbit likely will worsen. Forecasters predict extended and more-frequent periods of drought in the Southwest because of climate change.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it's uncertain how climate change will affect the jackrabbit and its habitat, but it plans to look more closely at the potential impact during its 12-month review.

After the review, the agency will decide whether the rabbit warrants protection as an endangered or threatened species. In New Mexico, the rabbit has been listed as a state endangered species since 1975.

"The rabbit has cleared the first hurdle toward federal protection, so that's good news," Rosmarino said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to review the rabbit is the result of a petition and lawsuit filed by environmentalists.

The rabbit's name comes from a conspicuous white area along its body, most noticeable when the rabbit runs. The jackrabbits, usually seen in pairs, mate for life. While they can produce several litters a year, the litters are usually small — between one and three young.

The rabbit's large ears and long limbs are disproportionate to its body, creating more surface area to help the animal dissipate the heat that's part of living in the desert.

Besides the white-sided jackrabbit, WildEarth Guardians is seeking protections for other species, including the Sonoran desert tortoise. The Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to issue a finding on that species, but WildEarth Guardians says the tortoises' numbers have also been cut in half in recent decades.

As Rosmarino points out, Wednesday's decision by the agency puts the rabbit ahead of the tortoise, in both species' race to avoid extinction.

Monday, August 3, 2009

After the boom became a bust

Four and a half years ago, oil company executives negotiated for drilling rights at our dining room table. We are ranchers with some mineral rights and the drilling clamor was well underway in the West. Talk turned to the future, and they suggested our 19-year-old son postpone college. "Buy him a backhoe!" they urged.

We remembered the last boom, which ended with a bang, not a whimper, on May 2, 1982. We were herding our own sheep, moving toddlers from winter desert to summer high country, while all around us, drilling dominated the local economy.

Today, we have grown children and are fighting the fight to stay on the ranch established six generations ago. Oil and gas has long been a part of our Wyoming community. In recent years, it again swept everything before it.

When we moved a sheep camp or checked our desert cows, semis and tankers swarmed the roads. Backcountry vistas were dotted with drilling rigs. Beer cans lined highways and two-tracks alike, and formed pyramids outside the man camps which sprang up to house new workers.

This boom, we were assured — everyone in the oil patch was assured — would last 50, 70, 100 years. Young people found jobs, found a future at home. They did not have to migrate to faraway places and long for the mountains, for the West's open spaces.

Ranchers who had struggled with up-and-down commodity prices turned their hand to providing services and property to energy companies, bringing in welcome capital. Families with long-dormant mineral rights found land men appearing at their door and checks appearing in the mail. Drilling rigs came in, one semi-truck following another, like ducks, filling the horizons with tall metal structures that looked as permanent as the Eiffel Tower.

Our communities morphed from generally sleepy burgs to boomtowns. Employers couldn't find workers to serve the huge increase in demand. Tiny towns like Wamsutter, Wyo., population formerly 261, suddenly transformed from a gas stop on Interstate 80 to a center for the new oil economy.

Semis exiting at Wamsutter's one exchange backed up onto the interstate, seeking transit to the energy fields to the north and south.

In the meantime, those of us who live and work on this landscape tried to adjust, tried to understand this massive shift. Our ranching operation leads us, and our animals, from the mountainous high country in the summer months to the sagebrush country of the desert in the winter months. This long trail covers some 150 miles, spring and fall, across a broad countryside — the same countryside that boiled with energy development.

We found mudpots erupting in the coalbed methane fields. These mudpots, we were instructed by both the BLM and our state government, had always been there. Institutional memories of ranchers, trappers, recreationists held no weight.

Wildlife such as deer and elk, antelope and sage grouse, found their lives changed as well. Suddenly they found roads, dust, invasive weeds. Big game species met not only people and activity. They found poachers, who, unlike local hunters, shot at them with sudden and inexplicable impunity, sometimes leaving their heads mounted obscenely on rocks and brush.

All this activity, which was indeed providing much-needed energy to the nation, profoundly impacted the landscape. Reclamation is mandated by law, but was not happening. Pipelines, roads, well sites — all showed a moonscape of bare ground, or worse, a garden of invasive weeds, especially halogeton, poisonous to livestock.

The companies were trying, but they were hindered by drought, by inexperience. They found regulators who counted an attempt as success. Successful reclamation is the exception, not the rule.

Into this situation, oil prices dropped precipitously. It turned out that oil prices had been driven artificially high by speculation. When the economy imploded, so did oil prices.

The effect on our communities throughout the oil patch is not positive. Folks who had invested in heavy equipment, in building new housing, who had taken truck-driving jobs, found that the boom had busted. Young men and women with high-paying jobs found themselves unemployed. My cousin, who recently bought the ranch adjoining his, found his water trucks idle.

Those of us who live and work and recreate in the West's open spaces are left with a radically changed economy and culture, and a radically disturbed landscape. Now what? We still need energy and we still need a healthy landscape.

Our son? He is graduating with a degree in environment and natural resources. He plans to work with us in the landscape reclamation business.

Sharon Salisbury O'Toole is a rancher, writer and poet from the Little Snake River Valley, near Savery, Wyo. She and her family raise cattle, sheep, dogs, horses and children on their sixth-generation ranching operation.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

NM forest takes unusual route in travel planning

Hundreds of miles of dirt roads and trails cut through northern New Mexico's mountains. The hard part is deciding which ones to keep open and which to close.

It's a scenario that's playing itself out across the country as the U.S. Forest Service tries to designate by 2010 a system of motorized routes that will provide recreational opportunities while still protecting America's natural resources.

In northern New Mexico, off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists - typically arch enemies in the travel management debate - have found something to agree on. But it won't make the process any easier for federal land managers.

Both sides say the Carson National Forest is going about travel management planning in an unusual way, one they fear will leave the public without a chance to comment on potential impacts to soil, water quality, wildlife and recreational access.

"I'm concerned because there's really nothing the public can look at and say 'Oh, the impacts to water quality are going to be this, so yeah I support it,' or 'No, I don't.' No matter what side of the issue you're on, you don't have any information," said Cyndi Tuell, southwestern conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

At issue is the proposed action that the Carson forest released in July. It calls for closing nearly 270 miles of existing roads to motor vehicles on three ranger districts, prohibiting cross-country travel and adding corridors for camping. But absent is a comprehensive environmental analysis of the proposal, critics say.

Carson officials said Friday they are working on an environmental assessment. However, the public likely won't have a chance to see the document until after the comment period ends Aug. 15.

While federal law gives forest officials some discretion when deciding whether public comment is needed on an environmental assessment, many forests have analyzed the impacts of their travel plans, prepared reports and have given people time to weigh in.

Critics say they are aware of only one other forest that took a similar path to the one being taken on the Carson. On the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho, officials spent a couple years gathering public comment so they could develop a plan for designating which roads and trails would be open to motorcycles, four-wheelers and other off-highway vehicles.

However, no official comment period was held on the plan's environmental assessment, said Brad Brooks, a regional conservation associate with The Wilderness Society in Idaho.

"I think it really creates a lot of distrust when they won't even allow a simple comment period on an environmental assessment," he said. "In the mind of the public, if there's nothing to hide, then why not let people at least have a transparent process."

Officials on both the Sawtooth and the Carson say they put "extreme amounts of effort" into getting stakeholders involved early in the process so they could come up with plans they believed addressed the public's needs and concerns.

Jack Carpenter, a member of the Carson's travel management team, said the proposed action released last month includes alternatives that the public can comment on.

"We're trying to cover a lot of things," he said. "We're saying, 'will this project affect a lot of people? And if so, how?' This is what we have come up with so far, and if we're wrong, tell us. That's what we want them to do, tell us if we're wrong."

Like the Center for Biological Diversity, Joanne Spivack, past president of the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance, believes the forest isn't providing enough information on the impacts of the proposal for the public to make substantive comments. She equates the situation to a jury deciding a case before hearing the evidence.

Spivack added that filing comments is what gives the public standing to appeal and ultimately sue.

"The Carson appears to be engineering this so citizens are left with no alternative except to file an appeal," she said. "This is a lengthy and intimidating process."

While forest officials contend they have worked hard to be inclusive and listen to the public, travel management planning has proven divisive across the nation.

In California, for example, there have been plenty of public meetings but concern still looms over interpretation of the travel management rule and the impacts to recreation and the environment.

A recent study done by the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia found that given the high stakes perceived by forest users, related economic interests and cooperating agencies, conflict is natural and inevitable.

However, it's not the job of the Forest Service to make everyone happy, said Frank Dukes, director of the institute.

"The job is to apply the law and to do so in a way that meets both the letter and the spirit of the law, and the spirit does say that the Forest Service is supposed to involve the communities that are affected by their decisions," Dukes said.

"It is a hugely challenging situation for a lot of people," he added.

While people have only two more weeks to comment on the Carson's proposal, Carpenter said that doesn't mean the routes will be set in stone. The Carson, like other forests, plans to review its transportation system every year.