More tourism communities ask voters to approve lodging taxes for child care

More tourism communities ask voters to approve lodging taxes for child care

The new stipend for child care employees in Eagle County is funded through a lodging tax, a mechanism that Colorado communities, especially in mountain resort regions, are increasingly tapping to generate new dollars for housing and child care for people who live there. The idea is that local workers power the tourism industry, so visitors should contribute to efforts that support a stable workforce. Such taxes also reframe child care as a larger economic interest rather than just a mom-and-dad issue.

The Current is an inclusive nonprofit, non-partisan news organization providing in-depth watchdog journalism for Savannah and Coastal Georgia’s communities.

When burn scars become roaring earthen rivers

No one was hurt, and no houses burned. But now, wildfire survivors in Washington face a new threat: debris flows. Wildfires can lessen the soil’s ability to absorb water, so when thunderstorms, rapid snowmelt, atmospheric rivers or rain falling on snow occur in a burned area, that can create a roaring earthen river. Debris flows can move quickly — 30 mph or more — sliding from the uplands to the valley floor in a matter of minutes.  

Debris flows are more powerful and dangerous than mudslides and slower-moving landslides: They can sweep away boulders, trees and cars and destroy everything in their path, including roads and homes and the people who live in them. Last year, in Washington’s Okanogan County, two residents were rescued from their home after a debris flow. Another flow destroyed a cabin and sent a foot of water and mud into more than 30 structures. And in 2018, 23 people were killed when heavy rains triggered a debris flow in the burn scar of Southern California’s Thomas Fire. 

United States Geological Survey (USGS) modeling indicates that, for perhaps the next five to seven years, there’s a high probability of debris flows in the mountains above Grotto and other communities along the South Fork of the Skykomish River Corridor. The USGS models were originally created using data from drier areas in Southern California, where debris flows have been happening for years after fires, and may be less accurate in Washington’s wet climate — particularly on the rainier side of the Cascade Range. And until recently, there’s been little research on how post-fire debris flows behave in Washington. 

ONE MAY AFTERNOON, eight months after the fire, a team of researchers made their way up a soot-blackened hillside a few miles from Grotto. Ashy dirt crunched underfoot as they scrambled over and around trees that had been toppled by the fire. They were looking for the right tree to mount a game camera on in order to document future debris flows. They also wanted to check on the rain gauges they’d installed last fall, not long after the fire, when rainy weather and still-smoldering stumps had made setting up the equipment extra-tricky.

The Walker Creek Fire, which burned in the fall of 2021, created ideal conditions for a post-wildfire debris flow. The following summer, a slurry of mud, rocks and large woody debris damaged cars, roads and properties in central Washington.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources

The Washington Geological Survey’s Wildfire-Associated Landslide Emergency Response Team is tracking recently burned sites in the state to understand when landslides occur and how much precipitation it takes to trigger them. “The missing piece is the exact time,” geologist Kate Mickelson said. The weather patterns, geography and vegetation of the Pacific Northwest are different from California’s, and these variations can influence when the earth slides.

“The missing piece is the exact time.”

In the Northwest, for example, debris flows can occur several years after a fire, while in California, they usually happen in the first two rainy seasons that follow. (Researchers think that might be because tree roots take longer to decay in the Pacific Northwest.) Generally, National Weather Service debris-flow warnings are triggered if a quarter-inch of rain falls in 15 minutes, or if one inch falls in an hour. Sometimes they’re issued for at least the first two years post-fire, either countywide or just for the area near a burn scar. The warning system’s thresholds can be tweaked to reflect the region. But in rainy parts of western Washington, heavy rain is not unusual, and scientists fear that issuing alerts all the time could numb people to the danger, making them less likely to evacuate.

After 15 minutes of hiking, the researchers found the perfect location for their camera: a standing tree perched just above a likely flow path, a few feet up on a mound of rocks. Finding the right spot is tricky; the tree must be close enough to a debris flow for it to trigger the camera to record, but not so close that the tree (and camera) get swept away. Mickelson and geoscientist Emilie Richard wrapped a strap around the tree’s trunk and mounted the solar-powered camera facing south, then took a few test pictures to make sure it was properly angled. 

A post-wildfire debris flow in the burn scar of the Walker Creek Fire caused significant damage in central Washington in the summer of 2022.
Courtesy of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources

Game cameras, rain gauges and other tools can help scientists understand how much precipitation it takes to trigger debris flows in western Washington, and help the USGS fine-tune its modeling. Mickelson’s team has set up cameras in five and rain gauges in 11 recent burn scars around the state.  In some locations, they also installed pressure transducers, devices that measure the water’s pressure on the earth. The devices are drilled into bedrock and can sense the rapid increases in pressure caused by a debris flow. 

When the researchers returned in May to install the camera, they also checked on their other equipment. Luckily, all the rain gauges were still in place, so they downloaded the data and changed batteries that were low on juice after the cold winter months. The equipment they installed will monitor the sites for the next five years, noting real-time rainfall — unless, of course, everything gets taken out by a debris flow. 

SITTING BAREFOOT in their front yard in May, amid lilac bushes and daisies, Grotto residents expressed their concerns. “We have to cross our fingers,” Lorenzo Vasquez said. “We’re screwed for mudslides,” Richard Walther, his neighbor, agreed. They’re worried that debris flows could reroute the creek between their homes and the mountainside, causing flooding or road damage. The Washington Geological Survey scientists hope their work will help residents prepare in the future. “We would like to be able to tell people, ‘This is your peak risk,’” Mickelson said. “We just don’t know that yet.”   

Kylie Mohr is a correspondent for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

States opposed tribes’ access to the Colorado River 70 years ago. History is repeating itself.

A lawyer named T.F. Neighbors, who was special assistant to the U.S. attorney general, foresaw the likely outcome if the federal government failed to assert tribes’ claims to the river: States would consume the water and block tribes from ever acquiring their full share.

This story is the sixth in our Waiting for Water series about the Colorado River. Get this and other great reporting from High Country News by signing up for our newsletter.

In 1953, as Neighbors helped prepare the department’s legal strategy, he wrote in a memo to the assistant attorney general, “When an economy has grown up premised upon the use of Indian waters, the Indians are confronted with the virtual impossibility of having awarded to them the waters of which they had been illegally deprived.”

As the case dragged on, it became clear the largest tribe in the region, the Navajo Nation, would get no water from the proceedings. A lawyer for the tribe, Norman Littell, wrote then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1961, warning of the dire future he saw if that were the outcome. “This grave loss to the tribe will preclude future development of the reservation and otherwise prevent the beneficial development of the reservation intended by the Congress,” Littell wrote.

Both warnings, only recently rediscovered, proved prescient. States successfully opposed most tribes’ attempts to have their water rights recognized through the landmark case, and tribes have spent the decades that followed fighting to get what’s owed to them under a 1908 Supreme Court ruling and long-standing treaties.

In 1953, a Department of Justice attorney wrote an internal memo detailing the future negative impacts that would come from excluding tribal nations from the case.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

The possibility of this outcome was clear to attorneys and officials even at the time, according to thousands of pages of court files, correspondence, agency memos and other contemporary records unearthed and cataloged by University of Virginia history professor Christian McMillen, who shared them with ProPublica and High Country News. While Arizona and California’s fight was covered in the press at the time, the documents, drawn from the National Archives, reveal telling details from the case, including startling similarities in the way states have rebuffed tribes’ attempts to access their water in the ensuing 70 years.

Many of the 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin still have been unable to access water to which they’re entitled. And Arizona for years has taken a uniquely aggressive stance against tribes’ attempts to use their water, a recent ProPublica and High Country News investigation found.

“It’s very much a repeat of the same problems we have today,” Andrew Curley, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Arizona and member of the Navajo Nation, said of the records. Tribes’ ambitions to access water are approached as “this fantastical apocalyptic scenario” that would hurt states’ economies, he said.

Arizona sued California in 1952, asking the Supreme Court to determine how much Colorado River water each state deserved. The records show that, even as the states fought each other in court, Arizona led a coalition of states in jointly lobbying the U.S. attorney general to cease arguing for tribes’ water claims. The attorney general, bowing to the pressure, removed the strongest language in the petition, even as Department of Justice attorneys warned of the consequences. “Politics smothered the rights of the Indians,” one of the attorneys later wrote.

“This grave loss to the tribe will preclude future development of the reservation and otherwise prevent the beneficial development of the reservation intended by the Congress.”

The Supreme Court’s 1964 decree in the case quantified the water rights of the Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — and five tribes whose lands are adjacent to the river. While the ruling defended tribes’ right to water, it did little to help them access it. By excluding all other basin tribes from the case, the court missed an opportunity to settle their rights once and for all.

The Navajo Nation — with a reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — was among those left out of the case. “Clearly, Native people up and down the Colorado River were overlooked. We need to get that fixed, and that is exactly what the Navajo Nation is trying to do,” said George Hardeen, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation.

Today, millions more people rely on a river diminished by a hotter climate. Between 1950 and 2020, Arizona’s population alone grew from about 750,000 to more than 7 million, bringing booming cities and thirsty industries.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is no closer to compelling the federal government to secure its water rights in Arizona. In June, the Supreme Court again ruled against the tribe, in a separate case, Arizona v. Navajo Nation. Justice Neil Gorsuch cited the earlier case in his dissent, arguing the conservative court majority ignored history when it declined to quantify the tribe’s water rights.

McMillen agreed. The federal government “rejected that opportunity” in the 1950s and ’60s to more forcefully assert tribes’ water claims, he said. As a result, “Native people have been trying for the better part of a century now to get answers to these questions and have been thwarted in one way or another that entire time.”

J.D. Reeves/High Country News and ProPublica

Three missing words

As Arizona prepared to take California to court in the early 1950s, the federal government faced a delicate choice. It represented a host of interests along the river that would be affected by the outcome: tribes, dams and reservoirs and national parks. How should it balance their needs?

The Supreme Court had ruled in 1908 that tribes with reservations had an inherent right to water, but neither Congress nor the courts had defined it. The 1922 Colorado River Compact, which first allocated the river’s water, also didn’t settle tribal claims.

In the decades that followed the signing of the compact, the federal government constructed massive projects — including the Hoover, Parker and Imperial dams — to harness the river. Federal policy at the time was generally hostile to tribes, as Congress passed laws eroding the United States’ treaty-based obligations. Over a 15-year period, the country dissolved its relationships with more than 100 tribes, stripping them of land and diminishing their political power. “It was a very threatening time for tribes,” Curley said of what would be known as the Termination Era.

Tribal water rights were “prior and superior” to all other water users in the basin, even states.

So it was a shock to states when, in November 1953, Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and the Department of Justice moved to intervene in the states’ water fight and aggressively staked a claim on behalf of tribes. Tribal water rights were “prior and superior” to all other water users in the basin, even states, the federal government argued.

Western states were apoplectic.

Arizona Gov. John Howard Pyle quickly called a meeting with Brownell to complain, and Western politicians hurried to Washington, D.C. Under political pressure, the Department of Justice removed the document four days after filing it. When Pyle wrote to thank the attorney general, he requested that federal solicitors work with the state on an amended version. “To have left it as it was would have been calamitous,” Pyle said.

The federal government refiled its petition a month later. It no longer asserted that tribes’ water rights were “prior and superior.”

The letter from Gov. Howard Pyle of Arizona to Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. after the U.S. filed an initial petition in Arizona v. California stated that tribal water claims are “prior and superior” to all others on the river. Western governors led by Pyle requested a meeting with the AG immediately, asking him to pull the petition, which he did.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

When details of the states’ meeting with the attorney general emerged in court three years later, Littell, the Navajo Nation’s attorney, berated the Department of Justice for its “equivocating, pussy-footing” defense of tribes’ water rights. “It is rather a shocking situation, and the Attorney General of the United States is responsible for it,” he said during court hearings.

Arizona’s legal representative balked at discussing the meeting in open court, calling it “improper.”

Experts told ProPublica and High Country News that it’s impossible to quantify the impact of the federal government’s failure to fully defend tribes’ water rights. Reservations might have flourished if they’d secured water access that remains elusive today. Or, perhaps basin tribes would have been worse off if they had been given only small amounts of water. Amid the overt racism of that era, the government didn’t consider tribes capable of extensive development.

Jay Weiner, an attorney who represents several tribes’ water claims in Arizona, said the important truth the documents reveal is the federal government’s willingness to bow to states instead of defending tribes. Pulling back from its argument that tribes’ rights are “prior and superior” was but one example.

“It’s not so much the three words,” Weiner said. “It’s really the vigor with which they would have chosen to litigate.”

“It is rather a shocking situation, and the Attorney General of the United States is responsible for it.”

Because states succeeded in spiking “prior and superior,” they also won an argument over how to account for tribes’ water use. Instead of counting it directly against the flow of the river, before dealing with other users’ needs, it now comes out of states’ allocations. As a result, tribes and states compete for the scarce resource in this adversarial system, most vehemently in Arizona, which must navigate the water claims of 22 federally recognized tribes.

In 1956, W.H. Flanery, the associate solicitor of Indian Affairs, wrote to an Interior Department official that Arizona and California “are the Indians’ enemies and they will be united in their efforts to defeat any superior or prior right which we may seek to establish on behalf of the Indians. They have spared and will continue to spare no expense in their efforts to defeat the claims of the Indians.”

A 1953 telegram to the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission, which prepared the state’s case against California, notifying them that “prior and superior” had been removed.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Western states battle tribal water claims

As arguments in the case continued through the 1950s, an Arizona water agency moved to block a major farming project on the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation until the case was resolved, the newly uncovered documents show. Decades later, the state similarly used unresolved water rights as a bargaining chip, asking tribes to agree not to pursue the main method of expanding their reservations in exchange for settling their water claims.

Highlighting the state’s prevailing sentiment toward tribes back then, a lawyer named J.A. Riggins Jr. addressed the river’s policymakers in 1956 at the Colorado River Water Users Association’s annual conference. He represented the Salt River Project — a nontribal public utility that manages water and electricity for much of Phoenix and nearby farming communities — and issued a warning in a speech titled, “The Indian threat to our water rights.”

“I urge that each of you evaluate your ‘Indian Problem’ (you all have at least one), and start NOW to protect your areas,” Riggins said, according to the text of his remarks that he mailed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Riggins, who on multiple occasions warned of “‘Indian raids’ on western non-Indian water rights,” later lobbied Congress on Arizona’s behalf to authorize a canal to transport Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. He also litigated Salt River Project cases as co-counsel with Jon Kyl, who later served as a U.S. senator. (Kyl, who was an architect of Arizona’s tribal water rights strategy, told ProPublica and High Country News that he wasn’t aware of Riggins’ speech and that his work on tribal water rights was “based on my responsibility to represent all of the people of Arizona to the best of my ability, which, of course, frequently required balancing competing interests.”)

While Arizona led the opposition to tribes’ water claims, other states supported its stance.

“We thought the allegation of prior and superior rights for Indians was erroneous,” said Northcutt Ely, California’s lead lawyer in the proceedings, according to court transcripts. If the attorney general tried to argue that in court, “we were going to meet him head on,” Ely said.

Department of Justice attorney William Veeder wrote this memo to get sign off from the attorney general for the revised petition that deleted the “prior and superior” language.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

When Arizona drafted a legal agreement to exclude tribes from the case, while promising to protect their undefined rights, other states and the Interior Department signed on. It was only rejected in response to pressure from tribes’ attorneys and the Department of Justice.

McMillen, the historian who compiled the documents reviewed by ProPublica and High Country News, said they show Department of Justice staff went the furthest to protect tribal water rights. The agency built novel legal theories, pushed for more funding to hire respected experts and did extensive research. Still, McMillen said, the department found itself “flying the plane and building it at the same time.”

Tribal leaders feared this would result in the federal government arguing a weak case on their behalf. The formation of the Indian Claims Commission — which heard complaints brought by tribes against the government, typically on land dispossession — also meant the federal government had a potential conflict of interest in representing tribes. Basin tribes coordinated a response and asked the court to appoint a special counsel to represent them, but the request was denied.

So too was the Navajo Nation’s later request that it be allowed to represent itself in the case.

Arizona v. Navajo Nation

More than 60 years after Littell made his plea to Kennedy, the Navajo Nation’s water rights in Arizona still haven’t been determined, as he predicted.

The decision to exclude the Navajo Nation from Arizona v. California influenced this summer’s Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Navajo Nation, in which the tribe asked the federal government to identify its water rights in Arizona. Despite the U.S. insisting it could adequately represent the Navajo Nation’s water claims in the earlier case, federal attorneys this year argued the U.S. has no enforceable responsibility to protect the tribe’s claims. It was a “complete 180 on the U.S.’ part,” said Michelle Brown-Yazzie, assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice’s Water Rights Unit and an enrolled member of the tribe.

Trial transcripts from an Arizona v. California hearing in 1956.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

In both cases, the federal government chose to “abdicate or to otherwise downplay their trust responsibility,” said Joe M. Tenorio, a senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and a member of the Santo Domingo Pueblo. “The United States took steps to deny tribal intervention in Arizona v. California and doubled down their effort in Arizona v. Navajo Nation.”

In June, a majority of Supreme Court justices accepted the federal government’s argument that Congress, not the courts, should resolve the Navajo Nation’s lingering water rights. In his dissenting opinion, Gorsuch wrote, “The government’s constant refrain is that the Navajo can have all they ask for; they just need to go somewhere else and do something else first.” At this point, he added, “the Navajo have tried it all.”

The federal government chose to “abdicate or to otherwise downplay their trust responsibility.”

As a result, a third of homes on the Navajo Nation still don’t have access to clean water, which has led to costly water hauling and, according to the Navajo Nation, has increased tribal members’ risk of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eight tribal nations have yet to reach any agreement over how much water they’re owed in Arizona. The state’s new Democratic governor has pledged to address unresolved tribal water rights, and the Navajo Nation and state are restarting negotiations this month. But tribes and their representatives wonder if the state will bring a new approach.

“It’s not clear to me Arizona’s changed a whole lot since the 1950s,” Weiner, the lawyer, said.

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor of High Country News. She writes and edits stories on tribal sovereignty and environmental
justice for the Indigenous Affairs desk from Colorado. @annavtoriasmith

Mark Olalde is an environment reporter with ProPublica, where he investigates issues concerning oil, mining, water and other topics around the Southwest.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Alone on the Range

In September 2016, with Tropical Storm Hermine bearing down on North Carolina, Kemp Burdette rented a single-engine plane and flew over Duplin County. Burdette, a riverkeeper with the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch, was worried that some of the local pig farmers might try to drain their manure lagoons before the rains hit, to prevent them from overflowing. Spraying waste is illegal right before storms because of the risk that runoff from saturated fields will contaminate waterways.

As he flew, Burdette estimated that he saw at least 35 farms spraying their fields. He took high-resolution, GPS-stamped photographs and videos documenting the apparent violations, and then filed a complaint with the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), hoping the iron-clad evidence would move the agency to act. He and his colleagues did the same a month later, just before devastating Hurricane Matthew. “This isn’t just one bad actor,” he said. “This was widespread—complete disregard for the rules.”

But, according to Burdette, DEQ told him that the GPS-stamped images were inadequate proof. “They were basically saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’” he says. “They can’t stand behind evidence collected by somebody else.” Nor did they have funds to make their own aerial surveys. For evidence, DEQ said it could only review the farms’ self-reported spray logs. And in November 2016, when Burdette and his colleagues followed up, they say, all public traces of their complaints had disappeared.

For years, North Carolina regulators shielded the identities of polluting farms, burying public complaints against them and leaving those who lived nearby with few avenues for redress. Neighbors said their complaints were going unheard. 

A joint investigation by The Guardian, Food & Environment Reporting Network, and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting backs up those residents’ assessments. In response to a public-records request, DEQ released only 33 public complaints against livestock operations in North Carolina from January 2008 to April 2018. Over the same period, other hog states have registered literally thousands.

And then, abruptly, the DEQ reversed that policy this spring, saying it had validated 62 complaints against animal operations over a six-month period and then posting them online. The offenders included 11 industrial hog farms, some of which had let their waste discharge into ditches and streams. The change of policy meant that state regulators had publicly documented nearly twice as many violations in the six months ending April 2019 than in an entire decade. What happened?


Interview on WNCU-Durham’s The Dirt with writer Barry Yeoman and FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz.

The Bob Ivey Facility, located along the Neuse river in North Carolina. The waste lagoon is under water to the right of the buildings. Photo by Rick Dove, image courtesy of Cape Fear River Watch and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Raising hogs in North Carolina used to be a side gig to the real business of growing tobacco and cotton. Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, the industry exploded, with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on the state’s coastal plain housing up to 60,000 animals apiece. Most of the state’s 9 million pigs live indoors, their waste flushed through slats into open pits called lagoons. When the lagoons get too full, the waste is sprayed onto crop fields as fertilizer, though these manure pits have also overflowed and breached their walls, particularly during hurricanes, sending waste into streams and rivers.

As the industry grew, the state legislature protected it in numerous ways, even barring counties from zoning out hog farms during the key expansion years. But lawmakers couldn’t ignore the mounting hog waste, particularly when it polluted waterways.

In 1997, the legislature imposed a temporary moratorium on new farms using lagoon-and-sprayfield systems: in 2007 it made the moratorium permanent, essentially capping the number of hog farms at around 2,300. But existing industrial farms were allowed to continue business as usual, despite widespread evidence that they were fouling the rural landscape and making for noxious neighbors.

“It smells like a body that’s been decomposed for a month,” said Rene Miller, a retired truck driver from Duplin County, the heart of hog country. Sundays after church, her family used to gather under the oak tree beside the house. They danced, played checkers, and ate fried chicken, collard greens, and corn. “That was my life back then,” she said. Now, with hog waste sprayed onto a field across the road, she stays inside with the air conditioner cranked up.

A study published in 2018 by the North Carolina Medical Journal concluded that families living near hog CAFOs saw higher rates of infant mortality and deaths from anemia, kidney disease, and tuberculosis. The researchers did not establish causality. Other studies have associated the state’s hog-farm emissions with asthma, elevated blood pressure, sleep disruptions, and depression.

A University of North Carolina study, from 2014, found these issues “disproportionately affect” people of color: African Americans are more than 1-1/2 times more likely than whites to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation in North Carolina. Latinos and Native Americans are also more likely to live near CAFOs.

The North Carolina Pork Council declined an interview request, but has in the past criticized the study from 2014.  It said the three-mile radius in the study captured too many people to be meaningful, and that co-author Steve Wing, an epidemiologist, was an outspoken hog-farm opponent. (Wing died in 2016.)

In comments submitted to DEQ last March, the Council also noted that the 2018 North Carolina Medical Journal study came from a research program at Duke University that received funding from a critic of factory farming.

The industry insists health concerns are exaggerated. “We don’t think these types of symptoms or things are going on in the communities where we do business,” Kraig Westerbeek, a senior director at Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer and the state’s dominant player, said in a deposition and in reference to an older study that found increased depression, anger, and confusion among neighbors who experienced hog-farm odors. “There are studies that can say almost anything,” he added. 


The moratorium on lagoons and spraying only applies to new farms. Meanwhile North Carolina’s legislators appear to have continued to protect existing farms and discourage neighbors from seeking help. In 2014, for example, they passed a law keeping complaints filed with the state environmental agency confidential unless the department “determines that a violation has occurred.” State Representative Jimmy Dixon, a sponsor, said the provision was designed to protect farmers from false accusations.

“We fully expect and desire to have any violations known and exposed,” the Duplin County Republican and semi-retired poultry farmer said in an interview. “But just to throw it wide open for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to make unsubstantiated claims, like some of the people do—we believe that there is an inherent expectation that I should be determined to be innocent until proven to be guilty.”

The confidentiality measure, part of a larger bill, passed with bipartisan support.

DEQ interpreted the law to require disclosure of a complaint only when there’s a formal violation notice or penalty, which the agency has historically been loath to initiate. “We believe [that] if they find a violation of the permit, they just tell the operator, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look right. You need to address it,’” said Elizabeth Haddix, managing attorney at the North Carolina regional office of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents some of DEQ’s critics. “They may not make any written record of that violation.” This is how, until recently, complaints vanished.

It also helps explain why the agency located only 33 complaint records for a period of more than a decade, when queried by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Other states with major livestock industries had far more: Nebraska provided 2,131 complaints; Georgia 5,652; and Texas 6,411. Iowa, the top hog producing state, provided 2,393.

The North Carolina Pork Council, in a 2019 letter to DEQ, said the “relatively minimal number of violations” in the state signaled “a robust and working regulatory system.” But even careful documentation hasn’t guaranteed enforcement in North Carolina. DEQ spokesperson Sharon Martin would not discuss the complaints filed by Burdette and his colleagues after the 2016 storms. She did acknowledge the animal-operations program “is underfunded due to the last decade of budget cuts.”


Feeling unprotected by regulators, North Carolinians living near hog farms have turned to the courts, with more than two dozen lawsuits by more than 500 plaintiffs, including Rene Miller, against Smithfield Foods’ hog-production subsidiary, which contracted with farmers to raise its animals.

Former hog farmer, Don Webb, of Stantonsburg, North Carolina, now deceased, was critical of the way hog farmers disposed of waste and made that clear on his briefcase. Photo by Alex Boerner.

Meanwhile others looked to the machinery of federal and state government to hold DEQ more accountable. In September 2014, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights. It said that DEQ failed to consider the outsized harm to people of color when it issued that year’s permit governing nearly all large hog operations, violating federal civil-rights laws. The permit is issued every five years. 

The two sides agreed to mediation, which fell apart after five representatives of the North Carolina Pork Council and its national counterpart showed up at what the environmentalists call a confidential session. (They suspect DEQ employees tipped off the Pork Councils.) “That was unnerving,” said Naeema Muhammad, the Environmental Justice Network’s organizing co-director.

DEQ did not respond to questions about the mediation. In an email, Robert Brown, a publicist for the North Carolina Pork Council, said the mediation was “no secret” and that his client wanted “to engage in a constructive dialogue, recognizing that any resolution of the complaint would have a direct impact on Pork Council members.”

The Pork Council described the complaint as part of a “coordinated, multi-pronged attack on our farmers.”

After the mediation failed, EPA investigators visited North Carolina and interviewed more than 60 hog-farm neighbors. The residents described stenches so strong that it made them gag, vomit, and lock themselves indoors. Several also mentioned keeping silent, because “for more than 15 years, the government has been well aware of the conditions they have to live with, but has done nothing to help, so complaining to NC DEQ would be futile,” the EPA wrote in a letter to DEQ. Those who did complain reported “threats, intimidation, and harassment” by the industry.

Finally, in December 2016, advocates challenged the complaint problem head-on, filing a separate petition with the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings, alleging that DEQ had failed to investigate complaints against hog farms. The groups pointed to the photographic evidence of illegal spraying just before Tropical Storm Hermine and Hurricane Matthew and the later disappearance of those complaints.

This multifaceted campaign began to bear fruit in 2017, after a change of governors and leadership in North Carolina. Incumbent Republican Pat McCrory was replaced by Democrat Roy Cooper, and he appointed former Environmental Defense Fund official Michael Regan to head DEQ. “We all had high hope,” the Environmental Justice Network’s Muhammad said of the new administration.

Shortly after the inauguration, DEQ issued “notices of deficiency” to nine farms that had sprayed their fields right before Hermine, requiring the farms to take corrective action. These farms included five that Burdette said he photographed the previous September. DEQ based its findings on the farmer-reported logs.

The new DEQ leadership also sat down with the advocates and hammered out two settlements. In the EPA civil-rights complaint, DEQ agreed to tougher oversight in its permit for large hog operations. It would improve air and water monitoring, and would develop a mapping tool to analyze whether people of color were disproportionately harmed by its decisions. In the settlement, DEQ did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

In the other settlement, DEQ agreed to implement a new system for investigating complaints, and to post six months’ worth of data. The first posting covered November 2018 through April 2019, showing DEQ received 138 complaints and found 62 violations.

When it comes to how regulators handle complaints, “I think the settlement was a game-changer,” said Haddix.

But the results of these challenges to the industry have not been entirely positive. Take the lawsuits: On one hand, juries have returned five verdicts against Smithfield. The awards have ranged from $102,400 to $473.5 million, though the largest were dialed back under state law. But the legislature responded to the suits by limiting neighbors’ future rights to sue and collect damages. Dixon, who helped shepherd the legislation, called the lawsuits “an egregious grab of money” by attorneys.

Smithfield did not respond to interview requests. In an email, it called the largest award an “outlier verdict” and noted that appeals are pending.

More on this story
Read the first story in our series about large-scale livestock farming, on poultry price-fixing

Story was published by local news outlet, Charlotte Observer.

Barry & Sam Fromartz talked about the story on WNCU-Radio’s “The Dirt”

And DEQ declined to comment when asked if it had adopted a more aggressive policy. Advocates describe what Haddix calls a “bunker mentality” at the agency—a fear of appearing too proactive. 

For example, DEQ missed its own April 1 deadline for creating the mapping tool, which meant it couldn’t be used before the agency issued the 2019 five-year hog-farm permit. When advocates asked DEQ to issue a short-term permit until the tool could be developed, the agency balked. It said the tool was “educational” and “not intended for regulatory purposes.”

“What the hell good is a community-mapping program if it’s not going to slow down the degradation?” asked Muhammad. 

In May, DEQ posted a beta version of the tool. Haddix calls it flawed; for example, it doesn’t distinguish between large and small farms. DEQ’s Martin declined to discuss the tool.

Given the legislative climate, and lawmakers’ control over the state budget, environmentalists say they’re not surprised by the timidity at DEQ. “When I think of ‘agency capture,’ it’s not just a product of willful decisions not to enforce, or willful decisions to demonstrate favoritism to the industry,” says Will Hendrick, staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance. “Some of it is agency aversion to the risk that may result from taking action against an industry that is favored at the legislature.”

In calls and emails, DEQ’s Martin would not discuss the political climate or the threat of legislative backlash. Nor would DEQ officials be available for interviews.

“That is all I am able to provide at this time,” she wrote.

Updates story on Aug. 30, 2019 to elaborate on the 2018 North Carolina Medical Journal study, note Rene Miller’s participation in the lawsuits, and add that DEQ did not acknowledge wrongdoing in the EPA civil rights complaint. The photo caption of the briefcase was corrected to note that Don Webb, of Stantonsburg, North Carolina, is now deceased.

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A new network of attorneys seeks to defend abuses of industrial agriculture. First up, Colorado.

Farmworkers often struggle to access healthcare. While working, they live in remote areas, sometimes with no personal vehicle. In Colorado, nothing in the law enshrined farmworkers’ rights to quality healthcare.

Until 2021.

That year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill into law in June. This law guarantees farmworkers have the right to contact “essential service providers” — health professionals, attorneys, consuls, and clergy members — during their breaks.

However, an industry group is challenging the law. The Colorado Livestock Association filed a lawsuit in June that focuses on the section of the law requiring employers to not impede farmworkers’ reasonable access to service providers during their off time. The group wants it ruled unconstitutional.

In the lawsuit, the Colorado Livestock Association requested the court declare the provision allowing key service providers access to its property violates employers’ rights to exclude people from their property.

“The State of Colorado has not paid just compensation for this (violation) nor initiated eminent domain proceedings to do so,” the organization said in court documents. This is the second time an organization tied to the state’s agricultural industry has challenged the law.

The Colorado Livestock Association did not immediately return a request for comment.

In response, a farmworker – identified as Jane Doe in court documents – and Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit providing legal advice to low-income people in the state, filed a motion to intervene as defendants on Sept. 13.

Colorado Legal Services is receiving support and advice from a newly formed entity known as FarmSTAND, a nonprofit organization comprised of a national network of attorneys to represent communities affected by industrial agriculture. Towards Justice and Farmworker Justice are also involved in the lawsuit.

According to the organization’s press release, FarmSTAND seeks to concentrate resources — bringing lawyers and their expertise together — on certain cases that can set precedents, working in partnership with a broad base of local and national organizations.

“We try to support partners who are doing great work in this space to try to reform industrial animal agriculture and transform the food system,” said Kelsey Eberly, the FarmSTAND attorney counseling on the case.

A community with specific characteristics

An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. About half are undocumented.

In Colorado alone, the agricultural industry employed 19,339 workers, experiencing a 5.7% growth in direct crop production jobs in 2022, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The farmworker community in Colorado constitutes 4.1% of the rural workforce.

Eberly emphasized the unique challenges faced by farmworkers.

“These workers are some of the most isolated and vulnerable,” she said.

Their remote residences and long and demanding work hours create significant barriers when seeking access to essential services, such as health professionals, that many other workers often take for granted.

Eberly also highlighted the importance of the existing law for farmworkers’ rights in Colorado for seasonal laborers who arrive to work on farms during the summer months and often find themselves entirely reliant on their employers for various aspects of their livelihood.

“They live at the place where they work, and they don’t have transportation necessarily, so the only way for them to get any help is for people to come to them,” she said. “That’s why this law is so important.”

Access to assistance becomes especially critical when workers have health issues, particularly given the challenges posed by the effects of climate change.

According to the National Institutes of Health, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors. One of the reasons is that this demographic group has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.

There is little legislation to protect agricultural workers in the U.S.

“This Colorado Law was so groundbreaking, and why it’s so important to protect it,” Eberly said, “so that it can be used as a model for other states.”

The post A new network of attorneys seeks to defend abuses of industrial agriculture. First up, Colorado. appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

BLM has a plan to tackle booming recreation — at least in theory

People with off-highway vehicles recreate at Anthony Sand Dunes, Idaho.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

People visited Bureau of Land Management land more than 80 million times in 2022, hiking, biking, driving, exploring, hunting, fishing, climbing, camping and otherwise recreating. That’s a 40% increase over the past decade. In the same time period, the BLM’s recreation budget rose by only 22%.

The combination translates into a vexing problem for public-land managers in the West: Popular areas risk being loved to death. On the ground, this means more cars, trucks and ATVs barreling over sensitive species, and more garbage littering more trails through winter wildlife range and campsites. Meanwhile, the agency lacks the resources to keep up.

“In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being passive, because our lands haven’t faced that much pressure,” says Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But now, if we’re not proactive, it’s going to have some serious consequences.”

In an attempt to head off those consequences, the BLM recently released a 28-page document called the “Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation.” In it, the agency takes on persistent issues linked to recreation’s increasing popularity, including harm to sacred tribal sites, chronic funding shortfalls and barriers to equal use, such as limited outreach and lack of diverse staffing.

The plan itself reads at a high level, addressing four broad goals: bringing in more money, building partnerships across public and private sectors, improving outreach and inclusion, and protecting the land while meeting the demands of increased recreation. The public has until Sept. 30 to give feedback to the agency.

The document is not a formal plan, but Webster said its recommendations could help relieve some concrete recreational pressures, beginning with the fact that only about 30% of BLM lands have a basic travel management plan. That means new roads and trails pop up across landscapes from sagebrush to slickrock, with little regard for an area’s wildlife and cultural sites.

A trailhead at the 32,000-acre Cline Buttes Recreation Area in central Oregon.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

As a first step, the agency should account for existing trails and roads, said Megan Lawson, an economist for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm based in Montana. The BLM has successfully identified most of its natural resource development opportunities. Doing the same for its trails would not only help protect important sites, but also help local communities manage and benefit from recreation.

The agency also needs to figure out just how many people are using various sites and find ways to prevent crowding and overuse at the most popular areas.

Take Moab, Utah. Visitation exploded there with hikers, bikers, climbers and campers drawn by its famous swooping sandstone, wavy dunes and towering crags. But Moab is also heralded as an example of how to respond, with hikers, bikers — both motorized and non — and other community members working with the BLM diligently, year after year, to build and maintain trails able to handle the ever-increasing crush of visitors. The coalition has also helped ease the burden on nearby national parks by redirecting thrill-seekers to other vast tracts of public land.

But it takes money, Lawson said, to track trail-users and post signs, build outhouses and educate visitors in multiple languages, and not all communities have the financial resources of an outdoor mecca like Moab.

And the BLM’s recreation budget is “trending in the wrong direction,” said Kevin Oliver, BLM’s division chief for recreation and visitor services. Ten years ago, the BLM spent about 84 cents on each visit. Today that number has fallen to 74 cents.

The agency is seeking fundraising help from the Foundation for America’s Public Lands, its congressionally authorized charitable partner, Oliver said. This could include individual donations and possibly corporate sponsors. It is also hoping for a financial boost from federal laws like the Great American Outdoors Act, which set aside billions of dollars for access to and infrastructure improvements on public lands.

BLM officials aren’t complaining about having more visitors; Oliver called the recreation spike “fantastic.” But they acknowledge that, as things stand, they simply cannot cope with the increasing demands. They know that the 40% visitation bump isn’t an aberration: Americans want to get outside.

The new document stresses the importance of states, tribes and local communities working with the BLM to come up with solutions. But the coalitions they create need to be durable, Oliver said, given inevitable changes in administrations and political priorities.

Webster agrees. While the growing numbers of visitors have already damaged some popular areas and put pressure on wildlife from elk to sage grouse, especially in states like Colorado, the bulk of BLM lands are not yet recreation destinations. But that can change quickly, and Webster wants the agency to plan ahead.

“It’s a lot harder to pull things back in if you’ve made a mistake than it is to do it right from the beginning,” Webster said. “And there’s just more people in the West, and more people recreating on our public lands.”

A mountain biking trail on Bureau of Land Management land near Moab, Utah, offers views of Arches National Park. In recent years, the BLM and local community members have built new trails to help ease the burden on nearby national parks.
Leslie Kehmeier/International Mountain Bicycling Association/BLM

Christine Peterson lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and has covered science, the environment and outdoor recreation in Wyoming for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outdoor Life and the Casper Star-Tribune, among others. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

The long tail of toxic emissions on the Navajo Nation

Driving to another site in Counselor Chapter, a small community in the eastern reaches of the Navajo Nation where the political chapters are outside the reservation boundaries, she described the different types of equipment — flare stacks, storage tanks, gas compressors — from which she commonly sees emissions. Pinto said that most air emissions seem to come from operators intentionally flaring or venting excess gases that build up in the equipment, rather than unintentional emissions, such as from aging underground pipes. She and her colleagues refrain from calling any emissions “leaks,” though: While these systems were designed to emit gas, usually as a safety mechanism, the vapor trails she films are often caused by malfunctioning equipment.

“If people were to be exposed to this air, they were also at risk of other non-cancer health outcomes, including respiratory, neurological and developmental effects.”

“These little flares should be lit and combusting all the hydrocarbons, but when you put the camera on (a lit flare), a portion of those hydrocarbons are still venting out into the atmosphere and along this horizon,” she said. “And that’s worrisome, because the air has no boundaries.”

The snow had ceased when Pinto trained the boxy, camcorder-
like device on another well site. To the naked eye, the row of 20-foot-tall storage tanks did not appear to be emitting anything unnatural. Using the camera, though, she toggled between monochrome and technicolor image modes, revealing a plume of hydrocarbons rising from an unlit flare stack near the tanks.

Across the region, wells suck crude oil and natural gas from shale formations thousands of feet below the surface. Some of the gas escapes, despite regulations to limit “venting and flaring” by operators. (Flaring is supposed to burn off the escaping methane, converting it to carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas.) At every juncture — from the wells extracting the hydrocarbons to the storage tanks, compressors and pipelines that convey the material — the system is rife with holes.

A sign along Highway 550, east of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, near Lybrook Elementary School, alerts people to the presence of methane from the extensive network of fracking installations in the area.

Hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of oil and gas wells that smells like rotten eggs, is a frequent odor in oilfields. Even at very low concentrations, the toxic gas can sting the nostrils and cause nausea, dizziness, bloody nose and other acute symptoms. Inhaling extremely high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in an enclosed space can kill a human almost immediately. The hydrocarbon soup that comes up from the shale also contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, which has been shown to increase the risk of blood cancers and pregnancy complications.

A Harvard-led study of millions of people ages 65 and older showed that those living near fracking operations had a higher early mortality risk.

“If people were to be exposed to this air, they were also at risk of other non-cancer health outcomes, including respiratory, neurological and developmental effects,” said Lisa McKenzie, an associate professor with the Colorado School of Public Health who has studied the health impacts of oil and gas production.

The off-gassing benzene is one of the many air toxics that can escape from oil and gas infrastructure. Along with other VOCs like xylene and formaldehyde, the emissions contribute to air pollution in the form of ozone, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter. A 2022 study in Pennsylvania showed that children born within two kilometers (about 1.25 miles) of a fracking site were two to three times more likely to develop leukemia. In Colorado, McKenzie led studies showing that children with the blood cancer, as well as congenital heart defects, are more likely to live near oil and gas sites. Older people are also at risk: A Harvard-led study of millions of people ages 65 and older showed that those living near fracking operations — particularly downwind — had a higher early mortality risk compared to elderly people living in areas without wells.

In the mesa-lined valleys that surround Counselor, some wells pump petroleum within a few hundred feet of homes and traditional hogans; one well site lies less than 2,000 feet from a local school. The rural community’s exposure to VOCs and other air toxics has led to mounting concern among some residents about the potential health problems caused by the emissions.

Kendra Pinto (Diné) a local resident who lives near fracking installations in the Lybrook area east of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, stands in front of a decommissioned well that has not had tanks and pipes removed and still poses a hazard to the community (right).

PINTO, who captures footage at oil and gas sites in the area regularly, said she often has a headache “by mid-afternoon” in the field, and has also experienced eye and respiratory irritation that she attributes to exposure.

Given the enormous scale of the extraction activities and resulting air pollution in the Permian Basin — which straddles the New Mexico–Texas border — Pinto said the air-quality problems in her community are often overshadowed. “The problem for folks in this area is that the Permian will get a lot more attention than the San Juan Basin,” she said, noting that cleaning up the industry in the Four Corners region would likely prove more beneficial to human health. An Earthworks analysis shows that in the San Juan Basin, nearly 80% of the population lives within a half-mile of active oil and gas operations.

Another area drawing more media coverage and political attention lies closer to Counselor Chapter: In recent years, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s plan to halt federal oil and gas leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park has led to division among the area’s predominantly Navajo communities. The 10-mile buffer zone, which went into effect in June, encompasses all public lands surrounding the thousand-year-old Pueblo complex. The action drew the ire of pro-fracking residents, and was eventually opposed by the Navajo Nation Council and President Buu Nygren.

Many of those who opposed the leasing stoppage are from families who benefit from wells drilled on “Indian allotments,” tracts that the federal government allocated to Navajo households, who could then lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies and receive royalty payments that are split between the original allottees’ heirs. Under the signed order, Navajo allottees are not prohibited from leasing their mineral rights, but many argue that the buffer zone will make their land less desirable for development. Delora Hesuse, an outspoken allottee from Nageezi Chapter, said that Navajo communities should be free to benefit from the area’s mineral resources, despite the potential exposure to pollutants.

“We do our homework,” Hesuse said. “Those issues have already been spoken about within the families.”

Pinto said she doesn’t relish filming in communities that tend to support oil-and-gas extraction. People have lashed out publicly against her and others who voice concern about the industry’s impact on the environment and community members. Disputes over mineral interests have, in some cases, led to physical violence.

“We absolutely know that malfunctions are not reported, that excess emissions are not reported and that there is noncompliance with regulations on a systematic, widespread basis.”

After documenting the malfunctioning flare, she logged details about the well, which is operated by Enduring Resources. Some of the footage she’s collected for Earthworks has been packaged as part of complaints the organization has filed with the New Mexico Environment Department.

A MAP OF the area reveals a complicated patchwork of land ownership, including federal, state, private and trust lands. Of the more than 21,000 active wells in the San Juan Basin, the majority were leased and permitted on public lands by the Bureau of Land Management. Oil and gas operators in the state are regulated by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD), which, under the state’s 2021 Methane Waste Rule, is tasked with limiting the amount of natural gas that is wasted by the industry. In theory, that rule prohibits most routine venting and flaring. However, the law includes nearly a dozen exceptions that allow venting and flaring during “an emergency or malfunction,” as well as during scheduled maintenance or the “normal operation of a storage tank.”

Companies self-report their estimated emissions to the division, and are compelled to report any major flaring incidents, as in August of 2022, when more than 107 million cubic feet of gas were flared from a cluster of wells operated by DJR Energy near the community of Nageezi. And while substantial emissions are reported by companies, industry critics say those volumes are likely dwarfed by unreported and so-called fugitive emissions.

An infared video still by Earthworks shows gas emitting from a site in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico.
Courtesy of Earthwork

NMOCD director Dylan Fuge said equipment such as storage tanks may release gas “as a safety measure so the tanks don’t explode,” or for various other reasons during extraction, storage and transportation. Last year, operators in the northern part of the state reported venting of more than 197 million cubic feet. Fuge emphasized that operators are allowed to vent and flare under exceptions in state regulations, though he acknowledged the likelihood that “there are some” unreported emissions on the division’s watch.

Based on aerial footage, Liz Kuehn, Air Quality Bureau chief with the state Environment Department, is confident that unreported emissions are occurring in the basin. “We absolutely know that malfunctions are not reported, that excess emissions are not reported and that there is noncompliance with regulations on a systematic, widespread basis,” Kuehn told High Country News.

A new rule to limit the emission of “ozone precursors” from specific equipment should help curb VOC releases in the coming years, Kuehn added. Under the Oil Conservation Division’s new Methane Waste Rule, operators will be required to capture 98% of the methane they release by 2026. But environmental organizations say the agencies are letting the industry run roughshod over regulations intended to curb emissions. Earthworks has submitted more than 100 complaint videos to state Environment Department in the past five years, many of which were rejected based on technicalities, Pinto said. 

To address some of the organization’s complaints, the agency adopted a system of notifying operators and the public about alleged violations, Kuehn said. The department has undertaken at least four major enforcement actions against operators in the basin over the past five years, while NMOCD has assessed no penalties against operators for venting and flaring in the basin since 2020. The NMOCD currently employs five inspectors in the basin, and the Environment Department has five inspectors statewide.

“It is frustrating that as much as (the agencies) bemoan a lack of resources, a lack of staffing, and an inability to enforce all the time everywhere, that they’re not taking small actions that could make things better in the meantime,” said Jeremy Nichols, who until August was the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The industry needs to be given the message that this behavior, these releases, they won’t be tolerated anymore.”

“You can already smell it when you approach that stop; it gets stronger and stronger until we get right by the tank. It could just give you a headache right there.”

The Navajo Nation EPA currently monitors air quality at two sites in New Mexico and Arizona, neither in the Counselor area, environment program supervisor Glenna Lee said, adding that the agency’s air-monitoring capacity is constrained by the limited grant funding it receives from the U.S. EPA. After requests for an interview, an agency spokesperson said in a statement, “EPA will continue to investigate matters that concern air quality in at-risk communities and we will work with our state partners to ensure public health concerns are addressed adequately.”

In recent years, the BLM has paused leasing throughout its Farmington Field Office area. A draft management plan for the region proposed in 2020 could allow for new drilling in the area. As of this year, that plan is still pending further review. Field manager Maureen Joe declined to address whether additional acreage may be opened in the future.

ON AUTUMN MORNINGS, school buses bounce along the rutted roads linking the rural communities, while children gather at makeshift bus stops in the morning chill. In 2022, a well near one of the stops gave off noxious odors that students had to endure for months, said Harry Domingo, who has driven routes in the area’s predominantly Diné communities for many years. 

“You can already smell it when you approach that stop; it gets stronger and stronger until we get right by the tank,” he said. “It could just give you a headache right there.” On other stretches of road, the odors coming from oil-and-gas infrastructure cause students riding the bus to hold their nose and say “Eww,” he recalled.

Domingo is also the vice president of Counselor Chapter. In the past, he has shuttled K-8 students to Lybrook School, a sandstone-colored building overlooking Highway 550. The school used to be located several miles up the road, but was relocated after residents voiced health and safety concerns over a gas-processing plant across the street. In 2005, the school was reconstructed at its present location. A decade later, a drilling rig appeared across the street.

Gas infrastructure near Counselor Chapter’s Lybrook Elementary School.

Five wells, now operated by Enduring Resources, were completed in 2015, at the tail end of a fracking boom in which hundreds of oil and gas wells were drilled in the region. The company reported venting at least 48,000 cubic feet of uncombusted gases across from the school in August 2022.

Near a shallow pass in the sandstone ridgeline, a few miles from Lybrook School, Marlene Thomas was cooking at home in the late afternoon. Outside her house, several dogs left tracks in the shallow snow that borders the driveway, which passes within 100 yards of an active well. For three decades, she worked as a community health representative for the Navajo Nation, a role that involved visiting homes throughout the area and consulting residents about their health. Now retired, Thomas said she suspects that the rash of oil and gas activity in the area has caused health problems in the community.

She was on a committee that conducted a community-driven Health Impact Assessment. Starting in 2016, the committee began speaking with residents who described experiencing sore throats, sinus problems, headaches and other symptoms often attributed to increased air pollution. In 2018, the committee conducted air monitoring that showed elevated levels of particulate matter and formaldehyde, and the presence of other VOCs.

Since Thomas retired, she’s continued to hear from community members about the perceived effects of the ongoing air quality issues. She spoke with one woman who said she’d noticed an increase in stillbirths in recent years. Talking about an elder who has since died from a “respiratory illness,” Thomas said the woman noted that her coughing and throat irritation worsened when she would herd her sheep near a particular well site. “She noticed a difference between when she was near” the facility and when she took her sheep in a different direction, which the woman said made her “feel a lot better,” Thomas recounted.

Fracked oil is pumped to the Huerfano Station, just north of Huerfano Mountain in northern New Mexico. These lands are home to Navajo, Pueblo, Jicarilla Apache and other Indigenous peoples.

Sitting in his office a few miles away, former Chapter President Samuel Sage said he often smells the gas that collects in certain valleys. Sage, who has provided written testimony to Congress on the issue, said officials with the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs never discussed the dangers posed by fracking during oil-leasing negotiations with allotment owners. “The first thing that was mentioned was, ‘If you sign this, you will get this much money,’ and of course, there was no hesitation,” he said.

While oil tankers tear up the dirt roads that branch off the highway, Sage said the industry’s presence has frayed the fabric of the community, pitting locals who support oil and gas development against those who are opposed to the industry encroaching on the landscape. Undeterred by the controversy, Pinto plans to continue putting pressure on regulators and the industry by documenting emissions and raising awareness of their potential health impacts. 

“It’s not good for us, it’s not good for wildlife, it’s not good for plants,” Pinto said. “Are people getting paid enough to bear all these negative impacts — is it worth it?”

Mark Armao (Diné) hails from the high desert in northern Arizona. Now based in California, his recent reporting has focused on environmental issues facing Indigenous communities.

How climate science won in the Montana youth climate case

“Every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries,” the decision reads. Striking down laws that keep state agencies from considering emissions, Seeley decided, has “significant health benefits” for the children and young adults suing their government. In response, the plaintiffs expressed elation, joy and disbelief. “We are heard!” Kian Tanner said in a statement.

“We are heard!”

Seeley walked through her reasoning for the decision in a 103-page ruling, which affirmed that climate is a “part of the environmental life-support system” guaranteed by the Montana Constitution. She agreed that the harm caused by climate change is significant — hurting the plaintiffs’ mental and physical health, limiting their access to traditional food sources and threatening family ranching operations, among other things — and that it is linked to state policies. “It was better than hoped for,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The decision reads as a lesson in the “overwhelming scientific consensus” of climate change. Seeley points out that state’s leadership has known about the dangerous impacts of climate change for at least the last 30 years. She also notes that ecosystems are interconnected, and that treating Montana’s actions in a vacuum is not scientifically supported. The findings spend numerous pages discussing youth’s unique vulnerability to climate change and its impacts, as well as how climate change is already impacting Montana’s environment and economy. In a statement, Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm which led this and other trailblazing youth climate cases, said it believes that these facts “set forth critical evidentiary and legal precedent for the right of youth to a safe climate.” 

Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023 for the first day of hearings in the trial.
Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record


By considering climate change’s impacts when approving or denying permits for fossil fuel activities, including coal and natural gas-powered energy plants, coal mining and oil and gas refineries, Seeley wrote, the state can safeguard its citizens’ constitutional rights. The ruling notes that this is possible, because it’s technically and economically feasible to replace the majority of Montana’s fossil fuel energy by 2030. 

The immediate direct ramifications in Montana, though, are “extremely narrow,” Gerrard said. The ruling requires the state to consider climate change when making energy decisions — but agencies could simply consider it and move forward with projects anyway. “The much greater significance is that we now have a ruling that affirms climate science after a trial and says that where there is a constitutional right to a clean environment, that can have consequences on climate change,” he said.

The complaint, led by Our Children’s Trust, focused on the Montana Environmental Protection Act, or MEPA, as well as two laws limiting the state’s consideration of climate change passed by the Montana Legislature this spring. MEPA established a process to assess the environmental consequences of state actions but has been repeatedly limited in scope. HB 971 narrowed its purview again this year by prohibiting state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions; SB 557 contained similar restrictions, stating that concerns about emissions could not stop or delay permitting.

Lead plaintiff Rikki Held listens to testimony during a hearing in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in June.
Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record

The state has approved or expanded numerous large-scale projects, including coal mines and gas-fired power plants, in recent years without including climate impacts in its analysis. The ruling argues that emissions from these and other projects in Montana are “nationally and globally significant,” measured by both local effects and their contribution to global climate change.

“More rulings like this will certainly come.”

Montana’s unique constitution provided the backbone for the legal challenge. It’s one of six states — and the only one in the West — with constitutionally based environmental protections. The Held v. Montana ruling, experts say, underscores the importance of having similar constitutional environmental protections for this particular strategy to work. “This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate,” said Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and the executive director of Our Children’s Trust, in a statement. “More rulings like this will certainly come.”

Youth climate cases are set to continue into next year, with trials slated for the federal Juliana v. United States and state Navahine F. v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation cases, both led by lawyers with Our Children’s Trust. Hawai‘i already has environmental protections in its constitution. There’s also a push to add Montana-esque environmental protections, so-called “green amendments,” to other state constitutions — including Nevada’s.

In Montana, the legal process is likely to continue. The state attorney general’s office said it would appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, with a spokesperson telling The Flathead Beacon it was “absurd.”

Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in June for the final day of the trial.
Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record

Kylie Mohr is a correspondent covering wildfire for High Country News. She writes from Montana. Email her at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

Oregon’s Greater Idaho movement echoes a long history of racism in the region

The latest movement, Greater Idaho, seeks to slice off almost everything east of the Cascade Mountains and add it to Idaho, uniting the right-leaning portions of the Beaver State with its more conservative neighbor. Nearly two dozen people conceived the idea over pizza and soft drinks in a La Pine, Oregon, restaurant in 2019.

Organizers frame Greater Idaho as a natural byproduct of Oregon’s “urban/rural divide” — shorthand for how populous cities can sway a state’s politics. The idea is far-fetched: In order for eastern Oregon to become Idaho, Oregon’s Democratic-dominated Legislature, Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature and the divided United States Congress would all have to agree. Still, the campaign has gained attention, garnering articles in national media outlets; in 2021, The Atlantic called it “Modern America’s Most Successful Secessionist Movement.”

But less attention has been paid to its underlying motives and how they fit into the Northwest’s long history of racially motivated secessionism. Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.

The movement’s website and leaders echo Trumpian rhetoric about “illegals” and lambast Oregon for education programs about Black history and public health measures that prioritize communities of color. During the first year of COVID-19 restrictions, in 2020, Mike McCarter, a movement leader, told a regional website that Oregon “protects Antifa arsonists, not normal Oregonians.” He added, “It prioritizes one race above another for vaccines and program money and in the school curriculum, and it prioritizes Willamette Valley” — where Portland is located — “above rural Oregon.”

In 2021, Eric Ward, then-executive director of Western States Center, a Portland-based pro-democracy think tank, accused Greater Idaho of simply reviving what the Oregon Capital Insider described as a “white ethno-state dream.” The center’s advocacy arm later sponsored anti-Greater Idaho TV ads.

Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.

McCarter pushed back: “Calling us racist seems to be an attempt to associate a legitimate, grass-roots movement of rural Oregonians with Hollywood’s stereotypes of low-class, ignorant, evil, ugly, dirty Southerners,” he said in a statement posted alongside photographs of Ward and Western States Center’s board — who are all Black — and the center’s staff. “(Ward’s) words mark anyone with a Greater Idaho sign or a Greater Idaho hat as targets for violent antifa members.”

Meanwhile, prominent racists were fired up about the idea. White nationalist leader Jared Taylor touted it on his podcast: “People who live out in the continents of rural sanity, they don’t want to be governed by the people who live on those islands of urban insanity,” he said. The audio was repurposed for a video on the far-right social network Gab — where former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is considered a trusted media source and no one would get banned for posting a swastika. Users buzzed about Greater Idaho.

Articles and clips on the anti-immigrant website VDARE also promoted it. One blog post said that Greater Idaho “would free eastern Oregonians from the anti-white, totalitarian leftists who rule the state.” A video warned that Oregon “won’t protect its residents from thugs, illegal aliens, communist rioters and other undesirables.”

Because Greater Idaho is unlikely to become a reality, “people dismiss it,” said Stephen Piggott, a program director with Western States Center. And that, he believes, is dangerous: “People are not connecting the dots,” he said. “The people who want to create a white homeland are backing it.”

WHEN OREGON WAS ADMITTED to the Union, its Constitution contained a clause banning Black people from moving there — the only state with such a provision. Even before its borders were drawn, people floated the idea of creating a slave-owning haven in what is now southern Oregon and Northern California, branding it the “Territory of Jackson,” after President Andrew Jackson. Confederate sympathizers considered several of the new state’s southernmost counties “the Dixie of Oregon.” Later, in the mid-20th century, the State of Jefferson movement emerged in the same area; it nixed owning slaves, but retained a slave owner as its namesake. Driven by people who felt they were over-taxed by Oregon and California, the movement still has supporters.

The secessionist torch passed from generation to generation. The phrasing changed, but the talking points remained the same.

In 1986, after migrating from California to North Idaho to build a racist refuge for his group the Aryan Nations, white supremacist Richard Butler hosted his annual Aryan World Congress — a national gathering of neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan. They agreed that, in the not-so-distant future, U.S. cities would become so overrun by minority groups that white people would be forced to flee to an “Aryan homeland” they envisioned in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Butler died in 2004. Eventually, his compound was fully bulldozed and his acolytes scattered, but his ideas remained and evolved. In 2011, survivalist blogger and New York Times best-selling novelist James Wesley, Rawles floated an idea called “The American Redoubt.” (According to the Anti-Defamation League, some individuals add errant punctuation to their names to distinguish their first and middle names from their government-imposed or family names.) He encouraged Christians of any race who felt alienated by urban progressive politics to relocate to the Northwest, writing: “I’m inviting people with the same outlook to move to the Redoubt states.” Recently, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right-wing political think tank, echoed this. “Are you a refugee from California, or some other liberal playground?” it asked on its website, welcoming those newcomers as “true” Idahoans.

Starting in 2015, then-Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R, pushed to sever his state at the Cascades, rebranding the rural eastern half as “The State of Liberty,” which advocated against same-sex marriage, marijuana and environmental regulations. Shea distributed a document calling for Old Testament biblical law to be enacted. On its website, Liberty State organizers suggest that if Liberty becomes a reality, they would be open to merging with Greater Idaho.

Within the last two years, Vincent James Foxx, a white nationalist associated with the Rise Above Movement — a group the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “an overtly racist, violent right-wing fight club”— relocated to Post Falls, Idaho. “A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho,” Foxx declared.

Greater Idaho is driven by ideas similar to those behind past movements: fleeing cities, lauding traditionalist Christian values, pushing a far-right political agenda. “Ultimately, I think in some ways, Butler’s vision is coming true,” said David Neiwert, an expert on far-right extremism and the author of The Age of Insurrection.

What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with the fact that if you want to have your position win in the political arena, you have to convince a bunch of people. They just want to take their ball and create a new playground.”

Gary Raney, former sheriff of Idaho’s Ada County, where Boise is located, disliked seeing his state “being advertised as an extremist haven.” In response, last year he founded Defend and Protect Idaho, a political action committee that fights political extremism. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and I welcome that discourse and discussion,” he said. “But when people are wanting to overthrow our government or our republic or our democracy … there’s nothing healthy about that.”

What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said.

In 2023, the Idaho House of Repre-sentatives passed a nonbinding proposal calling for formal talks with the Oregon Legislature about moving the border, though no such talks occurred. Raney sees Greater Idaho as “driving a wedge” in rural communities, using resentment over urban power to recruit people to more extreme causes. “The good people of Oregon who are doing this for the right reasons: Be realistic that it’s never going to happen, and be more influential in the Oregon Legislature,” Raney said. “For the extremists who are simply using this to divide and create their right-wing haven?

“Stay the hell out of Idaho,” he said. “Because we don’t want you.”

BY GREATER IDAHO spokesman Matt McCaw’s telling, the movement is born out of opposites that run as deep as the land itself. “The west side of the state is urban. It’s green, it’s very left-leaning,” he said in an interview with High Country News. “The east side of the state is conservative, it’s rural, it’s very dry. It’s a different climate.

“Give me a topic, and I can tell you that the people in Portland feel one way about it and vote one way, and the people in eastern Oregon or rural Oregon feel one way about it and vote differently,” he said. “Stereotype is a word that maybe gets a bad rap.”

To become Idahoans, McCaw explained, would mean “to have traditional values that focus on faith, freedom, individualism and tradition.” He pointed to Oregon’s liberal voting record on gun control, abortion and drug legalization. “Broadly, the people (in eastern Oregon) are very like-minded, just like broadly the people in the Portland metro area are very like-minded,” he said. “On these issues, Portland has a very distinctly different set of values than rural America.”

Speaking of differences, there are big ones between Idaho and Oregon. In rural Oregon counties, minimum wage is $12.50; in Idaho, it’s $7.25. Marijuana is legal in Oregon; in Idaho, possession can be punishable with jail time. In Idaho, abortion is essentially illegal; earlier this year, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek announced the state had acquired a three-year stockpile of mifepristone, a drug used for medical abortions. While there are no detailed plans on how Greater Idaho would bridge these gaps, McCaw said that “all of these things can be worked out.”

But is he upset by the white supremacist support for Greater Idaho? “I think that the extremist thing gets overblown,” he said. “In any group, there are going to be extremists that latch on, no matter if you want them or not.”

Nella Mae Parks, an eastern Oregonian, was raised in Union County, Oregon, and runs a farm there. She doesn’t recognize Greater Idaho’s portrayal of her home. “I think it’s a bought-and-paid-for narrative about what it means to be a rural American,” she said.

On the day Parks spoke to High Country News, she and a dozen other eastern Oregonians had just returned home after a 12-hour round-trip drive to Salem, Oregon’s capital, in an effort to get legislators to address nitrate water pollution. In 2022, commissioners in nearby Morrow County declared a state of emergency after high levels of nitrate — which is common in fertilizer and can cause cancer and respiratory issues  — were found in domestic wells.

Parks’ group came home unsure if they had accomplished anything. “The governor won’t meet with us on our issues, some of our own legislators don’t care about our issues,” Parks said. “I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.

“When we get blown off, that is widening this rural/urban divide,” she said.

But Parks’ solution is not to leave the state; it’s to fix it. And in May, it seemed like the effort had been worth it: Kotek told eastern Oregon leaders that she had asked the state for $6.2 million to address the nitrate issue. “It has taken a while to get here,” she admitted.

Gwen Trice, who grew up in eastern Oregon, is the executive director of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, a museum in Joseph dedicated to the multicultural histories of Oregon’s loggers. She won’t call Greater Idaho a movement, or even an idea. Instead, she calls it “a notion.”

“I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.”

Trice founded the museum when she realized that the stories of the region’s Black loggers — including her father — had never been told. The logging industry once thrived in Maxville, now a ghost town. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company recruited skilled loggers from the South, regardless of race, despite laws that had long excluded Black people from settling in Oregon. “We’ve worked hard to tell, honor and even embrace the messy part of our history,” she said, “and really tell a truthful story.”

Speaking as a historian, Trice said there’s no difference between Greater Idaho and the previous, more explicitly racist movements. “It’s repackaged,” she said. “I don’t think that anything is being hidden, and it’s appealing to a certain group of people only.

“It’s symbolic of dominant culture saying, ‘We know what’s better for you than you do.’”

Pauline Braymen, an 85-year-old retired rancher in Harney County, called Greater Idaho ideological, and impractical — a way of going back in time. “The urban/rural divide is an emotionally based state of mind that distorts reality,” she said. “The changes and steps forward in our quality of life in the 20th century, during my lifetime, were amazing. I just see all of that progress and vision being destroyed.

“If I wanted to live in Idaho,” she added, “I would move there.”

ON A MAP OF THE NORTHWEST, Washington and Oregon nestle together in semi-rectangular sameness. Divided in part by the Columbia River, Washington eases its southern border into the curve of Oregon’s north, like two spoons in a drawer. But next door, Idaho asserts itself like an index finger declaring “Aha!” or a handgun aimed at the sky for a warning shot.

McCaw, the Greater Idaho spokesman, often says that borders are imaginary lines: “a tool that we use to group similarly minded people, like-minded people, culturally similar people.”

“That whole statement is absolute nonsense,” said former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen, who wrote a book about the borders in question, titled Inventing Idaho: The Gem States Eccentric Shape. The Idaho-Oregon border, he said, simply made the most geographical sense.

In 1857, two years before statehood, delegates from across Oregon Territory gathered to determine the new state’s edges. They decided that Oregon’s border should run from Hells Canyon south into the belly of the Snake and Owyhee rivers, then drop straight down to the 42nd Parallel. Only one delegate championed the Cascade Mountains as the new state’s easternmost edge, fearful that people too far from the capital wouldn’t be effectively represented.

“This grievance that ‘the population is over there, it’s so far to get there, we’ll never have power and influence,’” Petersen said, “hasn’t changed.”

Earlier this year, at a virtual town hall, two of eastern Oregon’s own instruments of power and influence in Salem — elected Republican lawmakers — grumbled that Greater Idaho was actually siphoning authority away from them, making it hard to effectively govern.

“The Greater Idaho people keep saying we need to do this,” said Oregon State Sen. Lynn Findley, who represents people from the Cascades to Idaho. Greater Idaho supporters have proposed ballot measures across Oregon that would force county officials to hold regular discussions about joining Idaho. None of the measures actually call for moving the border. And support hasn’t exactly been overwhelming; the most recent measure, in Wallowa County, passed by just seven votes. Still, by spring 2023, voters in 12 eastern Oregon counties had approved similar measures. “I’m no longer working on gun bills, abortion bills and other infrastructure bills,” Findley said. “It’s taken time away that I think would be better spent working on tax issues, and a whole plethora of other stuff.”

“We understand the intent and we understand the frustration,” agreed Rep. Mark Owens. “But I’m not going to apologize for having not given up on Oregon.”

But by May, it seemed Findley was, in a way, giving up. He was one of a dozen Republican senators and one Independent who walked out of the Statehouse for several weeks to protest bills on abortion access, gender-affirming care and raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles.

In the midst of the walkout, just before Memorial Day, as the rhododendrons in Northeast Portland erupted in magenta blooms, McCaw, in a blue suit and crisp white shirt, sat in front of a live audience at the Alberta Rose Theatre. He was participating in a public discussion hosted by Oregon Humanities, which facilitates statewide conversations “across differences of background, experience and belief.” The event was ostensibly about borders, but by the end it was clear that it was really about Greater Idaho. McCaw repeated his talking points: Eastern Oregonians and western Oregonians are fundamentally different; borders create tension.

“We have a permanent political minority on the east side of the state,” he said.

Beside him were two other panelists, who shifted uncomfortably in their seats. One was Alexander Baretich, who designed the Cascadia flag: a blue-, white- and green-striped banner with a Douglas Fir at its center. The flag represents the larger Cascades and Columbia River Basin bioregion, “a living space — a life space,” he explained. “Once you get into that consciousness that you are interconnected with everything around you … those political borders dissolve.”

It’s the antithesis of Greater Idaho: Cascadia unites, Greater Idaho divides. “That flag is to create that consciousness that we are one with the planet,” Baretich said. McCaw furrowed his brow.

The moderator, Adam Davis, interjected: “I actually get viscerally uncomfortable … when I hear, ‘There’s people on the east side are one way, people on the west side are another way.’” Tension, he said, is difficult, but crucial. “That tension holds what our democracy, if it’s going to be an inclusive democracy, kind of requires.”

McCaw said eastern Oregonians, in 2020, didn’t feel like Oregon was being inclusive when it issued statewide indoor mask mandates. It “super-charged our movement,” he said. “The people on the east side of the state did not want those restrictions.”

“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part.”

“I’m just going to straight-up disagree,” said the other panelist, Carina Miller, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and chair of the Columbia River Gorge Commission. Miller lives east of the Cascades on the Warm Springs Reservation, which McCaw told High Country News would be excluded from Greater Idaho, along with the city of Bend, because of their liberal politics.

Throughout the night, Miller repeated one phrase — “societal gaslighting.” She described growing up Indigenous in Oregon, where she received an education that normalized racist policies toward tribes, and where a boarding school built to assimilate Native youth still operates.

“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part,” she said. Miller asked McCaw a question: “Do you really think that people who are advocating for Greater Idaho are the most disenfranchised people in these communities?”

People clapped before McCaw could respond.

“A strong majority of people in eastern Oregon do want this to move forward,” he said.

“But is the answer yes or no?” Miller pressed. “Are they the most disenfranchised?”

“I have no idea,” McCaw said.

Miller got the last word: She encouraged people to “hold onto each other and work it out.” The room erupted in applause.

McCaw didn’t join in. Instead, he sat perfectly still, his hands clasped tightly in his lap.   

Leah Sottile was a former correspondent for High Country News. She is a freelance journalist, the author of When the Moon Turns to Blood and the host of the podcasts Bundyville, Two Minutes Past Nine and Burn Wild. Subscribe to her newsletter The Truth Does Not Change According to Our Ability to Stomach It.

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In the Utah desert, can golf justify itself?

As in so many cities in the desert West, golf in St. George is a thirsty business, with a powerful lobby and a relationship with water painted in green on the landscape. Among its peers, however, St. George is in a league of its own. Few cities in the Southwest use more water per person: nearly 300 gallons a day. And a hefty portion of that, over half, goes to keeping ornamental grass, lawns and golf courses lush in an arid region where water supplies are dwindling every day. Within a decade, and without immediate action to conserve, local officials predict that its water shortage will become a water crisis.

Utah is notorious for granting an unusual degree of grace to this sort of profligate water use. That may be changing, however, at least when it comes to the golf industry: In 2022, the city of Ivins, an exurb of St. George, effectively banned the construction of new golf courses, while early this year, state Rep. Douglas Welton, R, introduced House Bill 188, which could require golf courses to be more transparent about how much water they use.

In a city and at a time where something’s gotta give, will golf be the first to fall?

Golfers at the Dixie Red Hills golf course in St. George, Utah.

MINUTES DOWN THE ROAD from the Green Springs community, at the Dixie Red Hills Golf Course, I joined a group of older players staging behind the first tee. Before we settled on the griddle-hot pleather of our golf carts, Jim Peacock, 80, slapped a top-spinning rocket up and over the rough that his friend Craig Felt, two years his senior, couldn’t help but admire. “Jim’s the athlete of the group,” Felt said. Soon, the chatter moved to water. “When I was in Mexico, there was only enough water for three flushes. That could happen to us if we don’t pay attention,” Felt said. While Tom Smith, 75, indicated that he’d rather give up golf than toilet-flushing, it’s not clear that the rest of the community is so inclined. “This is a place where a lot of people do a lot of golfing,” Greg Milne said, gesturing toward the sprawl of St. George.   

“That’s how it started. The course was built as a sort of vision for growth in the area.” 

This area’s mingling of desert and water has long attracted people. Southern Paiute bands lived near the Virgin River for a millennium or more before Mormon colonists arrived in the late 1850s, intent on making “Utah’s Dixie” bloom with cotton. For the next century, Washington County remained “a sleepy little community off the I-15 that people would pass by on their way to California,” said Colby Cowan, director of golf operations for the city of St. George. Throughout the 1950s, nuclear blasts at Nevada’s Yucca Flats test range blew radioactive dust onto the homes of the city’s 5,000 residents — dust that stubbornly clung to the valley’s reputation.

But in 1965, St. George unveiled the nine-hole Dixie Red Hills course, rebranding the Mormon Downwinder outpost as a putter’s paradise. “That’s how it started. The course was built as a sort of vision for growth in the area,” said Cowan. Since then, golf’s role in the regional recreation economy has burgeoned. The 14 golf courses in Washington County, including four owned by the city of St. George, attract nearly 600,000 visitors a year, generating $130 million dollars annually, according to Cowan. That puts golf on par with mining, quarrying, and oil and gas industries in the area, though still below the half-billion dollars generated annually by Zion National Park.

An unattended sprinkler by the Green Spring Golf Course builds a mud bath where a future home will be. St. George, the hottest and driest city in the state of Utah, teeters on a water crisis.

And, like those other industries, golf has political sway. When golf’s water needs came under fire in Washington County in 2021 and again in the state Legislature this January, the industry flexed its influence. Golf Alliance Utah, the lobbying wing of the Utah Golf Association, pulled strings at the Statehouse in Salt Lake City, killing the bill even after sponsors dropped the annual reporting requirement, arguing that it unfairly targeted the sport. 

Generally, the golf industry tries to burnish its image by touting its economic benefits and highlighting its efforts to decrease water use. “We’re doing our due diligence with water conservation,” Devin Dehlin, the executive director at the Utah Section Professional Golf Association, said in a call with High Country News. “What the sport brings economic-wise is the story we want to tell.” In practice, those changes have come down to encouraging course operators to replace some turf with native plants. Other technologies, like soil-moisture monitoring and artificial grass coloring, which gives turf a deep green appearance with minimal watering, are being adopted, though strictly on a voluntary basis. Dehlin said his organization does not track how widespread these changes are.

OF THE 10 THIRSTIEST golf courses in Utah, seven are in Washington County, according to an investigation by the Salt Lake Tribune. Some privately owned courses, including Coral Canyon Golf Course and SunRiver Golf Club, actually increased their water use between 2018 and 2022. The mercury tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit here more than 50 days each year, so it takes an exorbitant amount of water to keep the fairways lush year-round: about 177 million gallons annually for each course, or roughly eight times the national average. And if the region continues to grow at its current breakneck rate, existing water supplies — from wells, springs and the Virgin River — will be severely strained. That prospect has some local and state officials backing a proposed pipeline that would carry Colorado River water from the ever-shrinking Lake Powell to this corner of the Utah desert. With or without the pipeline, the region is likely to face severe water rationing, with golf and lawns likely seeing the first cuts. Washington County’s forthcoming drought contingency plan could require cities to cut their water use by up to 30% in a worst-case scenario. “And if you look about where they would cut their water usage,” said Washington County Water Conservancy District Manager Zach Renstrom, “it really would come to large grassy areas, such as golf.”

Washington County Water Conservancy District Manager Zach Renstrom. Under his guidance, the city passed sweeping water conservation ordinances early this year.

In a bid to avoid future mandated cuts, St. George is scrambling to reduce its water use now. Under Renstrom’s guidance, the city passed sweeping conservation ordinances early this year — the toughest in Utah, but still mild compared to those in Las Vegas. Three of the four city-owned golf courses now use treated wastewater for irrigation rather than potable or “culinary” grade water. Las Vegas shifted to reused water for the majority of its courses by 2008. Cowan said the city-owned courses are beginning to remove ornamental grass from non-play areas. So far this year, the county has removed more than 264,000 square feet of grass. While that may sound like a lot, it’s only about six acres across the entire county, or roughly 4% of one local golf course. Even with those measures in place, Renstom says the halcyon days for golf in southwestern Utah need to end: “I’ve had a couple of developers come to me recently and want to talk about golf courses, and I flat-out said, ‘I won’t provide the water.’”

For now, though, the county still has some water to spare. St. George has secured $60 million for a wastewater treatment plant, all while stashing almost two years of reserves in a network of reservoirs. “We have a lot of water stored away,” said Ed Andrechak, water program manager for Conserve Southwest Utah, a sustainability advocacy nonprofit. If the county enforced the strict conservation rules that Las Vegas has, he believes it could grow at the blistering pace it’s projected to over the coming years.

But Andrechak worries that, ultimately, a culture of profligacy will be the barrier to conservation, not money or technical know-how: “We just don’t think water rules apply to us here,” he said. Andrechak cataloged a number of examples: a 1,200-foot lazy river under construction at the Black Desert golf resort in Ivins; the Desert Color community, which built around an artificial lake that Andrechak described as a “giant evapo-pond”; another three man-made lakes for the Southern Shores water-skiing-housing complex in Hurricane, and perhaps most bewildering, a Yogi Bear-themed water park east of St. George. The water park will require 5 million gallons or more of culinary-grade drinking water annually for rides like one nicknamed the “Royal Flush,” a toilet bowl-shaped slide. The Sand Hollow golf course next door gulps up 60 times as much water. “We’re 23 years into a mega drought, and yet my struggle here is that we’re not really that concerned about it,” Andrechak said. “That’s the culture.”

“We’re 23 years into a mega drought, and yet my struggle here is that we’re not really that concerned about it.”

This culture is enabled and even nurtured by policy: St. George’s water rates are among the lowest in the West, which results in bigger profits for course operators and more affordable green fees, but also disincentivizes conservation. “The whole idea has been to have low (water) rates to take care of the citizens by making golf affordable,” said Dehlin. “Having affordable water is important for the growth of the game and to keep our facilities in the conditions that we do. And that’s one thing about golf courses in Utah in general: they’re very well-manicured, very well-kept,” Dehlin said. “And yes, well-irrigated.” 

The Dixie Red Hills golf course was the first to arrive in St. George in 1965. Now, there are 14 in this remote corner of southwest Utah, drinking up 13% of the municipal water supply.

Samuel Shaw is an editorial intern for High Country News based in the Colorado Front Range. Email him at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. Follow Samuel on Instagram @youngandforgettable.