With the dawning of a new year comes a new source of news, insight, and commentary: the Land Desk. It is a newsletter about Place. Namely that place where humanity and the landscape intersect. The geographical center of my coverage will be the Four Corners Country and Colorado Plateau, land of the Ute, Diné, Pueblo, Apache, and San Juan Southern Paiute people. From there, coverage will spread outward into the remainder of the “public-land states” of the Interior West, with excursions to Wyoming to look at the coal and wind-power industries and Nevada to check out water use in Las Vegas and so on.
This is the time and the place for a truth-telling, myth-busting, fair yet sometimes furious journalism like The Land Desk will provide. This is where climate change is coming home to roost in the form of chronic drought, desertification, and raging wildfires. This is where often-toxic politics are playing out on the nation’s public lands. This is the sacrifice zone of the nation’s corporate extractive industries, yet it is also the playground and wilderness-refuge for the rest of the nation and the world. This is the headwaters for so many rivers of the West. And this is where Indigenous peoples’ fight for land-justice is the most potent, whether it be at Bears Ears or Chaco Canyon or Oak Flat.
The Land Desk will provide a voice for this region and a steady current of information, thought, and commentary about a wide range of topics, from climate change to energy to economics to public lands. Most importantly, the information will be contextualized so that we—my readers (and collaborators) and I—can better understand what it all means. Perhaps we can also help chart a better and more sustainable course for the region to follow into the future, to try to realize Wallace Stegner’s characterization of this place as the “native home of hope.”
I’ve essentially been doing the work of the Land Desk for more than two decades. I got my start back in 1996 as the sole reporter and photographer for the weekly Silverton Standard & the Miner. I went from there to High Country News fifteen years ago, and that wonderful publication has nurtured and housed most of my journalism ever since. But after I went freelance four years ago, my role at HCN was gradually diminished. While I have branched out in the years since, writing three books as well as articles for Sierra, The Gulch, Telluride Magazine, Writers on the Range, and so forth, I’ve increasingly run up against what I call the freelancer bottleneck, which is what happens when you produce more content more quickly than you can sell it. That extra content ends up homeless, or swirling around in my brain, or residing in semi-obscurity on my personal website.
I’m not messing around. The Land Desk is by no means a repository for the stories no one wants. It is intended to be the home for the best of my journalism and a place where you can find an unvarnished, unique, deep perspective on some of the most interesting landscapes and communities in the world. My hope is that it will give me the opportunity to write the stories that I’ve long wanted to write and that the region needs. If my hopes are realized, the Land Desk will one day expand and welcome other Western journalists to contribute.
That’s where you come in. In order for this venture to do more than just get off the ground, it needs to pay for itself. In order to do that, it needs paying subscribers (i.e., you). In other words, I’m asking for your support.
For the low price of $6/month ($60/year), subscribers will receive a minimum of three dispatches each week, including:
1 Land Bulletin (news, analysis, commentary, essay, long-form narrative, or investigative piece);
1 Data Dump (anything from a set of numbers with context to full-on data-visual stories); and,
1 News Roundup, which will highlight a sample of the great journalism happening around the West;
Reaction to and contextualization of breaking news, as needed.
Additionally, I’ll be throwing in all sorts of things, from on-the-ground reporter notebooks to teasers from upcoming books to the occasional fiction piece to throwbacks from my journalistic archives.
Can’t afford even that? No worries. Just sign up for a free subscription and get occasional dispatches, or contact me and we can work something out. Or maybe you’ve got some extra change jangling around in your pocket and are really hungry for this sort of journalism? Then become a Founding Member and, in addition to feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, you’ll receive some extra swag.
I just launched the Land Desk earlier this week and already subscribers are getting content! Today I published a Data Dump on a southwestern indicator river setting an alarming record. Also this week, look for a detailed analysis tracing the roots of the recent invasion of the Capitol to the Wise Use movement of the early 1990s. In the not-so distant future I’ll be publishing “Carbon Capture Convolution,” about the attempt to keep a doomed coal-fired power plant running by banking on questionable technology and sketchy federal tax credits. Plus the Land Desk will have updated national park visitor statistics, a look back on how the pandemic affected Western economies, and forward-looking pieces on what a Biden administration will mean for public lands.
Please subscribe to The Land Desk. Click here to read some of Thompson’s work that has shown up on Coyote Gulch over the years.
FromThe Denver Post (Saja Hindi and Alex Burgess):
A new legislative session is kicking off this week in Colorado, but it won’t really get going until February.
A batch of new Colorado state lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday, and the legislature plans to pass about seven mostly minor bills this week. When they return Feb. 16, there will be backlogs of popular bills that were sidelined in the pandemic-shortened 2020 session, plus many new priorities.
Democrats are still in control, now with an expanded Senate majority. That means until at least 2022, the GOP will have its say but rarely its way…
Short, distanced start
Lawmakers will work quickly this week to pass time-sensitive bills and meet constitutional requirements before their break…
Ask nearly any lawmaker what they’re plotting for 2021, and they’ll tell you they want to do everything possible to address the coronavirus’ ripple effects.
But the public should temper its expectations, budget officials say, because there’s a limited pot of money for grants, direct payments and new programs…
It is often the case that bills die — or never get introduced in the first place — not because of their merits but because lawmakers are nervous about how much they cost.
We’ll likely be seeing a lot of that in 2021, given the budget outlook. Take, for example, the bipartisan and generally popular proposal to eliminate the wait list for state-funded in-home care for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Last year was supposed to be the year they committed more than $160 million over seven years to the program, but pandemic hits, plan scrapped…
Is the momentum for social justice still there?
The legislature last year repealed the death penalty and passed a police reform package inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Lawmakers vowed then that they would not relent on matters of criminal justice and law enforcement.
There’s plenty on the table for 2021, including banning no-knock warrants and restricting the use of ketamine against people detained by police. The latter is particularly close to home: First responders injected Elijah McClain with ketamine after he was violently detained by Aurora police in 2019…
Members of the public will have the opportunity to testify on bills in person, remotely or submit written testimony as they were able to do during the special legislative session, but it will likely be limited. People interested in testifying will need to sign up ahead of time at http://leg.colorado.gov.
Plenty of people on both sides of the aisle have sought and failed to obtain a funding boost for Colorado’s chronically underfunded transportation system. This year, there’s real optimism for a breakthrough.
The latest plan involves raising certain fees — remember, Colorado lawmakers can’t raise taxes, but they can raise closely related fees — on things like gas and electric vehicle usage in order to generate money for transportation projects…
Can House Republicans get along?
Democrats have a strong 20-15 advantage in the Senate and in the House, it’s not even close — 41 of the 65 seats.
Having hemorrhaged power and influence in the House in recent years, GOP state representatives turned on last year’s minority leader, Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, and replaced him with Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland…
Public option, take two
Last year, sponsors shelved an effort to implement a hybrid public health insurance option that would have provided Coloradans who buy insurance on the individual market another option.
Its return in 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic will likely bring more conflict between supporters and hospital groups. But one of its sponsors, Avon Democratic Rep. Dylan Roberts said the bill will look very different, because it takes into account the changes to health care due to COVID…
A renewed push for gun legislation
Colorado House Rep. Tom Sullivan was beyond disappointed last year that proposed gun reforms were shelved when COVID arrived. The Centennial Democrat pledged last year to bring gun legislation to the forefront of the 2021 session, and he plans to make good on that promise…
After a year of raging wildfires, shrinking water flows and record heat, Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers are planning to address climate and environmental policies.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a big issues for years and I think we’re sort of behind in where we need to be,” Fenberg said. “We basically don’t have the luxury of being able to take a year off of thinking critically about getting our emissions under control.”
Topics on deck include air-quality issues, improving the electric transmission grid in Colorado, addressing issues of methane leaks, a greenhouse road map and increasing the use of energy storage equipment in Colorado.
Westminster Democratic Sen. Faith Winter said climate mitigation is also important for communities of color and others who are disproportionately affected by pollution. She’s working on a bill to better define environmental justice and impacted communities, and also intends to address issues of environment in transportation funding bills.
“Climate change is a huge threat to our state,” she said. “It’s a threat to individual people’s health,” she said. “It’s a threat to our economy.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):
Because of the ongoing pandemic, lawmakers will only meet for three days this week, and then it will go into a recess until mid-February.
“Clearly, there’s going to be a change to how the 73rd General Assembly is going to get started,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “Everything is going to look a lot different than it has in the past. We’re still in the midst of a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic, and the bulk of our work won’t start in earnest until Feb. 16 when we all come back from our temporary adjournment.”
Under the Colorado Constitution, the Legislature can only meet for 120 days. But after the pandemic hit at the start of last year’s session, Democratic leaders decided to recess for an extended period because of it, after Gov. Jared Polis issued his first COVID-19 executive order calling for a state of emergency…
So as a result of this built-in recess, which could be extended or ended early depending on what happens with coronavirus infection rates, lawmakers don’t plan to do much in these first three days…
Beyond typical beginning-of-session matters, including provisions to allow for lawmakers to participate in floor debates and committee hearings remotely, lawmakers have only a handful of bills they expect to address by Friday, one of which is to fix a problem with a bill approved during last month’s special session.
That was on a $57 million Small Business Relief Program, which is intended to provide grants and fee waivers to businesses most impacted by the downturned economy, particularly to restaurants and night clubs.
The bill also sets aside money for hard-hit minority-owned businesses, a provision that currently is facing a lawsuit filed by the white owner of a Colorado Springs barbershop…
Starting on Thursday, counties across the state are accepting applications for that money, and will do so until early February.
Businesses that qualify will then get their share, but how much will depend on how many apply and how much each county is allocated.
Under the bill, money is to go to very small businesses, primarily those hardest hit by the pandemic, such as restaurants, bars, distilleries, wineries, caterers, movie theaters, fitness centers and other recreational facilities, but only those with annual revenues of less that $2.5 million and only if they are following local public health orders.
Because of the monthlong recess, individual lawmakers were given more time to introduce their first three bills — under the law, they are allowed up to five — until the Legislature reconvenes in February.
Meanwhile, the four leaders in the House and Senate from both parties have approved committee assignments for legislators.
Locally, that means that Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, will serve on the Senate Transportation & Energy and Finance committees, while Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, will be on the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources and transportation committees.
Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat whose district includes Delta County, will serve as chairwoman of the agriculture committee. She also will serve on the transportation panel, and is the newly chosen Senate pro temp, the second highest-ranking position.
In the House, Rep. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, will be on the House Transportation & Local Government, Appropriations and Finance committees, while Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, will be on the House Agriculture, Livestock & Water Committee with Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose.
Will also will serve on the transportation committee, while Catlin also will be on the House Energy & Environment Committee.
Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, was taken off the House Judiciary Committee where he served during his first term in office. Instead, he will be on the House Health & Insurance Committee and the energy panel.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, will continue to be on the Joint Budget Committee. The two local lawmakers also will serve on the appropriations committees in their respective chambers.
Here’s a look at the bills lawmakers will debate this week before taking a break
Legislative leaders said not to expect a robust policy agenda at the start of the session, but rather “minor things we need to get done that are time sensitive,” Garnett said.
So far, nine bill drafts are on the table. One of the first would allow lawmakers to participate remotely in legislative meetings and conduct certain committee hearings even while the General Assembly is temporarily adjourned. Democratic leaders said they plan to conduct oversight hearings — known as SMART Act reviews — for state departments and agencies before returning in February. The public would be allowed to participate remotely.
In addition, the Joint Budget Committee will continue to meet behind closed doors with the public not permitted to attend but allowed to listen online.
The other legislation being considered in the first days would:
Change the requirements for a small business relief fund approved in December’s special session to apply to more than just minority-owned businesses, a move designed to nullify a lawsuit stating that the new law was unconstitutional and discriminatory.
Extend the deadlines to continue to allow for electronic wills and further suspend debt collection due to the pandemic.
Recreate regulations and licensing benchmarks on occupational therapists after lawmakers inadvertently repealed the requirements.
If there’s a dominant force in the Colorado River Basin these days, it’s the Walton Family Foundation, flush with close to $5 billion to give away.
Run by the heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton, the foundation donates $25 million a year to nonprofits concerned about the Colorado River. It’s clear the foundation cares deeply about the River in this time of excruciating drought, and some of its money goes to river restoration or more efficient irrigation.
Yet its main interest is promoting “demand management,” the water marketing scheme that seeks to add 500,000 acre-feet of water to declining Lake Powell by paying rural farmers to temporarily stop irrigating.
In November 2020, that focused involvement paid off. The Colorado Conservation Water Board boosted demand management into a “step two work plan,” moving the concept closer toward policy in the state, which leads the Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah in drought-management planning.
But is this approach, which verges on turning water into a commodity, good for the Colorado River? And was the public debate sufficient for policy about a water source that’s vital to 40 million people?
Without doubt, the foundation has supported the region’s nonprofits. During the last four years, over 60 Colorado River philanthropic organizations received between $5,000 and $2.9 million each, with seven organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Nature Conservancy, and Western Resource Advocates each receiving $1 million or more in 2019 alone. A good share of the Walton Foundation’s $25 million in annual donations also went toward testing demand management on numerous creeks and tributaries in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
The Walton Foundation also paid EDF millions to carry out crucial aspects of a $29 million pilot program for demand management in the Lower Basin states of Nevada, California and Arizona.
Then, there’s the Walton Foundation funding media to do stories about the Colorado River. What’s troubling is that some of the stories produced omit the Walton Foundation’s role in advocating for demand management.
Because the foundation’s reach is so extensive, few of its critics are willing to speak publicly. They charge that the Walton Family Foundation doesn’t just have a seat at the table, it sets the table’s agenda. Lately, though, some “water buffaloes” seem skittish about a policy that leads to water speculation, which raises the question: Are the critics of demand management gaining traction?
Dan Beard, former chief of the Bureau of Reclamation under President Clinton, hopes so.
“They (Walton Family Foundation) think they’ve found the solution,” he said “The way they’ve done that is to get all the nonprofits on their side. I think that’s a horrible result, especially for the environmental community. We need to sow the seeds of intellectual curiosity. If you’ve come to a conclusion and you don’t deviate from that, you’re nothing more than an intellectual dictator.”
Then, there’s the impact of Walton Foundation money on media nonprofits.
Brent Gardner-Smith runs Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit statewide news organization that has received $100,000 annually for six years from the Walton Foundation. Public radio station KUNC has received three years of similar funding for its “water desk.”
In May 2020, the two nonprofits collaborated in a story exploring the investment group Water Asset Management (WAM), speculating that it sought to “buy and dry” agricultural water, leaving behind barren dust bowls. What was not reported, that only municipalities can “buy and dry” under Colorado’s already tough water anti-speculation laws. The big omission was that a Walton-funded nonprofit, the Nature Conservancy – had an ongoing demand management study – exactly where WAM was buying land.
Colorado College journalism instructor Corey Hutchins said he was surprised to hear the size of some of the funding KUNC and Aspen Journalism each receiving $100,000 apiece for several years: “That sounds like a big Colorado water story in itself,” he said. “You might also worry about self-censorship.”
A story by Politico, a for-profit news conglomerate, is illustrative. In 2018, Politico received a $200,000 grant from the Walton Foundation for special projects. In December, Politico ran a feature on the drought-stricken Colorado River that quoted the Walton foundation’s head of Colorado River philanthropy, Ted Kowalski. Yet the foundation’s involvement in river policy wasn’t mentioned; nor was Politico’s previous funding from the Walton foundation noted.
Even odder, the recent New York Times article on water speculation in the Colorado River Basin omitted the Walton influence.
Joel Dyer, former editor for Boulder Weekly, who wrote a critical Walton piece, sees the issue of transparency this way: “They’ve (the Walton Family Foundation) spread their money so much they’ve diluted anyone who could push back. The big stories, the big ideas, who’s going to look into that?”