Wildfires Picking Pine Cones

In this Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, photo Steven Sandoval with Santa Clara Pueblo's forestry department explains the attributes needed for a viable ponderosa pine seed during a demonstration at Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, N.M. A cone collecting effort is underway in parts of New Mexico and Colorado as conservationists and land managers work to gather seeds to restore forested landscapes following wildfire.


Fire-ravaged forests get help from pine cone collectors

ALONG THE BURNT MESA TRAIL — With snow ready to fall, the scramble was on to collect as many ponderosa pine cones as possible.

The cones being gathered in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico represent the fruits of a bumper crop. Every decade or so, the trees turn out more seeds to ensure future propagation as a hedge against hungry predators and whatever other hurdles nature might throw at the species.

The cones will be dried, their seeds cleaned, sorted and grown into seedlings that can be used to reforest fire-scarred hillsides. Similar work is ongoing in Colorado, South Dakota and other places in the U.S. West.

With warmer temperatures, more frequent drought and the severity of wildfires on the rise, scientists say seed collection and reforestation efforts are becoming more important.

The goal: 1 million seeds.

It might sound lofty, but those helping with the project in New Mexico and southern Colorado are looking to take advantage of a rare bumper crop this fall that has resulted from back-to-back summer and winter seasons of average to above-average rain and snow. This doesn't happen often in the arid Southwest, and scientists say it could become more infrequent as the climate changes.

Enter Steven Sandoval and his forestry crew from Santa Clara Pueblo, one of dozens of partners in the seed collecting effort. Sandoval's crew has been charged with scouting parts of Bandelier National Monument to locate those ponderosa stands with the greatest potential.

Santa Clara Pueblo has been among the areas hit hardest by wildfires in New Mexico, with much of its watershed destroyed by fire in 2011. Sandoval said the tribe is fortunate because it began collecting native seed years earlier and had built up its own bank of seed from about 2.5 million trees, including ponderosa, Douglas fir, spruce and other pine variations.


Conservatives in some Western states push against death penalty

CHEYENNE — Conservatives in states including Wyoming and Utah vowed this month to keep pushing for the repeal of state-level death penalty sentences, even as U.S. officials move toward resuming federal executions.

The national group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty on Nov. 4 released a statement with over 250 signatures saying the death penalty is costly, prone to error and inconsistent with conservatives' opposition to abortion.

Twenty-nine U.S. states have the death penalty and four of those have moratoriums on the sentence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In Wyoming, the state Legislature last winter came the closest it had in recent memory to abolishing capital punishment.

The measure passed the Wyoming House but failed 18-12 in the state Senate. Repeal opponents argued in part that capital punishment encourages criminals to cooperate with investigators.

Republican state Rep. Jared Olsen of Cheyenne promised in a news conference with the anti-death-penalty group to try again with a bill in 2020.

U.S. officials announced in July that federal executions would resume after a 16-year informal moratorium.

The debate in Wyoming last winter marked an abrupt shift on capital punishment in the Legislature where Republicans outnumbered Democrats 77-13.

Repeal advocates argued that having the law on the books costs the state almost $1 million a year, even though Wyoming hasn't had anybody on death row since 2014 and last executed someone in 1992.

Conservatives in Utah, which also has large GOP statehouse majorities, voiced optimism that death penalty repeal can catch on as a conservative cause.

Recently elected legislators in Utah seem more supportive of repeal in the state that reinstated the firing squad as an execution option in 2015, said Darcy Van Orden with the Utah Justice Coalition.


Death-row inmate featured in best-selling book dies

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah death-row inmate whose double-murder case was featured in the book "Under the Banner of Heaven" and who was nearing execution by firing squad has died of natural causes, prison officials said Nov. 11.

Ron Lafferty, 78, died at the state prison in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper, a Utah Department of Corrections spokeswoman said in a statement.

His case became well known from Jon Krakauer's 2003 book about radical offshoots of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Krakauer also wrote "Into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild."

Lafferty was convicted in the 1984 slayings of his sister-in-law and her baby daughter, which he carried out with his brother. He claimed he received a revelation from God to kill the two because of the sister-in-law's resistance to his fundamentalist beliefs in polygamy.

Lafferty was probably only months away from becoming the first American executed by firing squad in nearly a decade after an appeals court rejected his latest his appeal in August.


State’s pension reforms would increase contributions

SANTA FE — Legislators on Nov. 6 held their first open discussion of suggested pension reforms to address a roughly $6 billion unfunded liability at the New Mexico retirement plan for state and local government employees.

A pension solvency task force appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has suggested a combined 4% increase in pension contributions, with the increased costs divided evenly between state government and employees.

Annual cost of living adjustments would shift to a profit-sharing model that links annual pension payout increases to the investment returns at the $15.8 billion pension fund overseen by the Public Employees Retirement Association.

Those suggested reforms and others are likely to be presented to the committee in the form of a bill in December — leaving time for discussion ahead of the 2020 legislative session that starts Jan. 21.

Democratic Sen. George Muñoz, chairman of the pension committee, said reforms enacted in 2013, with reduced retirement benefits for new hires, did not go far enough toward shoring up the financial health of the pension fund.

The current annual adjustment is a 2% increase in benefits for retirees. It would range between 0.5% and 3% each year under the new recommendations, rising or falling in tandem with pension-fund investment returns on stocks and other financial instruments.


State officials make it harder to change gender on birth certificates

BOISE — Idaho officials have made it more difficult for young transgender people to change the sex listed on their birth certificates despite a U.S. court ruling that appears to ban such obstacles.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare released comments from the public on Oct. 23 on a temporary rule requiring people younger than 18 to get approval from medical or mental health professionals before requesting the change.

Many of the comments said they wanted the conservative state to go back to banning all gender changes on birth certificates.

A federal judge ruled last year that an Idaho law barring transgender people from changing their birth certificates violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Health and Welfare's board of directors complied with the order and changed the state's rules last year. But this May, the board approved the temporary rule requiring anyone under 18 to get approval before requesting the change.

Between April 2018 and September, 145 people, including 20 minors, applied to change the gender on their birth certificates, Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said. They ranged in age from 7 to 78.

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