The Trump years: How will they affect the region?

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PROTEST MARCH IN CORTEZ THE DAY AFTER PRESIDENT TRUMP'S INAUGURATION

Protesters march in Cortez the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. More than 500 people braved the snow and cold to join with millions of marchers nationwide. Photo by Gail Binkly

Critics are already speculating that Donald Trump won’t last more than two years as president – that he’ll resign or be impeached before his term is out.

But his supporters predict he’ll prove so successful that he’ll easily win re-election in 2020.

Whether they last two years or eight, whether they usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity or turn into (to use one of Trump’s favorite words) a “disaster,” the Trump years will have a major impact on the United States in general and the West in particular.

Here, where large portions of individual states are made up of federal land, where much of the population is rural and earns below-average income, the policies of Trump and the Republican Congress will likely have an out-size effect.

Just days into the new administration, the Four Corners region was already seeing some of those impacts.

Here is an overview of a few of the key issues and areas:

The EPA

The flurry of proclamations hurriedly decreed in Trump’s first week included an executive order plainly aimed at paralyzing or euthanizing the EPA. The order froze funding for new EPA grants and contracts for work such as restoring contaminated sites and enforcing clean air and clean-water regulations.

Spokespeople for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican representing Colorado’s Third District, hastened to issue assurances that the freeze would not cut funding for cleaning up the new Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site near Silverton. That area was the source of contaminated waters that poured through a breach in a mine portal and turned the Animas River a turgid orange in 2015.

However, the freeze does apparently mean no new EPA funds for what are known as brownfield sites – former industrial sites such as gas stations and mines that have been left abandoned and contaminated.

A number of such sites exist in Montezuma County – for example, a decrepit former convenience store/gas stop west of Mancos, and the ghostly remains of the M&M Truck Stop at a major intersection near the state weighing station – but presumably won’t be receiving federal funds in the near future.

The Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School District, with help from the City of Cortez, had applied for a $250,000 EPA grant to aid in demolition and abatement work at the old high school, which contains asbestos, lead and even mercury.

Kemper Principal Jamie Haukeness, who is spearheading the demolition effort, told the Free Press that he’d immediately thought about a possible impact on the grant request upon learning of Trump’s action.

“I read about that freeze a couple days ago and thought, ‘Oh, no, this is not good.’

“I was very concerned about it affecting our grant, because as I understand it, it would freeze all EPA grants. I have not heard back from the individual in Denver that we submitted that with,” Haukeness said.

When pre-bid and walk-through meetings for the project were held in January, a dozen asbestos-abatement contractors came from around the Southwest, Haukeness said, including a few local companies. Bids were due on Jan. 31.

Haukeness said he spoke Friday to Mark Rudolph with the Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment, a specialist with Superfund Brownsfield grant program. He said Re- 1’s application was in front of their review board and he hoped to have more information soon.

“Hopefully, with this EPA grant going in earlier this month it will be excluded from whatever Donald Trump is referring to – that’s the best-case scenario,” Haukeness said.

The demolition will go forward even without the grant, which wasn’t a sure thing anyway, but officials had hoped the money could help defray the estimated $1.3 million cost. Any funds remaining after the demolition are to be put into renovating the old Panther athletic stadium.

“Not getting the EPA grant would mean there would be less money available to make improvements on Panther Stadium,” said Jack Schueneyemer, president of the Re-1 school board.

“The more outside funding we can get for the demolition project, that would be more money we would have to upgrade Panther Stadium.

“I think everything is up in the air in terms of federal grants. I would hope anything that’s in the mill at this point in time would be processed.”

According to the federal government website USAspending.gov, Colorado is slated to receive $6.37 million in EPA grants and contracts in the 2017 fiscal year, while Utah is to receive $2.6 million.

In a Jan. 26 letter to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, wrote that he had “serious concern regarding the EPA’s suspension of grant and contract awards.”

“More broadly,” he wrote, “the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) receives approximately $28 million from the federal government each year for environmental programs, the majority of which consist of EPA grants or contracts. State and local governments in Colorado use these funds to clean up contaminated sites, protect our clean air and water, permit oil and gas operations” and more, Bennet wrote.

The suspension, even if temporary, could affect communities across Colorado, Bennet said. “This lack of communication regarding the extent and length of this freeze has led to confusion and uncertainty. This makes it even more important that the Administration work quickly to detail whether the suspension affects ongoing remediation projects and existing awards.”

As of press time, the question had not been cleared up.

Repealing the Affordable Care Act

Plans by Congress to repeal Obamacare are already being widely trumpeted despite no replacement being in sight, meaning millions could lose their health-care coverage and go back to obtaining treatment at emergency rooms only when an illness becomes critical.

Rural hospitals such as Southwest Memorial in Cortez have benefited from the ACA because it meant more people were insured and therefore the hospital had to write off fewer costs for ER visits by the indigent. That may be reversed if the ACA is repealed and its replacement covers fewer people.

Federal hiring freeze

In one of his first acts as president, Trump ordered a hiring freeze throughout the federal government. The order affects hiring for all new and existing jobs, though it exempts jobs in the military, national security, and public safety.

The prohibition is intended to halt the growth of government until a long-term plan can be developed for shrinking it. The directive created a climate of uncertainty and caution among local governments and agencies that rely on federal funding and support.

A federal hiring freeze, as part of a larger plan to shrink the federal budget, could have major ramifications in the Four Corners.

In Montezuma County, federal employees make up a significant portion of the workforce. About 70 percent of the county’s land area is federal or tribal land.

Federal dollars are often involved in local projects and programs.

Trump’s memorandum did not provide an exemption for seasonal positions with the Forest Service and other federal agencies. The Forest Service and Park Service are already advertising for seasonal workers in a variety of roles – including rangers and firefighters. The agencies were seeking clarification on whether those positions could be filled.

“If we’re prepping for a fire season, or for any kind of work on these public lands that can only be done in summer – resource extraction, mediation, restoration – if you’re not hiring people to do the job or oversight, it’s really difficult to see how it helps anyone,” Jimbo Buickerood of the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance told the Free Press. “In the longer term, it could create more economic hardship for our region.”

Freezing or shrinking budgets would likely mean job layoffs and delays in or elimination of projects already planned but not yet funded.

According to usaspending.gov, for 2017, Colorado is receiving $6.5 billion in federal funds, $16.3 million of which has been awarded to Montezuma County and $1.9 million to Dolores County, through federal contracts, grants, loans, or cooperative agreement awards.

Colorado’s funds include grants to the CDPHE, Department of Local Affairs, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and many other entities. A total of $425,000 in grants has been awarded to Re-1 and $206,000 to the Ute Mountain Financial Services Department.

The category “other financial assistance” includes $2.5 million to Fort Lewis College, $163,000 to Montezuma County, and $155,000 to Cortez Apartments, according to the website.

Utah is getting $2.1 billion in 2017, of which $6.2 million is going to San Juan County. Those funds include $4.7 million in grants to the San Juan County School District and $452,000 to the Utah Navajo Health System, Inc.

The border wall

After Mexico’s leaders indicated they would not be willing to help pay for a border wall, Trump raised the possibility of levying a 20 percent tariff on Mexican imports – and that raised the possibility of Mexico’s retaliating in similar fashion.

According to an article in the Denver Post, the tariff could prove damaging to key businesses in rural Colorado. Mexico is Colorado’s second-largest trading partner, behind Canada, and its share of Colorado’s exports is on the rise, the Post said. Mexicans buy Colorado beef, pork, chicken, and cheese. Through November of last year, Mexico had purchased some $103 million in beef from Colorado producers.

Furthermore, according to the Post, Mexico is buying an increasing amount of natural gas from the United States, so producers in the Four Corners states could be harmed if a trade war results in Mexico buying less of the fuel.

Proponents of the border wall say it will keep the United States safer and mean more jobs for Americans.

Energy policy

The United States is close to being energy-independent, and its imports of fuel fell throughout the Obama administration, according to politifact.com.

However, critics say Obama was too restrictive of drilling, particularly on federal lands.

Trump is expected to be much friendlier to the energy industry, something that could prove a boon to the Four Corners, where oil and gas drilling have dropped precipitously in recent years.

In a press release submitted to the Free Press as an opinion column, Robert L. Bradley Jr., CEO and founder of the Institute for Energy Research, an industry nonprofit, hailed the new administration and voiced eagerness over its potential to open up drilling.

“Breakthrough technology has opened reserves of previously inaccessible oil and gas,” Bradley wrote. “Rather than welcoming this bounty, Obama restricted access and blocked infrastructure development.

“Trump’s energy-policy era can find inspiration in Ronald Reagan’s 1981 removal of price and allocation controls from oil and petroleum products. … The 40th president’s boldness should guide Trump as he removes ill-conceived regulations, opens areas for energy development, and improves energy infrastructure.”

Bradley called on the Trump administration to open up more offshore and onshore areas to drilling and give states more authority to lease federal land within their borders for energy extraction.

However, the regional fall-off in carbon- dioxide and natural-gas production has been largely attributed to declining oil prices rather than government regulations. It’s unclear whether opening up even more lands for drilling would cause prices to rise enough to make drilling profitable again in the Four Corners.

The methane rule

Late in Obama’s administration, the BLM issued regulations requiring energy producers to curb natural-gas flaring, venting and leaking on both public and tribal lands. The so-called methane rule was touted as a way both to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas and to increase royalties paid to government, as more methane would be captured and sold rather than wasted.

However, Republicans may take action to undo the methane rule. According to an article in E&E News, this would actually mean fewer jobs for energy workers who would have been hired to patch pipelines and fix equipment venting the gas.

But the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group, supports nixing the rule, saying companies are motivated to reduce waste on their own and do not need federal interference. Environmentalists disagree.

“The methane rule is what we call the wasted-gas rule,” the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Buickerood said. “If you don’t implement that, we have this wasted product that causes greenhouse gases. The collection of it becomes a revenue source for the federal government, so not moving forward on that would not be a benefit.”

Pipelines

In keeping with his pro-energy policy, Trump swiftly issued executive orders attempting to give a green light to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Both are highly controversial and have generated enormous resistance, although experts have commented that to some degree the disputes are mainly symbolic. The oil that would flow through the pipelines will merely be transported in other ways that may be even less safe, critics say.

Keystone would carry crude oil from tar sands in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Its supporters tout it as a job creator, but most of the positions it creates would be for construction; it is expected to generate just 35 permanent jobs.

Trump’s order did not mean the project will start right away; it allowed the developer, TransCanada, to reapply for a permit. An environmental review will still have to be conducted.

Likewise, Trump’s order regarding the Dakota Access pipeline does not mean construction will resume immediately. Instead, it tells the Army Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law.”

The Dakota pipeline runs from oil reserves in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. It is largely complete, but construction has been halted on the final section, which would burrow under a lake used by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The tribe says the pipeline threatens its water supply and would disturb sacred grounds near its reservation.

Under Obama, the Army Corps of Engineers had decided to seek an alternate route. Now, the project is poised to resume.

The Dakota dispute is seen not merely as an environmental issue, but one involving rights for a sovereign Native American tribe. It drew thousands of protesters from around the country and world, and is being watched closely by American Indians.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez voiced concern about Trump’s order to jump-start the pipeline project.

“If an oil spill happens, it will not only impact Indian Country but it will impact millions of people who utilize the water for livestock, farming, and recreation,” Begaye said in a release. “We hope President Trump understands that Native Americans will always stand to protect our land, water, air and resources given to us by our Creator.”

“In essence, President Trump is setting the tone for his administration,” Nez said in the release. “If this is what we as Native nations have to look forward to then we need to stand together in protecting our lands and natural sources from any further mismanagement or environmental disasters.”

In a media conference call Jan. 24, environmentalists lambasted Trump’s order and promised a battle.

“The Dakota Access Pipeline is one of the most powerful environmental justice flashpoints in American history,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the group 350.org.

“President Trump will live to regret his actions this morning,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune. “He unwittingly began to build a wall – a wall of resistance and defiance. … This fight is far from over. The millions of Americans and hundreds of tribes that stood up to block these pipelines will not be silenced.”

And Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network called Trump’s orders “insane and extreme and nothing short of attacks on our ancestral homeland.”

National monuments

WOODENSHOE BUTTES AND THE BEARS EARS OVER CEDAR MESA AND COMB RIDGE

Woodenshoe Buttes and the Bears Ears over Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge. Republicans in Utah are hoping President Trump will act to overturn the recent designation of 1.35 million acres in San Juan County as Bears Ears National Monument. Photo copyright Tim Peterson

Furious with Obama over the more than two dozen national monuments he created under the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, GOP lawmakers are hoping to undo some of them and limit future presidents’ ability to create new ones.

Utah’s legislators are already working on a resolution asking Trump to overturn the just-created Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, a 1.35-million-acre reserve of rugged canyonlands rich in archaeological and cultural resources. They are also hoping Trump will drastically reduce the size of the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, designated by Bill Clinton in 1996.

Both efforts will be met with stiff resistance from conservation groups. Furthermore, it’s unclear that presidents have the authority to undo other presidents’ monuments or even to drastically change their boundaries. Congress could take such an action, but it would be an uphill battle, although with Republicans holding both houses, this might be a narrow window of opportunity for them to try it. In addition, there will likely be a major effort to revise the Antiquities Act itself.

“There is no precedent nor any mechanism for downsizing or reversing the Antiquities Act order,” commented Buickerood. “There have been little tweaks to monuments, that’s it. Every analysis I’ve seen in the conservation community says there’s really no mechanism for that. SUWA [the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] and others would take it to the Supreme Court.”

Of course, Trump is about to appoint a new Supreme Court justice and will likely have the opportunity to appoint an additional justice or two over his term.

Still, Buickerood believes the wheels of change will grind slowly, despite Trump’s impatience.

”I think the new administration is a little naive, thinking it’s easy to grease the skids for anything to happen really quickly,” said Buickerood. “There’s an incredible structure of public laws and administrative procedures. And the women’s march the day after inauguration showed what an incredible amount of concerted resistance there is.”

Those are just a few of the policies and issues the new Congress and administration are pursuing that may impact the Four Corners. There are numerous other possibilities, of course: eliminating the Endangered Species Act, transferring federal lands to the states and/ or selling some of them off; and locally, halting the BLM’s master leasing plan process in Montezuma and La Plata counties. In every case, Republican pushes will engender resistance, but the GOP has the bit in its teeth and is eager to go. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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From February 2017.