BACK TO THE WEST | Yellowstone records record visits; NM Residents Could Get Tuition-Free College | Quick shots
Visits to Yellowstone hit record high in 2021
MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS — Record numbers of visitors flocked to Yellowstone National Park last year despite fewer hotel rooms and campsites available due to the coronavirus pandemic and construction projects.
Around 4.86 million visits were recorded in 2021, beating the previous record set in 2016. That’s one million more people than in 2020.
Known worldwide for its wolves, bears, and other wildlife and thermal features such as the Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2022. It straddles the borders of northwest Wyoming, southern Montana, and from eastern Idaho.
Visitation to national parks across the United States has increased in recent years. Others, like Zion National Park in Utah, also set new visitor records in 2021 as tourism rebounded from closures imposed at the start of the pandemic.
In Yellowstone, a rush of people from May to September last year strained park employees and services. It came as the park was understaffed throughout the summer due to worker housing caps and difficulty recruiting new employees, park officials said.
There were also 20% fewer campsites and hotel rooms in 2021 compared to previous years. This meant that hundreds of thousands of visitors left the park at night and returned after staying elsewhere. Each entry into the park counted as a separate visit.
Yellowstone’s highway corridors and parking lots can be crowded, but they make up less than a tenth of 1% of its 3,400 square miles — an area roughly 150 times the size of Manhattan Island in New York City.
In-State Residents Can Get Tuition-Free College
SANTA FE — On Jan. 21, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham introduced provisions for a legislative proposal to expand tuition-free public colleges to more New Mexico students.
The governor supports a bill that would combine and increase state scholarship funding to cover all tuition and fees for state college students who maintain a C-plus grade point average. It would apply to part-time or full-time attendance at any public college, university, or tribal college in New Mexico.
Sen. Liz Stefanics of Santa Fe and Rep. Joy Garratt of Albuquerque, both Democrats, are sponsoring the bill in a 30-day legislative session that ends Feb. 17.
Budget recommendations from the governor’s office would earmark $85.5 million for the scholarship project — enough to pay tuition and fees for 35,000 students.
Scholarships currently available for recent high school graduates would become accessible to applicants of all ages.
The New Mexico scholarship from lottery ticket sales once covered 100% of tuition for many local students, but this grant has been reduced over the years.
The scholarship features prominently in a proposed $1 billion increase in state general fund spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022, bringing annual spending to $8.5 billion.
State economists forecast a general fund surplus of $1.6 billion for the coming fiscal year, greater than current spending requirements. The windfall is tied to increased oil and natural gas production as well as the lingering effects of federal pandemic assistance and approved infrastructure spending.
GOP challenges state political maps
SANTA FE — On Jan. 21, the Republican Party filed a legal challenge in district court against New Mexico’s recently approved political map that reshapes the state’s three congressional districts.
The state’s Republican Party and affiliates argue that newly established congressional districts are diluting Republican voting strength in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico State Constitution.
The political maps were approved in December by Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democratic-led legislature.
The traditionally conservative 2nd District moved to incorporate heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of Albuquerque and cede parts of an oil-producing region in southeastern New Mexico.
U.S. GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, won the district in 2020 by ousting a one-term Democrat.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in December that the new political boundaries provide a “reasonable baseline for competitive federal elections, in which no party or candidate can claim an unfair advantage.”
Legislature consultants say the new congressional map gives Democrats an advantage in all three districts to varying degrees, based on past voting behavior.
The Court of Appeal clears the way for 2 other executions
OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal appeals court has denied a request by two Oklahoma death row inmates to temporarily halt their upcoming lethal injections.
A three-judge panel at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver denied the inmates’ motion in a Jan. 24 ruling. The decision clears the way for the state to carry out the executions of Donald Grant, 46, on January 24. 27 years old and Gilbert Postelle, 35 years old, on February 17.
The two argued that the state’s current three-drug lethal injection protocol that uses midazolam as the first drug will put them at a constitutionally unacceptable risk of severe pain. But after a day-long hearing on the matter earlier this month, a federal judge in Oklahoma City determined the detainees were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their case and denied their request for a temporary stay. ‘execution.
The judge also determined that Grant and Postelle chose an alternate method of execution, firing squad, too late to be included in a separate lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol as unconstitutional.
Lawyers for the two detainees have filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court, urging the High Court to grant them a temporary stay of execution.
Grant was convicted and sentenced to death for killing two Del City Hotel employees during a 2001 robbery. Postelle received the death sentence for his role in the Memorial Day 2005 shooting deaths of four people in a house in southeast Oklahoma City.
Utility, Navajos partner on another solar plant
CAMERON — An Arizona utility has signed an agreement with the Navajo Nation to get solar power from a new facility on the reservation.
The Salt River Project and the Navajo Nation had previously partnered with two other solar installations in Kayenta that serve 28,500 homes and businesses on the reservation.
SRP and the tribe extended the agreement on January 20 on the initial Kayenta project which was due to expire. The entities also signed a power purchase agreement for a new facility in Cameron, a tribal community on the road to the eastern entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.
Tribal lawmakers approved the Cameron Solar project lease last March. The solar plant is expected to produce 200 megawatts of power for the Salt River project. About 400 people will be employed during construction, and Navajos will be given preference for the jobs.
Another solar plant is under construction near the Arizona-Utah border at Red Mesa. This will be owned by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and will provide power largely to associated municipal power systems in Utah.
The two Kayenta solar power plants together produce 55 megawatts of power and employ six people, the tribal utility said.
The Cameron Solar Plant is expected to generate $11 million in ground lease payments and $15 million in tax revenue for the tribe over 25 years.
Some revenue from the project will be used to connect more Navajo homes to the power grid and keep rates low for tribal customers, the tribal utility said.