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OUT WEST ROUNDUP | Aging lookout towers still key during fire season across the West

Author: Associated Press - August 3, 2018 - Updated: August 23, 2018

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In this Wednesday, July 18, 2018, photo, Tom VandeWater explains how he uses a device called the Osborne Fire-Finder to pinpoint the location of any smoke or fires he spots from the U.S. Forest Service Coolwater Fire Lookout in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests near Lowell, Idaho. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)In this Wednesday, July 18, 2018, photo, Tom VandeWater explains how he uses a device called the Osborne Fire-Finder to pinpoint the location of any smoke or fires he spots from the U.S. Forest Service Coolwater Fire Lookout in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests near Lowell, Idaho. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Idaho

Aging lookout towers still key during fire season across the West

BOISE, Idaho — Fire-lookout towers perched atop remote, craggy peaks across the U.S. West may seem like quaint reminders of an era before satellites, smartphones and jet-propelled air tankers.

Indeed, some of the structures are more than 100 years old. But with their lofty views and good old-fashioned human observation, fire lookouts play a crucial role in the nation’s front-line efforts to stop wildfires.

“The biggest piece of this puzzle is to keep fires small,” said Kassidy Kern, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman based in Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest. “And the way to do that is to have someone who is vigilant and scanning.”

The Forest Service saw the need for early detection following wildfires in 1910 in Idaho and adjacent states that merged, killing 87 people and torching 4,700 square miles.

The solution was fire lookouts, with the number peaking somewhere around 5,000 in the 1940s, many constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program that paid young, unemployed men during the Great Depression to plant trees, develop parks and build roads and other structures. Only about 400 lookouts remain, mostly in the West, after the Forest Service decided aircraft could replace them and destroyed many lookouts from the 1960s through 1980s rather than pay for needed repairs.

Using aircraft to spot wildfires, particularly after lightning storms, has become a significant part of the Forest Service’s firefighting efforts. But officials have also found the remaining lookouts spot the majority of forest wildfires in the areas they cover, giving firefighters crucial extra time to put out wildfires before they spread.

Those who staff the lookouts usually live in the rustic, one-room towers or in nearby cabins during fire season. Each tower is unique, but many are outfitted with a bed, a table and chairs and an outhouse. Some contain small kitchens and wood stoves.

New Mexico

Coal plant closure threatens jobs near Four Corners

FARMINGTON, New Mexico — Officials in northwestern New Mexico are grappling with the likely financial effects of a coal power plant closure near the Navajo Nation and in one of the country’s poorest states.

At a tense meeting with lawmakers last week, Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett said waiting for the generating station to close in the Four Corners region is “a ticking time bomb,” because of the looming financial crisis the closure would spark. The plant provides needed jobs and revenue, he said.

San Juan College President Toni Pendergrass said the closure will mean a loss of $2 million in property tax revenue to the college’s budget, as well as $300,000 in training contracts and $116,000 in scholarships. Those scholarships are provided by the companies that run the mine and generating station, he said.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico plans to close the San Juan plant within the next few years as it works to eliminate coal resources from its portfolio. The company already has shuttered two of the four units at the plant as part of a federal mandate to reduce haze-causing pollution.

Critics also have long complained that the San Juan Generating Station and the nearby Four Corners plant emit more pollution than any other source in North America, and the pollution degrades air and water resources throughout the San Juan Basin.

Montana

Official: Russian hackers targeted 2016 Montana election

HELENA, Montana — Montana’s top elections official said last week that Russian hackers unsuccessfully probed the state’s election systems for weaknesses in 2016, an acknowledgment that contradicts his staff’s previous comments that Montana was not among the 21 or more states targeted.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton wrote in his occasional newsletter that Russian agents tried to interfere with the 2016 elections and that “almost half the states (including Montana) were scanned for weaknesses in our elections systems.”

“While no votes were changed by the Russians in our 2016 election cycle, there was a clear and significant threat to our nation’s ability to conduct fair elections,” wrote Stapleton, a Republican.

Elections Director Dana Corson in March told The Associated Press that Montana was not among states targeted by hackers in 2016.

Stapleton told the AP there was no contradiction between his assessment and Corson’s because “scanning is not hacking” and that “it comes down to how you’re interpreting ‘targeted.'”

Stapleton said he could not provide details about the extent to which Russian hackers probed Montana’s elections systems, because Homeland Security officials have not fully disclosed those details to state officials.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia may attempt to disrupt U.S. elections again this year. The attempts to hack into the election systems of at least 21 states in 2016 did not succeed in manipulating any votes, but U.S. security agencies have said they did manage to gain access to the voter rolls in Illinois.

Montana governor sues over IRS policy on tax-exempt groups

HELENA, Montana — Montana’s governor and the state Department of Revenue filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of the Treasury last week over a recent decision to end the requirement that some tax-exempt groups disclose the identities of their major donors.

The lawsuit seeks to block policy changes that benefit social welfare, unions and business associations that spend millions of dollars on political ads.

“We’re coming up on the most momentous midterm election in a generation,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. “The IRS and the administration are sending absolutely the wrong message at the wrong time: Spend money to get corporate interests elected and we’ll work to cover your tracks.”

Attorney General Tim Fox, the state’s chief legal adviser and a Republican, wasn’t aware of the lawsuit.

“The attorney general first learned about the lawsuit on Twitter,” spokesman Eric Sell said. “Governor Bullock’s office only contacted us once the lawsuit was filed. Since the state’s chief legal officer was not consulted prior to the filing, this looks like a political stunt by someone not focused on the job he currently occupies.”

Bullock and the Revenue Department argue the policy change should be overturned because it was made without taking public comment and hurts states’ abilities to determine whether organizations should be given tax-exempt status because states rely on data from the IRS.

The IRS doesn’t need the donor information to effectively enforce tax law and can request it in the case of an audit, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

Kansas

ACLU attacks may help Kobach win GOP nod for Kansas governor

TOPEKA, Kansas — Conservative candidate Kris Kobach so relished criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union in the Kansas governor’s race that he waved the group’s mailer in the air before 250 supporters last week so they could groan in disapproval at the effort to prevent him from winning the Republican primary.

Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and sometime adviser to President Donald Trump, has made the ACLU a political foil for years as he has championed some of the toughest state voter identification and immigration policies in the nation. Now, he is hoping to ride the ACLU’s attacks to victory on Aug. 7 in a hard-fought primary with Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is seeking a full four years after filling out the remainder of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s term.

Kobach and his supporters have tweeted repeatedly about the ACLU’s actions, and in a fundraising email, Kobach’s campaign manager said the ACLU is opposing him because it wants “a weak governor who won’t challenge their liberal policies.”

Kobach said he believes the ACLU attacks help him in the Republican primary because of “how much conservatives and Republicans dislike them.”

The ACLU is spending about $200,000. It has sent about 22,000 mailers and made more than 10,000 phone calls to prospective voters — enough to influence a tight race.

The ACLU says it is not endorsing any candidates, only informing voters. Supporters of Colyer, who has the National Rifle Association’s formal endorsement, contend that Kobach’s attempt to tie the governor to the ACLU show he is losing.

“It smacks of desperation,” Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr said.

Associated Press

Associated Press