Kirk Siegler | WAMC

Kirk Siegler

Long viewed as a relative backwater agency, the Bureau of Land Management actually has enormous sway over Americans' everyday lives: the agency decides who gets to do what on about a tenth of all the land in the U.S., from where companies can drill to where people recreate.

Jordy Rossman, who was hiking recently at a popular BLM trailhead near Boise, Idaho, said, "It's pristine land, it's just untouched."

Rossman uses these lands all the time to hunt, fish and hike.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This time last year, amid the pandemic lockdown, Marissa Lovell's landlord offered to sell Lovell her current rental house in Boise, Idaho, for $256,000.

Lovell and her fiancé are first-time homebuyers — she's a freelance writer and publicist for a local music festival, and he's an arborist. So it took them until July to get all their paperwork together and loan secured. By then, her landlord had raised the asking price to $300,000. Today, one year later, it's for sale for almost $400,000.

There is anxiety along the picturesque, rolling wheat fields and pine forested draws of the Palouse in eastern Washington right now, where folks will tell you it looks and feels more like mid-July than the middle of May.

"Just a watch and see, [you] pray a lot," says Cindy LaMontagne. The dry winds have been blowing an unusual number of days, with little or no rain, which stirs up trauma for people like her who lost their homes in a fast moving range fire last Labor Day.

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, Idaho's unemployment rate has been hovering around 3%. In the capital city, Boise, for-hire signs are posted at grocery stores and restaurants — and at Pete Amador's home health care agency.

His latest ad even offers a thousand-dollar signing bonus. Amador could easily hire 50 more people right now, if they would apply. There is a long waitlist of elderly clients.

"People are calling hourly asking for help," he says.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Drive west 100 miles from Tucson, Ariz., across the rugged and mountainous Sonoran Desert, and Highway 86 starts getting more potholed and narrow as you get close to the old copper mining town of Ajo.

Here, off the historic Ajo Plaza with its ornate Spanish colonial buildings, a pair of white U.S. Border Patrol vans pulls into a dusty alley, already hot even on an early April afternoon.

With so much land under federal control in the West, it's long been said the secretary of the Interior has much more of a direct affect on most people's lives than the president. This experience could arguably be multiplied tenfold on reservations.

In her confirmation hearing earlier this year, Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico nodded to the fact that the department she now leads was historically used as a tool of oppression toward tribes.

In the summer of 2019, Molina Richards got a call that made her stomach sink. One of her best friend's teenage daughters had gone missing on the Rosebud Reservation.

It took police several days to organize a formal search party because they kept getting tips that she had been seen in various parts of the vast, 1,900-square-mile reservation in one of the most isolated parts of the lower 48 states.

"All the leads, they didn't find her," Richards said, choking back tears as she recalled the trauma of that July day.

Lila Kills In Sight lost her 81-year-old mother to COVID-19 on Nov. 23.

"I really don't know who to be mad at," she said. "Who do I take my frustration to, how do I deal with it?"

Kills In Sight, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, is the first to say she's not dealing with it well. She had been keeping her mom sheltered mostly in her home in the remote community of Spring Creek as the pandemic raged in South Dakota. But in September she broke her hip. Then in November she fell.

Not many American towns the size of Pinedale, population roughly 2,000, can boast that they have a $22 million aquatic center, with a beautiful lap pool, water slides, yoga rooms and a three-story climbing wall.

Then again, most rural towns this size probably haven't had the steady pipeline of tax revenue from natural gas pumped off nearby federal land to pay for it. The opening of the center, more than a decade ago, convinced its now director Amber Anderson to move back home after college in 2018 as a young professional.

In Washington state, federal aid is finally coming to a struggling farming community that was nearly decimated by a wildfire last Labor Day.

After 15 years working in western oil patches, Antonio Magana finally struck out on his own, starting a small oil and gas well servicing company.

Then the pandemic hit.

Demand tanked and production ground nearly to a halt here in Wyoming's Jonah Field. Magana and his skeleton staff are down to working just three days a week.

"Right now, not much going on, you know, we've been working little hours," Magana says. "A lot of people lost their jobs a month ago, a lot of people."

As the violent mob broke into the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, and livestreams showed pro-Trump insurrectionists defacing property and posing in the House Speaker's chair, here in the West, feelings of shock quickly faded to familiarity.

"There are years of warning signs," said Eric Ward of the Western States Center, which tracks extremism in Oregon and the West.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the small town of Oak Creek, Colo., — a three-hour drive from Denver, assuming the roads are clear — Gene Bracegirdle, a firefighter and EMT in training, is getting his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

"The fact that it is here is kind of mind-blowing, like, they care enough to reach out to the rural communities," Bracegirdle says.

It can feel like a parallel universe when you go from a city where kids are cooped up inside at home doing school virtually on their tablets to an isolated small town such as Bruneau, Idaho.

One afternoon this week, the bell had just rung and kids were emptying out of the small elementary school and into the snowy parking lot, almost as if it's 2019 and there is no pandemic.

No one appears to be wearing a mask, which is just fine with parents such as Cassandra Folkman.

"I don't make them wear 'em anywhere we go," Folkman says. "I don't wear one and they don't."

These last few days have been chaotic at the Nimiipuu Health Clinic on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho.

The director, Dr. R. Kim Hartwig, is trying to manage testing and treating patients for COVID- 19 and other diseases, while also racing to get a plan in place to distribute a vaccine.

"It's not something that we have a timeline [for], it's like, I got a call and was told, 'You're gonna get a vaccine in two weeks, get a plan together,' " she says.

President-elect Joe Biden will be taking over a country that is even more sharply divided on urban-rural lines. One of the biggest reasons why the divide got bigger in 2020 may be the coronavirus pandemic.

For conservatives such as Judy Burges, a longtime state legislator from rural Arizona, President Trump did as well as he could have managing the response to COVID-19. As she waited in line to vote this fall, Burges said the economic fallout has been worse in small towns dependent on small businesses.

Arizona, the Sun Belt state that produced Barry Goldwater and was a bedrock for a generation of Republicans and conservative-leaning snowbirds, appears to be voting Democratic in the presidential election for only the second time since 1948.

It used to be conventional wisdom that if you win Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County, you probably win Arizona.

But this is 2020 and all bets are off. President Trump and his campaign advisors apparently see a path to victory in Arizona without picking up the state's most populous county.

Arizona is in the news a lot these days.

It's a battleground state in the 2020 election, of course. Recent polls have shown former Vice President Joe Biden with a narrow lead and its Senate race between Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic challenger Mark Kelly is considered a toss up.

But Arizona also has the dubious mark as a state with one of the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the nation.

At first glance, the picturesque resort town of Sandpoint, Idaho, on the banks of Lake Pend Orielle can feel like an escape from all the troubles of 2020.

That is, until you talk to frontline workers who deal with the public in this mostly rural, pristine region of forests and beauty near the Canadian border.

At Bonner General Health, Dr. Morgan Morton recounts a patient she had the other day who wanted to wait until after November to schedule a needed procedure.

The Trump administration says it will comply, for now, with a federal court ruling that blocks William Perry Pendley from continuing to serve as the temporary head of the Bureau of Land Management.

The past seven months have been a big strain on families like Mandi Boren's.

The Borens are cattle ranchers on a remote slice of land near Idaho's Owyhee Mountains. They have four kids — ranging from a first grader to a sophomore in high school. When the lockdown first hit, Boren first thought it might be a good thing. Home schooling temporarily could be more efficient, plus there'd be more family time and help with the chores.

A federal judge in Montana has ousted President Trump's top public lands official.

The ruling blocks William Perry Pendley from continuing to serve as the temporary head of the Bureau of Land Management, a post he has held for more than a year.

The judge ruled in response to a lawsuit filed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock who argued it's illegal for Pendley to lead the agency because he had never been confirmed by the Senate.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Linda Oslin and her husband lost everything when the Camp Fire raced into their neighborhood in Paradise, Calif., in the fall of 2018.

She's in her 70s — he in his 80s — and they decided they didn't have it in them to try to rebuild. That could take years. So they found a place for sale out of the woods and farther down the mountain near Oroville, Calif., where they've started to rebuild their lives.

Except for one thing.

When firefighter Ahri Cornelius got the call that his Missoula, Mont., crew was deploying to central California, he had some reservations.

They'd be traveling from a rural state with a relatively low infection rate to California, a coronavirus hot spot. Cornelius also has a 3-year-old toddler back home with a preexisting lung condition.

"Coming down here and knowing that you're going to be around this many people in such a busy setting definitely stirred up quite a bit of anxiety for all of us," Cornelius said.

In front of City Hall, a crew shovels through debris, clearing a path to the front door. Bricks and broken glass from office buildings litter downtown. Gas station awnings have been flipped on their sides.

The best news in Lake Charles, La., in recent days: an announcement that 95% of the streets here are just now navigable, nearly a week after Hurricane Laura tore through the region.

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