Big Bend is ground zero for a thriving black market for native plants

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Retired Big Bend National Park biologist Raymond Skiles spent a lot of time hiking the desert and mountains in the 1,252-square-mile park during his tenure. One of his favorite routes followed a ridge near the Rio Grande, where ocotillo dot the rocky limestone and the high ground offers views of the river and Sierra del Carmen mountains. For years, he enjoyed spotting various cacti along the way, including living rock cacti, a small spineless plant that blends in with the rocks. But around 2006, something curious started happening.

“On a walk one evening, I noticed a small pit, maybe 6 inches deep and wide,” Skiles says. “Then another, and another. Then dozens over a few hundred yards. I realized I was no longer seeing any living rock plants. They were all gone. It

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To Reclaim Ancestral Land, All Native Hawaiians Need Is a $300,000 Mortgage and to Wait in Line for Decades

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This story was co-published with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Zalei Kamaile dreamed of owning a home.

The professional ukulele player worked long hours entertaining tourists on Oahu and saved her tips in a cookie jar. The money went into a modest house fund for her and her mother, but she knew that wouldn’t be enough. So in 1987, Kamaile, then 35, took the one step she considered her best shot at homeownership. She applied to a homesteading program for Native Hawaiians. Created by Congress in 1921, the program had a singular goal: return Hawaiians — especially impoverished ones — to their native lands.

Over the next two decades, Kamaile received

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