Hank Dittmar, Surface Transportation Policy Project
Wednesday, 2 Jun 1999
LAS VEGAS, N.M. (NOT Nevada)
This past Memorial Day weekend was a beautiful one here in northeastern New Mexico. Late spring and early summer in the Sangre De Christo range can be windy and unpredictable, and indeed on the way home on Friday I had to take refuge under a tree when golf-ball-sized hail began to fall. Saturday was crystal clear and the temperature was in the seventies — perfect weather for the barbecue and campout planned that day.
We joined Arturo Sandoval, Ned Farquhar, and their families in the late afternoon at some property Arturo owns at 8,800 feet in the mountains above the village of Chacon, where Arturo’s grandfather established the El Rito Presbyterian Church in the early days of this century. Ned Farquhar is a long-time environmental activist who directs the smart growth group 1000 Friends of New Mexico and Arturo runs a consulting company called VOCES and serves on the 1000 Friends board. We watched the kids play, listened to Arturos 88-year-old dad reminisce about growing up in rural northern New Mexico, and ate carne asada, green chile stew, and roasted corn. Over dinner I learned that Arturo had been a VISTA volunteer in the area until he left to help Denis Hayes organize the first Earth Day among the Chicano community in 1970.
In 1970, I was in high school and Earth Day was a defining event. A few years ago, when cleaning out some boxes at my parents house, I came across an essay I’d written in 1970 about environmentalism. Not only was I struck by the fact that I was much smarter then, but also by how little some of my defining principles had changed in almost 30 years. The essay stressed the importance of grassroots activism and public education in bringing about change. Much has changed in the past thirty years, but not the central lesson — that we can win battles through court challenges and good science, but that lasting change will involve committed local action and public understanding.
One of the things that has evolved in the environmental movement in the past 30 years has been a professional class of environmentalists. We have gained much from this development, for environmental problems are technical, legal, and global, and we need individuals who can interact with societal structures at all those levels. But the development of environmental professionalism has opened up a big gulf between New York- and Washington, D.C.-based groups and committed citizens, and when I moved to Washington to take over STPP, I learned that local groups were concerned about national groups passing legislation, winning court victories, and then presuming that things had changed. In fact, legislative
and legal victories most often only provide the framework for implementation. Successful implementation requires action on the ground and that requires organizing, public education, political involvement, and resources.
And most often compromise and the ability to listen are at the top of the list, too. Arturo, Ned, Judith Espinosa of the National Wildlife Federation board and I are trying to put together a smart growth coalition for the state of New Mexico, and we want very much to create a coalition that embraces all the facets of the smart growth/sprawl issues: loss of habitat, farmland, and ranch land to development; the threat to traditional ways of life and local business from the Walmart-ing of rural America; abandonment and loss of economic opportunity in center cities, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color; and public health impacts of air pollution and water pollution from automobiles and industry.
Smart growth is often seen as a white, suburban issue, concerned mainly with open space at the edge of our cities. To get beyond this, we have to frame the issue properly and to do this we have to invite the right people to the table. And we have to evolve a new human-environment equation, recognizing that traditional people living on the land have environmental awareness of their own. Here in New Mexico, water is a key issue and environmental concerns about in-stream flow in the rivers have led to conflicts with tiny Spanish villages that irrigate their fields from centuries’ old acequias, or ditches. Rather than creating conflict with these small farmers and ranchers, it seems to me that the environmental community ought to propose common cause against the cities whose profligate water use and unrestricted development policies are leading to huge increases in water use. Helping to defend the water rights of the land grant villages seems to me a natural alliance. Hopefully, our coalition can help make these bridges. We think we’ve invited the right folks to join.
Today I’m going up to Denver to meet with leadership of the U.S. Conference of Mayors along with smart people from the Brookings Institute and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to talk about an urban agenda for the presidential election. In the process Ill be burning a lot of carbon in the air and on the ground — one of the great contradictions of trying to work globally and locally. More about that later.