Environmental news is a downer. I know. Despite trying to balance news about climate change and energy development with a love for wild places and muddy rivers, I’ve pretty much spent a decade of my life depressing readers. Lately, I’ve even been wondering how much I’ve contributed to the helplessness people feel about the environment.
So, today, I’m offering a crash course in how to stop being helpless.
I’m not talking about donating to an environmental group or buying something “green.” I will never suggest becoming involved in a political campaign. Rather, I urge New Mexicans to attend more meetings.
Federal, state and local agencies hold meetings all over the state. They also solicit comments about everything from oil and gas development and land use planning to wildlife management and air quality. For those of you who are sick of being feeble and discouraged, I have some suggestions.
More than a decade ago, the federal government bought a ranch in the Jemez Mountains and created the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The preserve has had its share of management snafus and budgetary problems. But it’s a stunning place to visit; scientists and archaeologists conduct research there, and it’s open on a limited basis to hunting and fishing. For one reason or another, everyone has a stake in those 89,000 acres.
This month, the Valles Caldera Trust released a plan to guide land use and visitor access that describes six alternatives for management and lays out the impacts of each. You can read the study at vallescaldera.gov, then comment on it before Aug. 14.
If you’ve happened to notice that southern New Mexico is the nation’s new nuclear hot spot, you might want to know about the plant International Isotopes, Inc. plans to build outside of Hobbs. Depleted uranium hexafluoride will be shipped to the “Fluorine Extraction Process and Depleted Uranium Deconversion Plant,” where workers will extract fluorine for commercial sale then dispose of the leftover depleted uranium.
Wouldn’t you like to know what’s going to happen there? Perhaps you have a few questions to ask. You don’t even have to drive to Hobbs for the June 28 meeting. Contact Cynthia Taylor at (404) 997-4480 or Cynthia.Taylor@nrc.gov. Let her know you’d like the teleconferencing information.
Nukes not your thing? OK, how about water?
The state is updating water quality standards for streams within the Upper Rio Grande Watershed where E. coli is a problem. There is a meeting on Thursday, June 28 from 6-8 pm at the Taos Convention Center, and the draft document is open for public comment until July 13. For more information from the state’s Water Quality Control Commission, visit nmenv.state.nm.us/wqcc/.
But don’t stop there. Each month, officials with the New Mexico Environment Department convene meetings that affect landscapes, rivers and skies in New Mexico. City council and county commission meetings are open to the public, as are Public Regulation Commission meetings. State game commissioners meet throughout the state, voting on issues like fishing rule changes and how many bears people can shoot each year. Agendas are online at wildlife.state.nm.us, or you can call 476-8008.
Whenever the US Environmental Protection Agency considers a new regulation or issues permits, the public is expected to be involved. The same goes for when the US Forest Service considers logging projects or off-road vehicle use and when the Bureau of Land Management leases lands for mining or drilling.
As an environmental reporter, I wade through a lot of bleak news. But the worst news is that so few people get involved in a public process that is pretty much one of the coolest things about living in the United States.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon—Nixon!—signed the National Environmental Policy Act. That law directs federal agencies to work in partnership with the public in addressing landscape degradation and balancing environmental, social and economic concerns. On its heels, Congress also passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. Each of these creates a role for the public.
For 10 years, I’ve held onto a sun-faded blue sticky note. It has tack holes in it and tape that has yellowed and hardened. Written on it is a quote from Ken Hechler, who as a freshman congressman in the 1960s wrote legislation capping the amount of coal dust allowed in mines. He was trying to protect workers from black lung disease.
“You are in politics, whether you like it or not,” he said. “If you sit it out on the sidelines, you are throwing your influence on the side of corruption, mismanagement and the forces of evil.”
That quote definitely applies to the public process. By ignoring the opportunities to participate, you’re throwing your influence on the side of corruption, mismanagement—and yes, sometimes even the forces of evil.