By Mark Allison, New Mexico Wild Executive Director
Las Cruces Sun-News | June 14, 2020
After nearly three months in self-quarantine, people are taking tentative steps out. Some are venturing out to express outrage at the death of yet another black man by police and vigilantes. The man was George Floyd this time. Before that it was Ahmaud Arbery, Treyvon Martin … and so many more.
It is inescapable to observe that the communities that are being disproportionately ravaged by the pandemic are the same ones that have been the victims of persistent racism and racist policies, systems, and institutions: black communities certainly, Native Americans, and all people of color. We watch in heartbreak the devastation on the Navajo Nation, with the highest per capita infection rate in the country. Our hearts go out to everyone who has lost a loved one to the pandemic or to institutional violence.
It is human nature to try to find bright spots. People have become more aware of the wildlife in their neighborhoods. The planet itself has been able to take a deep breath, and we have all noticed cleaner waters and clearer skies. Chances are this is just a temporary respite, lasting only until we go back to doing what we were before … unless we don’t.
We have been reminded how essential our public lands and wilderness areas are, with some discovering this for the first time. Many places are seeing more visitation than ever. How do we get those visitors to become stewards?
While everyone should experience the beauty of nature, it is obvious that the infrastructure, enforcement and public education regarding how to appropriately behave on our public lands is dangerously inadequate.
The Trump administration has used our distraction to accelerate its dismantling of virtually every environmental rule, regulation and law dating back 50 years. The New York Times recently attempted to catalogue the rules being rolled back, identifying 98, but noted that the list was incomplete.
We’ve learned that the Bureau of Land Management was instructed to let oil and gas companies determine for themselves the royalty rates that they pay to the government for drilling on your public lands. BLM is also making public lands available to companies with “non-competitive leasing” that provides taxpayers with virtually zero financial benefit. And the precipitous fall in oil prices could leave New Mexico liable for billions of dollars in cleanup costs when companies go bankrupt.
It is all connected. The rise in global pandemics, including coronaviruses, is connected to poverty, social injustice, climate change, species extinction, reduced biodiversity, deforestation, and fragmented wilderness.
Perhaps we can we have a conversation about how to create new employment for struggling New Mexicans to both stimulate recovery and address the decades of deferred maintenance and backlogged projects on public lands? Let’s talk about investing in our land management agencies for enforcement and better coordination. Passing the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, supported by New Mexico’s entire federal delegation, would be a great start.
Let’s be better listeners, not just to the birds in our backyards, but also to one another. Let’s think about how conservationists can promote equity and help end racism.
It is up to all of us to make a choice not to go back to the way things were before. It wasn’t working for the planet or for New Mexico’s public lands, and it certainly wasn’t working for black men or Native Americans or other communities of color. It wasn’t working for small rural communities in New Mexico either. Can we create a new world that is more fair, equitable and sustainable?
Mark Allison is executive director of New Mexico Wild.
This guest column originally appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News.