Congratulations! Environmentalists Kevin Bixby and Craig Fenske won election to the Doña Ana Soil & Water Conservation District board Tuesday. That's good news for progressives and moderates – and plants and wildlife.
Tuesday's win was one step in long process of change. The winning campaign gained impetus from popular concern sparked by the election of Donald Trump. The election matched strong opponents and two very different styles of campaigning.
Soil and water district boards exist to protect natural resources for all of us, and for wildlife. They do that elsewhere. Valencia's created a fine wildlife refuge near Belen. Here, the board has focused on assisting ranchers, promoting extremist ideology, and (recently) flood control. Containing floods is an important duty, but the board is also charged with preserving water, helping wildlife, and preventing or controlling soil erosion.
In the past, these were small elections. They're held at odd times. Most people ignore them – which may have suited board-members. (This year the Legislature passed a bill calling for consolidated elections to avoid such situations, but Governor Susanna Martinez vetoed it.) The DASWCD board eventually drew attention for its anti-government, anti-wildlife pronouncements and neglect of most of its duties, eliciting a resounding defeat in a 2014 referendum, when 85% of voters rejected the mill levy the district sought to finance its operations. DASWCD's opposition to the new national monument drew strong challengers in the 2015 board elections.
This week's election was noteworthy. It pitted Republican money against word-of-mouth and door-to-door canvassing by volunteers. One progressive group that provided some of those volunteers did not exist until after the 2016 election results. The Steve Pearce-related PAC Goal West financed extensive mailings, which may be why absentee ballots strongly favored real-estate developer Kent Thurston and incumbent board chairman Joe Delk. Right-wing money was a significant factor in electing Donald Trump and will play a major role in future elections. The energy and spirit of volunteers won't always be sufficient to counteract that.
It also pitted Bixby, founder and CEO of Southwest Environmental Center, against Delk, who says “environmental cartels” diminish Christians. Couldn't be a clearer contrast. Similarly in the Las Cruces “zone,” conservationist Fenske, a former extension agent, defeated Thurston. Some Delk/Thurston supporters say this was a popularity contest, but it felt like a battle over protecting of our natural resources for everyone. (Delk might be a fun guy. I hope to hear his band play some day. But I strongly preferred Bixby to him for a job focused on conserving water and other resources.)
Bixby and Fenske bring new skills to the Board. Both have extensive experience cooperating with federal, state, and local governments, not avoiding them. Both have experience fund-raising and grant-writing. The District has suffered from inadequate funding and misdirection. Bixby and Fenske can help right the board's course – and perhaps help bring in funds to allow the District to do real good for all of us.
Fenske called the win “a community effort.” Bixby thanked “everyone who came out and voted in this election. Democracy's not a spectator sport.” He added, “I look forward to helping all the people of the district--farmers, ranchers, city dwellers, young, old, conservative, liberal. We all have a stake in taking care of our land and water, and making sure we have a livable planet in the future.”
Going forward, let's hope: that DASWCD will bring its board-selection system into compliance with law; that it will be more open and transparent; and that a more varied mix of community members will learn to work collegially to better serve the public and the environment.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 7 June, 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website and, presently on KRWG's website. A spoken version runs on KRWG Wednesdays, I think at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., and possibly at other times.]
[With various people opining on what DASWCD is supposed to be doing, maybe I can help by reprinting a relevant New Mexico statute:
73-20-26. Legislative determination; purpose of act.
A. Considered and resolved by legislative determination, it is declared that:
(1) the land, waters and other natural resources are the basic physical assets of New Mexico, and their preservation and development are necessary to protect and promote the health and general welfare of the people of the state;
(2) the improper use of land and related natural resources, soil erosion and water loss result in economic waste in New Mexico through the deterioration of the state's natural resources; and
(3) appropriate corrective and conservation practices and programs must be encouraged and executed in New Mexico to conserve and develop beneficially the soil, water and other natural resources of the state.
B. It is declared to be the policy of the legislature and the purpose of the Soil and Water Conservation District Act [73-20-25 through 73-20-48 NMSA 1978] to:
(1) control and prevent soil erosion;
(2) prevent floodwater and sediment damage;
(3) further the conservation, development, beneficial application and proper disposal of water;
(4) promote the use of impounded water for recreation, propagation of fish and wildlife, irrigation and for urban and industrial needs; and
(5) by the application of these measures, conserve and develop the natural resources of the state, provide for flood control, preserve wildlife, protect the tax base and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the people of New Mexico. ]