Pajarito Conservation Alliance interview of Helen Milenski (L), candidate for Los Alamos County Council:
PCA: What do you believe makes Los Alamos County special?
Milenski: We were a manufactured community to begin with. Our history goes back to a specific point more recent than a lot of towns that you might find of the same size or the same feel.
If you go to the Midwest or the East Coast, they have roots that go way back. Ours go back to about the ’40s. You can trickle a little bit back into the boys’ ranch, and then the Native American history here on the plateau. As a founded community, we’re manufactured. That makes everything that comes out of our community, even up to the present time, fairly unique.
PCA: How should we grow while keeping Los Alamos County special?
Milenski: When I videoed myself — right before I went in and I signed up as a candidate — one of the statements that I made is that we are a small town, and we need to value the fact that we are a small town. We need to value what’s unique about us, instead of trying to promote us into a hybrid small town metropolis, we need to really accentuate what is good about us for the community.
PCA: How should we balance making Los Alamos County appeal to tourists versus serving the outdoor recreation interest of local citizens?
Milenski: I think they’re totally tied. The answer is intertwined. What we have already in Los Alamos has great appeal for tourism.
We have one of the greatest trail systems of a small town our size in the state, in my opinion. I hike and I love our trail system. I’m going on our trail system constantly. Not just our trails, but our open spaces are very crucially important to the appeal that we have, but one of the things that we’ve sometimes failed to concentrate on, is that those things are there and they’re a draw, but they’re there because of us and for us. They’re not primarily for tourism. They’re primarily there for the citizenry.
PCA: What is the appropriate level of public spending on restoration and conservation of county natural areas and open space?
Milenski: As a Libertarian, you can probably assume that I do favor a lot more public interest in the spending that would go towards these things. However, my background does lend itself in an opposing direction. I am the child of two park rangers. I grew up in my childhood in national parks, both Death Valley in California as well as Lehman Caves in Nevada.
I have a high appreciation for the natural space, natural habitat. Quite frankly, I think that we have done a poor, poor disservice in this community by trying to expand a variety of new and exciting engagements for a tourist population rather than updating and maintaining what we already have.
We have an amazing trail system. We have amazing parks and recreational facilities as-is, and that, in my opinion, is where we need to be spending FTEs [full-time equivalent labor]. We’ve expanded several other departments, in my opinion unnecessarily. Our parks and recreation should have had expansion in their FTEs, whereas some of the other areas shouldn’t have.
PCA: Are you familiar with the Open Space Plan that was approved in 2015?
Milenski: Yes, I am. I’m familiar with it in a general sense.
PCA: There were conservation parts in it. There’s been little to no progress on implementing those. I wonder if you could comment on that situation. What do you plan to do?
Milenski: If I could ask, what is the primary function that has been overlooked in your opinion?
PCA: There’s lots of pieces in the Open Space Plan, and conservation scattered throughout. There hasn’t been too much attention to any of the conservation parts.
Milenski: That goes back to my previous answer. We have under FTE’d. We have underutilized our FTEs to maintain what we already have. I think that is crucial to what you’re talking about as far as conservation.
If I am elected, one of my — I guess you would call it pet projects, all councilors seem to have those — one of my primary concerns is the fact that we’ve expanded for new things. We have not conserved and appropriately taken care of what we have.
It’s like a child going to the toy store and wanting new toys. Yet, they’re not taking care of what they have at home. If they’re not taking care of what they already have, they don’t deserve to have the new things until they can keep what they have from breaking. I think that we have been poor children, and we have been poor parents and poor stewards, in that regard. I’m a part of several social media groups, and I read constantly what’s going on.
We have an element here in the community that likes to be very destructive to our resources and our trails. We have, thankfully, dedicated people that are going and fixing those. Kudos to the concerned citizens that are going and doing that, but that is a resource that the county needs to steward as well. We have funding for that. That should be something that we utilize more frequently.
PCA: In addition to the open space, we also have various urban greenery within the townsite. This is Ashley Pond, this space right here [east of Fuller Lodge], trees planted along Central Avenue, and private yards. How should we promote and manage those resources?
Milenski: That is one place where they have put parks & rec FTEs to good use. The FTEs have been, I would say, very well used in these kinds of settings. These are attractions.
In the general space, I know that notices of violation have been issued against the county frequently in a variety of different areas in what would be considered easement areas that the county actually is responsible for. Because the FTEs are not maintaining those areas, they’re maintaining these.
Once again, it comes back to good fiscal stewardship and guidance. The way the county council works is they give guidance to the county manager, and I think that more guidance would definitely be appropriate in making sure that we have the resources to help make sure those areas are kept clean, clear, and useful.
As far as private yards go, that’s a private property issue. People are entitled to enjoy their private property to their fullest. Perhaps, there can be encouraging carrot rather than stick measures. There can be promotions. There can be garden promotions, yard promotions. There is a lot of that.
I know that [former county councilor] James Chrobocinski, whenever he was working, he spoke frequently of his work down in Corpus Christi, in the Keep America Beautiful Initiative and the garden groups down there.
They would even lend out their help for people who didn’t know how to do certain things with their yards. Didn’t know how to plant rose bushes, for example, and how to best do those things. There was a lot of cooperative initiative that could be encouraged through the county.
PCA: The county sometimes does construction projects that involve damaging or removing trees. What do you think the county should do when that happens?
Milenski: Sometimes, it’s inevitable. Sometimes, there is certain piping and plumbing that has to be cut out and structured.
However, I think that far too often we get very egotistical in construction. We want a clear space, a clean palette to work from. The problem becomes, we already have a resource, and we’re not recognizing it as a resource. A perfect example of that is that whole beautiful space down at White Rock, where they’re building those homes.
Some of that natural beauty could have been restored, established, maintained, and worked within their architectural and landscaping designs, rather than razing — and I mean that totally — they razed the entire area, down to a foot below the dirt, and took out the root structures and everything.
It was quite alarming to a lot of citizens, myself included, whenever we drove by.
One day, we had this beautiful pinyon natural habitat there, and the next day we had nothing but dirt and trucks. Now, once the homes go in, that’s going to require money to go in.
Trees actually have an economic value, and established trees are worth far more, economically. We’re talking not just a few dollars. We’re talking several hundred dollars for established trees. If they could’ve even kept five to ten percent of the natural pinyon trees, and kept it incorporated into their scope, it would’ve benefited them economically if they had thought that way.
That’s my personal approach. Often times, we don’t think that way, though, in construction.
PCA: How should we manage wildfire danger while maximizing access to local outdoor recreation opportunities?
Milenski: Whenever I was working on my degree at UNM-LA, my first year, I had a major term paper. I did a lot of research on the industrial complex of the firefighting scene, as well as the boundary area of urban development.
They call it the WUI, the Wildlife-Urban Interface. That is where our firefighting initiatives, and also with bears coming into the community, that’s the interface between where you and I want to live, and where nature intersects.
The thing about fire hazard here in Los Alamos is, we are very, very touchy about it. We see clouds just hanging over the mountain, it brings back PTSD moments for everyone, and having to evacuate. To this day, if there’s a fire anywhere within a 50-mile radius, everybody’s heart sinks.
We are especially concerned here with that WUI habitat that intersects, as well as coming into the community. Downtown area is fairly well-structured to be safe in the event of a wildfire approaching town — or we think so — but we’ve seen that fail in places like California. There’s a lot that we can do in support of what’s already being done.
A key component of that is communication. It comes down to communicating with the citizens, as to what is really important and why it’s important. Clearing out garbage, clearing out brush, clearing out dry scrub, these are things that are important.
I don’t necessarily think that they should be criminal charges to have, but I do think that the fire department should be pushing a lot more towards educating the public, about what is considered a fire hazard, especially on our perimeter areas.
PCA: How should we balance the water needs of local citizens with the water needs of wildlife and ecosystems?
Milenski: That touches on a subject that I’ve just recently been doing a lot of research on, which is our piping in Los Alamos. Our plumbing system, piping, a lot of people would be horrified to know the age and the condition of a lot of the pipes that are bringing our freshwater to our tap. A lot of these were put in way, way back in the day.
The freshwater system, we think of as just turning a tap and it’s there, but it doesn’t quite work that easily. We do compete for the water within the community. I’m not an expert in this, but I would definitely want to communicate with the experts.
We have brilliant minds in this community, scientific. A lot of them are geared for environmental conservancy. I would definitely want to be able to reach out to them. As a county councilor, if there was an issue that had that concern, I would want them to come, speak, and present so that I could learn.
That is a key element that, sometimes from the county council’s perspective, they feel that they already know and then they’re not trying to learn. That’s a failure on that part. I think that as a county councilor, you have to be willing to hear and learn from the people in your community, because you don’t always know best.
You can always learn what’s best if you’re open to it.
PCA: The next one is a yes or no question. Then I’ll have some follow-ups. Do you believe the climate change is real?
PCA: What is the cause of climate change?
Milenski: I’ve done a lot of reading on this because of my concern. Yes, I believe climate change is real. Three factors, they unfortunately create a perfect storm.
That’s what we’re seeing. Mankind is certainly a contributor. You cannot look at history and read just, circumstances of the Industrial Revolution, and not realize
that man has contributed to environmental change.
Here, in Los Alamos, we have this beautiful weather. We’re sitting outside on this beautiful day. It’s the first day of fall. Everything is gorgeous and beautiful, but there are thousands of acres a day being destroyed in Brazil, in the rainforest. Our environmental circumstances, our weather patterns, everything, are determined in great deal by other areas around the globe.
We’re not a bubble unto ourselves. We are part of everything else, so mankind has affected it. There is also natural upswings and downswings that span eons of time. We are coupled with mankind in the very brief history that we’ve been involved in and contributing to any kind of environmental change.
We’re also in a swing that amplifies that. Then you also can consider the fact that we have put the brakes in some cases and pulled back some of the environmental hazards that we have created.
If you look at the air quality in New York City in the late ’70s compared to today, we’ve made a dramatic change for the better because of certain structures of legislation. I would say, beyond just legislation, it’s been education and communication. People, average citizens having a greater understanding of what impacts their environment and their world, and wanting to keep it clean.
Nobody wants to live in a cesspool. Nobody wants to live in a dramatically harsh environment. We all want to live in best circumstances for our families and for ourselves. Whenever that becomes apparent, people will be acting. I just hope it’s not too late.
PCA: How should we respond at the local level?
Milenski: One of the knee-jerk reactions is to ban bags and do short-term measures as such. Unfortunately, recycling is one of those measures that everybody wants to do because we feel good when we do it, but if you actually study the process of recycling, there’s a lot of chemical waste that is produced.
Only certain products are truly recyclable. One of the things that concerns me greatly right now is the fact that we, in Los Alamos, are so concerned about plastics and not glass. Glass is an easy and clean recyclable that is beneficial all the way around. It does not contribute to toxic chemicals being released into the atmosphere, or being plunged into the ground soil and into the groundwater. Plastics can.
I think that shifting some of our feel-good initiatives to what’s actually going to be good initiatives with an intelligent approach, that is going to make a big difference in the long term.
Also, there’s a lot of things that we can do at a county level, like the waste treatment project and the drilling for the wells. Those things, they seem like they’re not ecologically impacting, but they have huge ramifications for the ecology, especially at a local level.
PCA: What distinguishes you from the other candidates on conservation issues and natural resource management?
Milenski: I’m not taking a knee-jerk approach to things. I want to think things through. I want to think things through in a way and a method that we look at the entire picture. We’re not looking at a tiny piece.
I have a feeling that we’ve lost the elevated, the global, the big view. We have a tendency to get caught up in the weeds on issues. I have the ability a lot to step back and say, “OK. How does this fit with everything else?” That’s my gift personally, my past as well. I’m from here. I graduated from high school here. I moved here when I was a teenager. I’ve lived elsewhere and then moved back. I’ve raised family here. I want to see what’s going to be best for this community, not just now but in the long run.
Things like the chromium plume, things like the fire hazards that we’ve faced.
These things impact me not as a county councilor. I would put that in italics. Not as a “county councilor” [air quotes], but they impact me as a citizen. They impact me crucially as a person that loves this town.
Everything from the trail system to the conservation issues, that has ramifications for me, for my children, for my grandchildren. That I think makes a distinguishing mark for me.
The fact that I’m willing to challenge the status quo. I’m willing to stand up and say no whenever it’s appropriate, and I’m willing to say yes. It doesn’t matter if I have four or five people standing behind me. I will stand on my own if I feel that it warrants standing up. I think that, above all else, distinguishes me as a good candidate, especially if I’m going to be speaking on anything regarding the environment.
Pajarito Conservation Alliance is a 501(c)4 non-profit community organization focusing on information, advocacy, and volunteer work to protect the ecosystems and outdoor experience of the Pajarito Plateau. We take action now and plan ahead for seven generations. Visit us online at https://pajarito.org.