James Robinson/Courtesy photo
Pajarito Conservation Alliance interview of James Robinson (D), candidate for Los Alamos County Council:
PCA: What do you believe makes Los Alamos County special?
Robinson: It’s our mix of nature and science, education, and just a small town feel. Even though we are bigger than what some might call a small town, we still are a very community-centered area, where we have a huge amount of people willing to go out and spend their days helping out others in the community. That gets us to be really special.
PCA: How should we grow while keeping Los Alamos County special?
Robinson: The key to growth is to bring new housing opportunities. That’s a hard challenge right now for this community since we are geographically challenged in that area. For someone like Albuquerque or Rio Rancho, they can just subdivide another area and build houses. We could utilize what’s here. A couple buildings, like the one behind us [Central Park Square], have a second floor that’s not utilized. Maybe, we could work with the property owner to turn that into apartments. So now we have apartments that overlook Fuller Lodge. That could be something that they’d probably charge a little bit more.
There’s other areas in town where the property owners might be able to rezone it from commercial to residential, like they did on Oppenheimer. They’re going to add on a third story onto their building, and revamp the second and third to be apartments, as opposed to it’s all now just commercial.
That’s one way we could go about it. The other is, as land becomes available, look at housing options that could help bring in more people.
PCA: How do you think we should balance making Los Alamos County appeal to tourists versus serving the outdoor recreation interests of local citizens?
Robinson: The outdoor recreation use of our citizens comes first, because it will be their stories that they will tell the tourists about our wonderful trails, our open space, and our climate.
We need to ensure that they’re having a good time and have primary use of all of our facilities. That way, when someone comes into town visiting our historical museum or Fuller Lodge or Ashley Pond, they get told our trails are the best in the region. Our open space is well-maintained. Our pool is awesome for if you want to do Olympic-style-type swims at one of the highest-located Olympic pools. Or even just our parks. Our parks are amazing. They’re great for kids young and old.
That would be a primary focus is, we got to keep it for the citizens. That way, they can tell the people who visit here what’s so special about them.
PCA: There’s the Open Space Plan approved in 2015. There’s been little to no progress on implementing the conservation parts of it. Can you comment on that situation, and what do you plan to do?
Robinson: I’m very disappointed in that. One of my good friends helped Craig Martin, who was managing open space at the time, work on that plan. It’s a very well-defined plan, and I think its execution is paramount, especially its conservation efforts. What we’re seeing is to fill budgetary holes in other areas. They keep cutting open space, and parks & rec as a whole, back a little more, back a little more, back a little more.
Now, we have Eric Peterson who is solely responsible for all of our trails and open space. I don’t even know if he has a part-time help anymore, but he’s also in the office writing grants and stuff.
What I would like to do is make sure that the open space, and parks & rec are funded to the point where we could start implementing those ideas. It really is, at this point, that the plan’s there, but we’re not allocating the resources necessary.
As a councilor, I would love to make sure that that area gets fully funded in the resources it needs, because that will be a draw for people to come visit our town, is our trails and our open space and our parks.
To not have resources available to maintain it or even do more than just basic maintenance is not acceptable in my opinion.
PCA: What is the appropriate level of public spending on restoration and conservation of county natural areas and open space?
Robinson: I can’t put an exact figure onto it. I don’t know at what point does something become overfunded to where they have way too much more money to spend than they can ever utilize. Then that opens up areas for frivolous spending, not that I would imagine our county employees would.
Behind infrastructure upgrades to our community, conservation is a key. Our county suffered two massive wildfires. We’re really starting to see the full force of the effects of the drought that’s hitting the Southwest. We got to be better at learning how to conserve our resources here and not allowing them to be used,
abused, or just thrown out.
With the yard-trimming roll-cart program, now we’re taking all that yard material that we would just pack up and send down to Rio Rancho to sit in the landfill for
the next few hundred years. Now we’re picking it up, taking it to our old sewage treatment plant to be ground up and given back to community in compost.
That’ll divert up to 14 percent of our waste stream from going off the hill. Food conservation is another big thing. The average American wastes about a quarter of the food they buy from the store. Reinforcing to buy only what you need is a hard one, because I like to buy the extra Oreo here and there.
Also, teaching those habits, that maybe you can conserve more food or if the county has the ability to, let’s invest in food diversion tactics as well. That’s down the line. That requires EPA and probably another waste truck.
I’m not quite sure of where to put a number on the funding. I would rely on those who are in that position to educate me on what the appropriate funding would be,and then it becomes my job to find in the budget, as councilor, the ability to make sure that they can achieve their goals. I don’t want to force them to not be able to achieve their goals because I can’t find the money.
I would rely on those experts or in-town experts who’ve been involved with the county for a long time, like Craig Martin, to educate me on what would be the appropriate amount of funding we need to give this to achieve those goals.
PCA: In addition to our open space, Los Alamos County also has various urban greenery within the townsite. We got Ashley Pond, trees planted along Central Avenue, private yards. How should we promote and manage these resources?
Robinson: I’m a firm believer that, especially for Ashley Pond and the more visible areas of our county, we need to make sure that we can keep the grasses green, or if it means that water resources aren’t available, xeriscape where we need to so that way we can conserve water.
There’s some really nice ways of xeriscaping now that are quite artwork more than yard. That’s one part to it. The other one is, we use a lot of gray water recycling for the watering of our parks and our golf course. Making sure those irrigation systems are up-to-date and repaired would ensure that the water that’s being recycled is being used effectively.
I don’t know how many times I drive by, and 9 times out of 10 one of these sprinklers over here at Ashley Pond is watering Central Avenue more than it’s watering the pond area. Going and making sure we’ve maintained that sprinkler system would help keep those areas beautiful.
Now, for private yards, that one gets difficult, because it is someone else’s yard. It is their property. There has to be a way to teach them that we do live in a high desert, so it is hard to maintain an East Coast-type lawn here.
There are water retention methods via rain barrels, or drought-resistant grasses that utilize much less water. One big thing I see coming down the road is a lot of these beautiful trees that have been here for generations are going to start hitting their age. We’re starting to see that with the effect of the drought, beetle kill, and age, a lot of our more sturdy trees are starting to get back. We need to start looking at what we can do with those trees to either replace them or make it more open fields.
Luckily, Central Avenue has young trees planted. I don’t know if they’re drought-resistant trees or not, so we’ll see, but the older trees are going to start becoming an issue, We’re going to have to address them, because we are prone to forest fires.
PCA: Related to that, sometimes the county damages or removes trees during construction projects. What should the county do when that happens?
Robinson: If possible, I’d love for them to plant a new tree in the place of the old one, especially if it was an old juniper that’s been here forever or an old pine. I’d love to see a new tree planted to take its place in an area that’s available for it.
Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t avoid, in a new construction project, bringing down a tree. It’s a hard decision to make for those people, because most people don’t want to just rip down trees just for a building. Sometimes, in order to get the building you need or want, you have to.
I’d love to see another tree be planted in its place, or to make it so that building has as little impact on the environment as possible. Have it have passive solar like our Eco Station, that doesn’t utilize heating and cooling systems as a traditional house does. It has a system installed to where the heat from the solar panels heats concrete, and that keeps it relatively around 65 degrees, year-round.
If we have to sacrifice a tree, I’d love the building to be as environmentally sustainable as it possibly can, to almost honor the stuff we had to destroy to build it.
PCA: How should we manage wildfire danger while maximizing access to local outdoor recreation opportunities?
Robinson: That one’s a hard one. This last summer, almost all forests were closed because of the fire danger. I think that was a wise move on everyone, because at any one point, the Jemez Ranger District up in the mountains has to put out upwards of one to two hundred abandoned campfires a weekend, from the people coming into town. That was hard when the county closed our open space. That was still a wise move, because some of our most vulnerable areas left from the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas, are particularly close to population areas. I think Chief Troy and Eric Peterson of the county made a wise decision to close open space.
Going forward, what we’re going to need to do, and I think the fire department’s already working on this, is a comprehensive thinning project. Because our areas in town, some of them are overgrown with trees, and that presents a very dangerous fire hazard. In fact, Chief Troy once admitted to me, that if a fire got in certain places in Los Alamos Canyon, his first priority would be to get everyone out near the Oppenheimer area — this is where he was talking — get everyone out, and then just hold the line at Trinity, because it’d be far too dangerous for him and his firefighters to get in there, to fight those fires, because it’s so condensed with housing and with flora, that the BTUs would just be too high.
A comprehensive thinning area, with environmental science backed by LANL, the EPA, local experts, would provide us the ability to reduce the fire danger. The part where, maybe, we don’t have to go about a full closure, if it looks like it’s going to be another dry year.
PCA: How should we balance the water needs of local citizens, with the water needs of wildlife and ecosystems?
Robinson: We’re seeing a lot of wildlife come into town now. I’m guilty of it as well. We love our fountains, our ponds. I love the photos that we get of the bears just lowering themselves into ponds on Barranca Mesa, or the foxes, and all of them utilizing the PEEC pond.
Water’s a hard, hard area for everyone up on this plateau. That’s why I’d truly like to see that water retention-type systems, that you see in areas out in Australia or even out in Arizona, start being utilized to where we don’t have to keep drawing off of local resources, such as the river or the aquifer, when we can get to it in a [cistern].
We can water our plants, our trees, our flowers, using water that flows off our roof that would’ve either just evaporated on our streets, or condensed in a puddle and just evaporated out. This is going to be hard.
I always encourage people, don’t feed wildlife, but give wildlife a place to get a drink of water. A bear won’t look at a body of water or something it will defend territorial-wise. It will look at food like that, but it won’t look at water like that.
So, if you have the ability to throw a pond out there, because that helps the insects.
That helps the birds. That helps the bears. That, to me, is a way we could help wildlife with the water that we’re using, since it would be coming off of our house water, anyway.
PCA: Next is a yes or no question, and then I’ll have some follow-ups. Do you believe that climate change is real?
PCA: What is the cause of climate change?
Robinson: I definitely know that human development and building our economy has contributed to climate change. Our planet itself has cycles of climate change, and the fact that we feel that this area and climate of the last 10,000 years is ideal for this planet, is a little arrogant. The planet has been hotter. It’s been cooler. It’s been everything in between. That being said, I do think humans have had an impact on how this planet’s ecosystems are functioning. We’ve ripped down forests. We’ve stopped bodies of water for flood control. We’ve put carbon into the air that would not necessarily have been there because it was in the ground, in coal. I do believe that humans on this planet have drastically changed the planet’s climate.
I’m not quite sure what the outcome of that might be. I’m a firm believer that Mother Nature is the ultimate reset button. Sooner or later, we’re going to start seeing either massive shifts in weather, more than we are now, or could be more of volcanic activity might help us cool off. I do believe climate change is a thing. It’s now up to us to protect the environment we have left, and to adapt to what the new environment might be.
PCA: How should we respond at the local level?
Robinson: At the local level, the best response we can do to climate change is to become as sustainable as possible. I think Los Alamos is on a path to being that way. I still wonder about the lush green grasses in the high desert environment. Los Alamos, at one point, was known for its green fields, when they would raise sheep up here.
We need to start looking back at what Los Alamos was prior to the Manhattan Project and the city, and see what we can do to return our environment back to that.
Thinning projects to bring the Jemez Mountains back to what it was before what it is now, or prior to Cerro Grande, where it was really overgrown. Returning it to, maybe, a hundred ponderosas in an acre, as opposed to fifty, sixty thousand ponderosas in an acre.
Water conservation and reuse, the zero-waste efforts of the Los Alamos Environmental Sustainability Board, which I’m on, are good methods to start changing our culture mind, at how we use the resources and how much we kinda just throw away.
That all starts at a local level and really starts with educating the next generation, because it will be my generation that will be having these effects. It will really be the next generations that will feel the full force of climate change. To me, our mission here in Los Alamos should be to protect what we got and teach those
methods to maintain it.
I think Los Alamos is primed for that since we have the science to back it up, we have the ingenuity of the town, and we have the passion to keep our community beautiful.
PCA: What distinguishes you from the other candidates on conservation issues and natural resource management?
Robinson: I’m one of the only candidates, if not the only candidate, that’s had a direct line in the human effect on, at least, wildlife. In my free time, when I’m not working or running for office, I help Dr. Kathleen Ramsay down in Espanola with her wildlife rehab.
What we’re seeing now is just scaring me because it’s not the emaciated bear because his forest was destroyed by a fire. It’s not the cougar that got hit while trying to cross one of our busiest highways. We’re seeing starving birds because there’s no water for rodents or insects.
That, to me, is the precursor. We’re starting to see food chain breaking down.
That’s going to have a tremendous effect on everything. My experience with that, with wildlife rehab and getting introduced in that, separates me from other candidates, because I’ve seen what the effects of climate change are on something that you can hold in your hand or watch eat and know it’s the first drink of water it’s probably had in days. That separates me. I’ve also been really a big proponent of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. We’ve actually partnered with them for the local Bear Festival and Earth Day events.
I’ve been on the Environmental Sustainability Board, where we brought the yard-trimming roll-carts to Los Alamos in an effort to divert more of that material to stay in Los Alamos. It’s been a passion of mine to learn more about the upcoming technologies that can make Los Alamos truly a smart town with photovoltaic and batteries.
There’s a really cool tree in France I’d love to bring to Los Alamos because it’s a giant wind turbine, but its leaves are just little wind turbines. It generates power on less than four-mile-an-hour winds. We have our solar tree; that wind tree would be a great addition to our town.
I think in that respect, I’m bringing a different generation’s thinking of how to approach conservationism, because I am the youngest candidate for the council.
Despite that some people might have more years here, I’m the only candidate that was born here. Los Alamos has been my town forever and has been with my family since my mom was born here in ’63.
I have a unique interest in keeping Los Alamos green, and keeping it beautiful, and making it a truly 21st century community, to where we use only what we need and we impact as little as possible.
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.