Prosperity means different things to different people

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By Sherry Robinson

Mora County is best known for being poor — poorest in the state and often among the poorest in the nation. Less known is the fact that it’s also beautiful, hugging the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristos and extending out into the High Plains.
Now it’s known, thanks to a recent Los Angeles Times story, for saying no to gas drilling. For an impoverished place like Mora, this is crazy, I thought at first. Then I looked again.
Mora’s decision and the long running controversy over uranium in western New Mexico are tough debates. Blame it on our historic dependence on natural resources. For many decades, logging, mining, oil and gas meant prosperity. In rural New Mexico, the sight of drill rigs — like construction cranes in the city — was reassuring.
When I showed up in Grants in 1975, uranium assured that everybody had a job, and when the last mine closed, locals hoped to see the day when the mines reopened.
Economists lectured us for years about our dependence on boom-and-bust industries, but minerals and hydrocarbons were a bird in the hand and everybody remembered hard times.
As people just say no, it’s understandable that those who’ve grown up in the industries and in the shadows of the rigs and pumpjacks and headframes would feel the rejection as a poke in the eye and a threat to the economy.
In April, the Mora County Commission passed an ordinance that forbids oil and natural gas development, citing the need to protect groundwater and the county’s right to make decisions about development. It was not a kneejerk reaction but instead a thought-out, conscious choice. Residents had already chosen an economic development plan based on sustainable agriculture, business development, and eco-tourism. A local growers’ cooperative this year will link farmers and organic food distributors. All of that requires water. Their land and water are their wealth.
I’ve said before in this column that a community should decide its own economic fate. If Carlsbad wants WIPP, if Hobbs wants uranium processing, it’s not for somebody in Santa Fe to interfere with that.
Which is why a move by legislators last winter was so questionable. Thirty Republican representatives asked the governor to approve capital outlay funding for local projects only if the local government would allow drilling. So Santa Fe would force drilling on unwilling communities. The governor wisely ignored them.
Apparently neighboring Colfax County, which had coal mines not so long ago, doesn’t mind the prospect of drilling. There, industry has an opportunity to show what a good neighbor it can be and to prove its technology won’t harm groundwater. Its actions will speak very loudly.
Uranium development in Cibola County is not so clear cut. You can’t blame some for wanting to revive their local economy, but you can’t blame Navajos, who suffered so greatly from earlier uranium booms, for being opposed. Old sites remain unremediated. Gallup legislators ask the state for help, the state says the federal government is responsible, and feds say they have no money for cleanup.
Something worth noting is that leaders of the mining opposition are young, educated Native Americans. For them, as with Mora residents, prosperity has another meaning.