Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of articles covering the Southwest County Commission Alliance meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 28. It covers only the public input portion of the session.
At the Southwest County Commission Alliance meeting Wednesday afternoon, public input and public discussion on new business took up most of the more than three-hour session. Those in opposition to agenda items expressed their anger, frustration and emotions through a fuzzy-sounding microphone, making it sometimes difficult to understand.
The first to speak in public input was Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance executive director. She said it was her understanding that a discussion would be held about the Arizona Water Settlements Act. She complained that it was "hard to be sure," because the agenda was not posted on the Grant County website nor on the Catron County website.
"At the last alliance meeting, Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz asked the commissioners to support projects the 'keep the water in New Mexico,'" Stevens said.
She said Diaz did not specify whether he supports diverting water from the Gila River or non-diversion alternatives. Stevens also pointed out the Catron County Commission Hugh B. McKeen at the same meeting, "correctly observed that ranchers and farmers would not be able to afford the AWSA water."
"The conservation community opposes a diversion on the Gila, many Tea Partiers recognize that a diversion would be a boondoggle, and farmers and ranchers would not be able to afford the water," Stevens said. "We all know that water flows uphill to money. You can bet that if a diversion is built, the water will go to the highest bidder and not to local residents. We could lose the Gila River and not even benefit from the water."
She urged alliance commissioners to "educate yourselves on the common-sense and cost-effective alternatives to dewatering the Gila River."
Stevens asked, because many would not have the chance to speak, "for a show of hands of people whosupport a free-flowing Gila River." With a few exceptions, the approximately 50 people in the audience raised their hands.
Walter "Ski" Szymanski, Silver City resident, read a brief statement supporting a free-flowing river.
The next speaker was Lorna Ruebelman, who said she was at the meeting "because I care passionately about the Gila." She alleged things were not going to get better on water, water quality and water quantity. "We cannot take water away and expect it not to impact the habitat, wildlife, plants, recreation and livelihoods."
Mike Skidmore of Keep Our Forests Open traveled from Truth or Consequences to tell the commissioners: "You are our last defense against the federal government and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The Wilderness Alliance supports the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument designation. I am opposed to it, although I support Congressman (Steve) Pearce's proposal that takes 2 percent of the land. The proposal including Desert Peaks will put 25 percent of Doña Ana County in the designation and take the land away from people who have lived there for generations. It is implementation of the United Nation's Agenda 21."
He asked the alliance to approve the letter to the Interstate Stream Commission to keep water allocated by the Arizona Water Settlements Act within southwest New Mexico.
"The NGOs and the federal government are violating their own laws to create open areas without any reason," Skidmore alleged. "I've been talking to National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management personnel. I am told they are not coordinated with, but are just being told what to do. It is going against the multi-use of public lands. You are our last line of defense against continuing encroachment of the federal government."
He was also in support of a resolution to support the National Sheriff's Association to prevent expansion of the National Forest law enforcement arm, because law enforcement was not part of the original charter for the USFS.
Marta Green said she wants a free-flowing river. "I want to know who you are," she said to the alliance members. She asked Chairman Gabriel Ramos if the issues on the alliance agenda have been voted on by the various commissions.
"Yes," Ramos replied, "but this is not a question-and-answer period."
She said it seemed like county business was being done by the alliance and then taken back to the county.
Ramos said sometimes items come up in the alliance meeting that are taken back to the commissions, and sometimes items on the alliance agenda have already been discussed and approved by the commissions.
Starr Belsky, Silver City business owner, suggested there might be more the alliance could do to improve communications "with various publics." She said a website might be a solution. "My husband and I, as business owners, are in favor of no diversionary activities on the Gila River. It is a draw for tourists and is a spiritual place as the last undammed river in New Mexico. " She asked but did not expect an answer to "Who are the stakeholders that stand to benefit?"
A young man, whose name was not understandable, said he came with concerns about the transparency of the alliance process. "I would like to see more public input. I belong to the NGOs in favor of closing the forest roads, keeping the river open and protecting the Organ Mountains. The world is changing rapidly. Climate change is a threat. We need a discussion on the catastrophic fires, which are not a coincidence. They are the result of climate change."
He continued: "I want government bodies to represent me. Resources will become scarce. I want a place to seek quiet and refuge from a world gone crazy. Those who come here also buy guns, so there is no polarity."
Brett Myrick, who described himself as a fifth generation New Mexican, a descendant of an early governor, and as a veteran who served his country for 10 years, said: "I believe the area will be better served to keep the river open and to close roads in the forest. Those who ranch or live around the forest can get special permits to go into the forest."
The same young man with the unintelligible name said he "was given a history of the alliance, with the stated purpose being to uphold the rights of citizens and protect the area's resources." He said it sounded reasonable to him, but it seems the alliance is "promoting us out of natural resources." He repeated things he had heard from others, and then said citizens asking for minutes cannot get return emails from Ramos.
Ramos interrupted and said minutes were available at the front office at 25 cents a page. "You need to get your facts straight."
The young man retorted that he had heard at least 10 items of misinformation already on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, "so you should get your facts straight."
He asked how many in the audience got information on the meeting from a public source. No hands were raised. He invited the alliance members to attend the Southwest New Mexico Green Chamber's economic forum "so you can learn about the growth of eco-tourism."
Stevens stepped forward again and said she had sent an email requesting the minutes from the last meeting. As of Nov. 1, and then again Nov. 8, she had received no response, so she talked to Grant County Manger Jon Paul Saari, who said he had discussed the issue with Ramos.
"Minutes are supposed to be offered under the Open Meetings Act," Stevens said. "Finally, Darr Shannon (the alliance secretary) sent me the minutes. I talked to Randy Hernandez, at the Grant County front office, and got the minutes for June, July and August, but no September, quote, because the county is not a repository of the meeting minutes, end quote. We are getting the run-around, because the meeting is mid-day, which makes it difficult for those with 9-5 jobs to attend. "
Richard McGuire, Catron County commissioner and alliance member, pointed out that minutes are not public until after they are approved.
Thomas Zitzmann, area resident, repeated what most had already said: "We need to save New Mexico's last wild, free-flowing river. I support non-diversion alternatives to meet New Mexico water needs forever."
Dan Lorimier, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter conservation coordinator, said he represents the chapter and many members who may not live in the area, but support a healthy Gila National Forest. "We support as stringent a travel management plan as reasonable. We believe in the over-arching importance of maintaining free-flowing rivers. We want to protect not only the Organ Mountains, but the Portrillos and Las Uvas."
Linda Pafford said she was hearing from some that ranchers could not get to their property if the travel management plan were to close roads. "I am concerned that this misinformation will be included in official documents. Your decisions are not be voted on by residents. I am confused about the purpose of your organization. It would seem good to have representation from across the large area, but I'm not understanding what is going on with this group, who you are representing and why."
Debaura James said she was representing a couple of different groups. She described her history of having left New York State from an area that had "been compromised. I came to a place that was wild. It changed me. I raised my children here. They appreciate wild things."
Through her position at Aldo Leopold High School, she has taken more than 200 students into the Gila Wilderness, often for the first time for some of them. "We have a treasure, and we need to keep it for future generations." James also serves on the Mayor's Climate Advisory Committee. She attended a conference in Tucson, where "Every scientist confirmed it is getting hotter and drier. To divert water may jeopardize our lives."
M.H. "Dutch" Salmon, who spends time on the Gila River fishing and hunting said he wants to keep it in its natural state.
Sarah Boyett, who has lived in the area for one-and-a-half years, said she moved from Montana near the Blackfoot River, which "has been fought over," and another tributary, which is polluted by mining.
"Past generations did things with water that they thought at the time were good and weren't," Boyett said. "Now dams are coming out. I ask this body as stewards of public trust: Do no harm. Consider non-diversion alternatives, so future generations don't have to redo what our generation thought was wise."
Ramos reiterated that the intent of the alliance is to keep the water in New Mexico, not continue to flow to Arizona and benefit others, but it should be used to benefit southwest New Mexico.
The rest of the meeting will be covered in future article(s).