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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Agenda 21 & you

Last summer, after spending a year in Germany, I paid a visit to my hometown of Durango, which is in La Plata County in southwestern Colorado. When I picked up the local rag, I was shocked to see several caustic letters to the editor regarding the county comprehensive planning process that had been going on for two years. Most alarming was what appeared to be a fairly widespread belief that the process had been hijacked by United Nations conspirators bent on implementing something called Agenda 21 via sustainability, bike paths and smart-growth.

Durango has always been a bit more progressive than other parts of the rural West, in part because it's a college town, but perhaps also because its reliance on the extractive industries has always been one step removed. That is, it wasn't ever a mining town or timber town, per se, but rather a support town for those industries. It hosted smelters and sawmills in the early days, and later became the place where the lawyers and doctors and other professionals that serviced the region liked to live.

My father was on the town board and served as Durango's mayor back in the early 1980s. During that time, a lot of pretty-serious-for-the-time planning initiatives were passed: a strict sign code, a public bus system, a new sewage treatment plant, and a blueprint, at least, for turning the once-industrial Animas River corridor into a greenway and the gem of the town. There was resistance: it was all part of the same Commie plot as fluoridizing the water, said the John Birchers, who had a strong enough influence back then to get various speakers to come speak at the local schools (I remember one guy eating uranium in front of the entire high school student body to prove that nuclear power's safe). But most of the initiatives passed, and the river corridor plan continues to be implemented today.

In the ensuing decades, those efforts helped Durango become a full-on amenity hub with a thriving New West economy. The rest of the county, meanwhile, has tried to keep a hold on its agricultural heritage -- not easy when baby boomers are willing to pay a pretty penny to build their retirement home in your alfalfa field -- while also grappling with impacts and benefits of significant oil and gas development that has been going on for decades.

For a long time there's been a bit of an imbalance between Durango and the county. Durango tends to be more liberal in its ways, the county more conservative. County folk often feel as if the Durangotangs are imposing their more urban beliefs on their rural counterparts. So when La Plata County set out to develop a comprehensive plan that would actually streamline development, while also hopefully preserving ag land and reducing sprawl, nobody thought that it would be easy. At the same time, what happened in the end came as a complete surprise: The plan, which cost $750,000 (consultant fees, staff time, etc.) was tossed into the wastebasket, so to speak. But also, a new movement had risen out of the process.

I call them the Agenders, and they are a new force to be reckoned with nationwide. They believe that everything from capping greenhouse emissions to bike paths to smart-growth, whether on the local or national level, are part of a United Nations plot to implement the sinister-sounding Agenda 21. I wrote about the phenomenon -- both at the La Plata County level and nationally -- for High Country News. The article got quite a bit of play (The Atlantic also did a big post on it).

Let me be clear: I don't think Agenda 21 fears were alone responsible for the collapse of the La Plata County comp plan. But I do believe that the united front that the Agenders ended up creating gave the planning commissioners -- many of whom obviously had an anti-planning bias (strangely enough) and a Tea Party leaning -- the confidence to strike down the plan without hesitation (and without listening to the majority of public voices in support of the plan).

Had the La Plata County plan been before the planning commission several months earlier (before some turnover had occurred on the commission, and before the Agenders rose to prominence on the national level) it might have had more success. Up almost to the bitter end, the plan had the support of at least two of the three county commissioners, Democrat Wally White and Republican Kellie Hotter. But they weren't the ones who had the final say.

One of the Agenders' scare ads.
Aside from the fact that what ended up being a moderate plan was shot down, what alarms me is that the Tea Party and this subset of the TPers has gained so much influence in my home county. In the past, whether the La Plata County voters chose Republicans or Democrats for local or national office, I always felt like they made the choice from a relatively pragmatic, non-ideological standpoint. Sure, there have always been those John Birchers (and the KKK even once had a strong presence in Bayfield, now the Agenders' main zone of influence), but they were always on the fringe, even when they were speaking to school kids.

Those days appear to be over. The disintegration started in 2006, when the La Plata County Republicans were taken over by extremists. It was bad enough to help drive state Rep. Mark Larson, a moderate who willingly reached across the aisle, out of politics. It even rubbed Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell the wrong way. Then the Tea Party came along and took the extremism even further, marginalizing any moderate Republicans that were left. This new extremism manifested itself in the evisceration of La Plata County's planning process and in the victory of Rick Santorum in the county and Colorado's GOP caucus earlier this month. 

The potential ripple effects are cause for worry. Reasonable Republicans like Hotter may feel the need to slide to the right in order to keep her party happy, thereby diminishing the chances that the county will ever tackle its planning dysfunction and sprawl. And as the extremists take over, it will harm the county's "swing" status politically, thereby diminishing its political power on a regional and national level.

We live in interesting times.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Land Art (or something like that)

Shiprock (geological formation, above) and San Juan Generating Station (industrial facility, below).

Google Earth/maps have changed the way we see our world. They show us violence and destruction where before we may have seen just a rock formation. They reveal strange beauty where before we may have only seen a pollution-belching coal-fired power plant that generates electricity for 1 million households.

Shiprock is a huge volcanic feature located in northwestern New Mexico. San Juan Generating Station and an associated coal mine lies about 24 miles east/northeast from Shiprock. 

It's just one of the things I've been thinking about lately.