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The man behind a New Mexico county's fracking ban

Last year Mora became the first county in the nation to permanently ban oil and gas development.

 

On a raw, bright winter day, John Olívas and his wife, Pam, hold court at the Hatchas Café in Mora, New Mexico. They seem to know everybody who comes in, chatting as they stamp snow off their boots and find seats. The street is lined with crumbling adobes and rusty pickups, and snowpacked pastures dotted with livestock and unused farm equipment stretch toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There's not a fast food drive-through or big-box store in sight.

Olívas, a lean and youthful 43, is a longtime hunting guide and more recent wilderness advocate who was elected to the Mora County Commission in 2010. He lives in the house his great-grandparents built 200 years ago; his family was among the original settlers of the Mora Land Grant in 1835, when it was still part of Mexico. By local standards, that's not very long ago; many residents still speak the archaic Spanish that the original settlers brought to these mountain villages in the early 1600s.

When I sit at his table, Olívas launches without preamble into a tirade against hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which involves shooting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand deep underground to release oil or natural gas trapped in layers of rock. He worries that fracking and other aspects of oil and gas development will use too much water and pollute the other resources that this agrarian Indo-Hispano community needs. "We grow our own food. We burn our own wood," he explains. "People come to Mora for the landscape and the clean water and the clean air."

In April 2013, Olívas – modest and soft-spoken but ready for a fight – led the charge to make his county the first in the U.S. to permanently ban corporations from fracking or otherwise developing oil and gas within its borders. "A lot of people asked, ‘Who in the heck is this small community up in northern New Mexico that's picking a fight with oil and gas?' " he says. As a matter of survival, local people have always prioritized conservation, and they resent outside corporations making money at their expense, he notes. During six months of meetings, residents made clear that they want to protect their land-based heritage. "If you allow industry to come into your community, it changes the dynamics of the culture. I don't think we're ready for that."

Though Olívas acknowledges being "a product of industry" (his folks worked in uranium mines in Grants, across the state), childhood summers with his grandparents gave him a strong connection to Mora. "I used to spend hours out at the Mora River or the pond with my brother. My fondest memory is lassoing suckers." As a teen, after moving permanently to Mora, he went bow-hunting for elk alone in the peaks of the Pecos Wilderness. "That's where I think I got into the naturalist part of me. You'd go up there and you'd build a fire, you'd have to get wood, you'd have to do all the essentials of life."

Olívas built a successful career as a hunting guide and eventually got a master's in environmental science. But he never considered himself an environmentalist, largely because in a state that is one-half Latino, its green movement is overwhelmingly white. In the late '90s, environmental activists often came off as villains in racially charged fights over public-lands grazing and community access to firewood. Some were hanged in effigy at the State Capitol.

That tension has subsided, but Olívas, who joined the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance as a community organizer in 2008, is still often the only Chicano in the room. He serves as a bridge to build support for land-protection efforts, such as the recently designated Río Grande del Norte National Monument, making significant inroads with centuries-old farming and ranching land-grant communities, while fostering deeper respect for the local land ethic among urban, largely white environmental groups. As the father of four, he's proud that "those landscapes will be protected for my grandchildren and their grandchildren."

Where Mora's fracking ban is concerned, the work is just beginning:  Four private landowners backed by oil and gas interests sued last November, followed by a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell in January, alleging violation of their constitutional rights. "We knew we were going to get sued," Olívas says, then repeats it with relish. Mora County plans to fight, with help from the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Given opponents' deeper pockets, that could mean five to seven years of wrangling, and the creation of some legal precedents. However it ends, he says, "I definitely think we left our mark on the world." Other communities that have adopted similar measures – Las Vegas, New Mexico, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and more – are watching.

Olívas remains surprisingly calm. "I'm not losing any sleep," he says, finishing his coffee. Still, I sense he'd rather be hunting in the mountains he loves.