Home is where the guilt is


Sitting here in the stingy shade of a pinon pine, a few hundred feet from a two-lane road on the outskirts of Santa Fe, I can almost picture the house that will soon be built here -- my house. It will be smallish but comfortable, faux adobe (a given in "the City Different"), with two bedrooms and an office. If I'm lucky, and none of the other houses in the new development block my view, I'll be able to sit in my backyard and gaze at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

My house will also be one of the greenest homes in all of Santa Fe, with energy-efficient everything, a xeriscaped lawn and a low-flow toilet. And as part of a 50-home subdivision being built by Homewise, it will be affordable, which, in increasingly tony Santa Fe, means under $300,000.

Watching the pinon jays flit back and forth among the pines and juniper, I daydream about how nice it will be to own the house I live in, for the first time in my life. I'm heady with visions of lounging in the hammock in my own backyard, painting the living room to match the desert sky, writing about the latest environmental controversy flaring up somewhere in the West while watching the jays through the window of my new home office.

If any jays are still here, that is. The new development, on land annexed from the county, will require clearing 15 acres of the pinon-juniper woodlands -- what ecologists call the "pygmy forest." Construction of my little eco-dreamhouse will mean destroying part of the very thing I came to Santa Fe for: its natural beauty.

Therein lies my conundrum. Finally, I have the means to buy a house in my newly adopted hometown -- the only place that's ever really felt like home to me. And not just any house -- a "green" house among the trees, on the quiet, pretty eastern side of town. But the building of even a green house will more than double my ecological footprint, expanding it from a size 6 to a size 13.

It's impossible to go through life without causing environmental damage, of course. Just eating or drinking water or getting from one place to another requires taking something from the natural world; even walking requires wearing shoes, which most likely were manufactured far, far away using all kinds of materials wrought from the earth.

But buying a brand-new house bulldozed from these woodlands would take those trade-offs to a whole new level. Yes, if I moved closer to the center of town I would be able to drive less, spewing fewer emissions from my 10-year-old Subaru. I'd be within biking distance of almost everything I need or want. But those pinon pines and juniper trees, and the cholla cactus and prickly pear and pinon jays and western kingbirds and coyotes that live among them, would be gone from this patch of earth forever. Once you build, there's no going back.

Over the past few years, huge swaths of pygmy forest on the fringes of Santa Fe have been cleared for subdivisions, mostly on the fast-growing south side of town. Pinon and juniper are so common here that few people seem to notice their disappearance. Pretty soon, you'll have to drive -- or bike -- far beyond town to find a juniper tree.

Right now, this land along Old Las Vegas Highway is still pygmy forest. Do I want to be a part of its destruction?

Most of my friends think I'm letting eco-guilt get the best of me. I've wanted to buy a house for a while, they point out, and this is my best chance to purchase an energy-efficient, water-sipping house within my very narrow price range. And even if I pass on the house, someone else will buy it -- quite possibly someone who will use more water, and more energy. The development is going forward no matter what, and those 15 acres will become a subdivision, whether I live in it or not. Perhaps, my friends say, my eco-consciousness will rub off on my new neighbors. Maybe everybody will start taking mini-showers and keeping the thermostat set at 58. Besides, with between 40 million and 60 million acres of pinon-juniper woodlands in the West, what's a loss of 15 acres in the grand scheme of things?

I can see their point. But somehow I don't think the pinon jays and western kingbirds do. I watch a bird pluck a juniper berry from among the waxy leaves and toss it down with a carefree tilt of the head. To the birds, this land is home, and there's nowhere else. And they were here first, after all. I don't want to be part of their forced relocation.

So I'll stay put, at least for now, in my tiny rented casita, where I'm looking forward to many a good night's sleep. I know I've made the right decision. But I also know that, despite my decision, the bulldozers are coming to the Old Las Vegas Highway, poised to fulfill someone else's American Dream.

April Reese is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She recently bought a 10-year-old house on the south side of town and is putting her IRS stimulus payment toward the cost of an energy-efficiency makeover.

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