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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Mayor

Air Date: Week of

Like other fast growing western cities Albuquerque has been slow to confront the thorny problems of urban sprawl. But, the city's newly-elected mayor Jim Baca says he's going to take this bull right by the horns. Mr. Baca made his name in politics 20 years ago, as New Mexico's liquor director. Since then he's engaged land-use and planning issues at the state and national levels. As Vicki Monks reports, wherever Jim Baca goes, controversy and critical thinking follow.


CURWOOD: Like other fast-growing western cities, Albuquerque has been slow to confront the thorny problems of urban sprawl. But the city's newly- elected mayor, Jim Baca, says he's going to take this bull right by the horns. Mr. Baca made his name in politics 20 years ago as New Mexico's Liquor Director. Since then he's engaged land use and planning issues at the state and national levels. As Vicki Monks reports, wherever Jim Baca goes, controversy and critical thinking follow.

(A door closes)

BACA: Jim Baca.

SENA: John Sena.

BACA: John, how are you doing? Hey, Connie, how are you doing? Good to see you.

MONKS: Even before Jim Baca takes the oath of office as Albuquerque's new mayor, he's been attending neighborhood meetings and getting an earful of complaints and requests. This group doesn't like the name the city council chose for a new community center.

BACA: Well, I'll look into it, but I'm not going to spend a whole lot of energy on it. I mean I just, we have some really big issues that I've got to get through with the council and I don't want to ...

MONKS: No, Jim Baca says he will not pick a fight with the city council on this one. It's classic Baca: blunt, to the point, some say abrasive. Though most people agree he's mellowed a bit in recent years.

SANDEROFF: Jim Baca has never been afraid to take stands on issues.

MONKS: Political analyst Brian Sanderoff, a pollster for the Albuquerque Journal, has known Mr. Baca since early in his political career.

SANDEROFF: Jim Baca, once he believes in something, takes a stand and makes lots of friends and lots of enemies.

MONKS: During 2 terms as New Mexico Land Commissioner in 1982 and 1990, Jim Baca raised grazing fees on state trust land, setting off a battle with ranchers. Next, he served a brief turbulent stint as Director of the Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton. The BLM manages 300 million acres of public land, and Mr. Baca wanted to raise fees for mining, oil drilling, and cattle grazing. He took to calling miners, ranchers, and loggers "the lords of yesterday," and he pushed for better protection of wildlife and sensitive habitat. Less than a year into the job, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt asked Mr. Baca to resign, saying he rubbed too many people the wrong way.

BACA: I was served up as a sacrifice to the western public land users. Bruce Babbitt was getting a lot of heat for the reforms we were trying to do.

MONKS: But now Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Baca find they are political allies on one of the most contentious issues the new mayor will face: the extension of Paseo Del Norte, a planned 6-lane highway that would cut through the Petroglyph National Monument, destroying ancient rock carvings on an escarpment sacred to Pueblo Indians. Developers who plan tens of thousands of new homes west of Petroglyph Monument insist the road is essential, and they've contributed generously to candidates who support pushing the highway through. In the mayor's race, only Jim Baca opposed the Paseo del Norte extension.

BACA: Maybe it helped me, maybe it didn't. It's hard to tell. But I think this road has become a symbol in many ways. Yeah, it's more than a road through a park. It's really about how we're going to grow in the future, who has the right to force a road through a park.

MONKS: A near-unanimous majority of the Albuquerque city council disagrees. They support the road, and they've been reluctant to put the brakes on Albuquerque's explosive growth. Now, New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici is sponsoring a bill in Congress to change the national monument boundaries so the highway can go through. Jim Baca.

BACA: Well, they won't do it during my term in office, let's put it that way. You know, the city council can try and override me, I'm sure we'll have a fight about it. But I think it's a moot point, because I don't think this thing's going to get out of Congress.

ROGERS: Jim Baca has a national reputation as an environmental advocate, and there's great concern about just how the Baca administration will treat planned development.

MONKS: Attorney Pat Rogers represents the Chamber of Commerce. Developers aren't happy about Mr. Baca. He's proposing growth boundaries. But the developers know they've got to deal with the new mayor somehow, and for now they're trying to minimize their differences.

ROGERS: I don't think that at any time ever did Jim Baca advertise himself as anti-growth, nor has the responsible development community ever suggested that they do not want to develop in a very environmentally sound way.

(Traffic sounds, yelling, horns)

MONKS: As in other western cities, Albuquerque's neighborhoods sprawl far across the desert floor. A few years ago, people here weren't much concerned about traffic, water shortages, or other urban headaches. But now, according to a city poll, a sizeable majority believes Albuquerque is growing too fast, and nearly half say quality of life is getting worse.

BACA: We have to do something to change the way we're doing, the way we're growing and how we're treating our natural resources. It's almost as if we're going to live up to our very limits of resources and then worry about it. Well, that's stupid. That's not doing our future generations any favors.

MONKS: What Jim Baca has in mind is the kind of development that's planned for Mesa del Sol, a 12,000-acre parcel of state land on Albuquerque's south side.


MONKS: Mr. Baca launched the Mesa del Sol project during his years as State Land Commissioner, a job that now belongs to Ray Powell.

POWELL: W'e're standing out on the top of the plateau of Mesa del Sol, surrounded by yuccas and pinon and juniper and native grasses, and looking to our east is Sandia Mountains, which in Spanish means The Watermelon Mountains. At sunset they're a bright pink oftentimes, just beautiful.

MONKS: We're pretty close to downtown here.

POWELL: You wouldn't believe it unless you turned your head and looked at the skyscrapers. We're about 3 miles from downtown.

MONKS: At Mesa del Sol, every home will be partly solar powered and heated. The whole project will be designed to conserve water, cutting individual water use by over 50%. Homes will be clustered in small villages with broad open spaces for wildlife corridors in between. Jobs and shopping will be centrally located to encourage walking and biking. Both Mr. Powell and Jim Baca are convinced Mesa del Sol will become the model for development in the arid west.

BACA: The stars have aligned, so we've really got a friend and someone that understands what we can do out here, and the real need to do it because, you know, water is our limiting factor for life in New Mexico.

MONKS: In the meantime, Jim Baca will have other, more routine challenges to meet.

MAN: I think that violence is one of the biggest issues, and what's bringing us all here tonight...

MONKS: At a recent forum on gang activity, Mr. Baca sat down to discuss crime prevention with residents of Paradise Hills, one of the neighborhoods that's pushed hardest for the Paseo del Norte road. They don't like Mr. Baca much up here because of his opposition to that road. Neighborhood activist Larry Weaver.

WEAVER: I'm sure there are places where we can find common ground, but right now, until he's willing to show that he's willing to sit down and see our side of this issue, we're going to, you know, battle over it.

MONKS: And so begins the term of Mayor Jim Baca, with the goal of reshaping Albuquerque's future and the certainty of conflict in getting there. For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks in Albuquerque.



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