This post is part of our 2018 general election interview series.
PCA: What do you believe makes Los Alamos County special?
Ryti: I think what makes the county special is really the natural environment. It’s a pretty unique area where we have quite a diversity. That’s what I like about, even at the Nature Center, they emphasize the vertical mile that we have within the county.
There aren’t a lot of other places where you have that with the vast caldera here. That’s one thing that makes it pretty special from the natural environment. Obviously, there’s other opinions about other aspects, but that’s something that appeals to me.
PCA: How should we grow while keeping Los Alamos County special?
Ryti: The question on growth is an interesting one. We’re severely constrained by the land area that’s developable in Los Alamos County.
I’ve heard people talk over the years about various open space areas, whether it’s the golf course or Rendija Canyon or the airport — which isn’t open space, it’s got another use — and talking about developing those areas. I don’t think I nor the community has support for development in those kind of areas.
What we’re left with is opportunities for redevelopment. If we can assure ourselves that we’re happy with the cleanup levels or we can find compatible land uses, we have land down DP Road.
We have some other areas in the downtown area up in Los Alamos, and in White Rock that are in need of redevelopment. We have some vacant properties. There are some properties on Longview. I support putting land that we’ve already disturbed as the first priority into consideration for redevelopment. In some cases, there may be places where we want to have new development, but we need to carefully consider that.
We need to understand if we have adequate resources all the way around. People would mention things like schools, too. It’s a system. If you add people, you’re going to need resources for them. If they have families, they need schools. People need water. We need to have electric power. We have a green energy goal.
That’s some of the things. I really favor redevelopment.
PCA: How should we balance making Los Alamos County appeal to tourists versus serving the outdoor recreation interests of local citizens?
Ryti: That’s another thing that makes it special. It’s having a small town character. If you really become a tourist destination, like some areas, it really does change the character. There’s a lot more traffic. We don’t know if that would ever happen here.
It becomes places that some people don’t want to go because they’re too busy, or they go during the low season. We don’t want to have the residents feel like they’re a second-tier citizen compared to people that are visiting.
Now we do have three national park units, and so I think we do want to attract people to visit them.
One thought I’ve had is about even things like parking. We have a bus system. If the bus system can help take people different places that they’re going that can alleviate some of the congestion on the roads. I think that there is a way to emphasize these attractions without negatively impacting people.
People that live here will also enjoy going to them. They won’t be going to them probably as frequently as outside visitors, but we need to definitely keep that in mind, in terms of either talking about development or tourism, specifically.
PCA: What’s the appropriate level of public spending on restoration and conservation of county natural areas and open space, and how should that money be spent?
Ryti: I’m in favor of taking a re-look. I know we look at our budget annually. I really am in favor of making sure that the budget reflects what we value as a community. I’m very much in favor of finding out well how much do people want to have restoration and spend appropriate money on that activity.
In some of the surveys, we’ve asked people about open space and how they feel about open space. There’s definitely a lot of interest in it. Like I said, the Rendija Canyon development makes no sense because of our interest in open space here.
I don’t have a specific number, but I would like to use some of the surveys that we do as one tool, plus people coming to meetings; town halls would be useful too. The surveys are nice because they can get a broader snapshot of the population. Not everybody has the time to go to a county council meeting or a board meeting.
My sense is that we probably should be spending more on that activity, and there is a variety of reasons why we would be spending more, but I would like to get public input.
PCA: Are you familiar with the open space plan that was approved in 2015?
PCA: That had various conservation parts throughout it, but those parts have had little to no progress on implementing them. I wonder if you could comment on that situation, and what do you plan to do?
Ryti: I think it’s similar to the funding issue. That’s the core issue there, I imagine, is that we don’t have an appropriate level of funding for that part of the county budget, and so we need to look at why we’re not spending money on that. Looking at the priorities, what’s the priority for the community?
If we can get funding and attention, and I guess some of these projects may be ongoing. It’s akin to me to just the buildings we have in the county. In addition to the natural areas, we have assets, one way of looking at them, and we need to make sure we’re maintaining them.
Those are existing assets that a lot of people enjoy in the community, and we need to look at them that way and say, how can we make sure these are around, and what kind of things do we need to do to make sure that we’re meeting goals? They have to become pretty specific.
I think that the County Council may have had other priorities recently too, with the gross receipts tax being one and some other things that have come up. But if we can actually work on positive things for the community like that, I think that everyone will be happier with the performance of the council. They’ll be happier that we’re actually getting things done.
PCA: In addition to our open space, Los Alamos also has various urban greenery within the town sites. For example, Ashley Pond, these trees right here [on the Fuller Lodge lawn], trees along Central Avenue, and also private yards. How should we promote and manage these resources?
Ryti: One thing that we have done, PEEC sponsored getting a community wildlife habitat designation. Just as I was driving here, there was a fawn walking across Diamond Drive, so we have to remember we live in wildlife habitat. That’s one way to promote it, is just to say, this is habitat that’s available.
It does provide something nicer to look at and provides habitat for the wildlife. We’re basically at the edge of the mountains here, at the Pajarito Plateau and the Jemez Mountains interface. That’s one reason why we have issues with bears, because we live in the mountains up here.
The habitat’s a little different in White Rock, but it’s similar. There is a lot of edge to the community, just the way we’re located. We have two bedroom community areas, and there is a lot of habitat surrounding us, and even our lab has a lot of buffer area. There is a lot of wildlife habitat and we have to look at it that way.
I think that a lot of people do want to promote wildlife habitat in their own yards, and we could be doing that. We do that to some extent on some of the county lands, but we could do more of that.
PCA: Sometimes, when the county is doing construction projects, they damage or remove trees. What should the county do in that case?
Ryti: When trees are removed — and it’s happened with a number of development projects — there has been cases where people tried to replace them. If you have to have development and trees will come down or be damaged, that you ought to have a program for planting trees and similar kinds of whether or not just trees but shrubs that we should try to have some habitat.
I know there is going be a balance between having protected space for fire danger and trees. Where we can, we could look at planting trees. You could have a program. That’s going to take a long time for the trees to come back.
My mother lived at the Oppenheimer Place Condos. What she didn’t realize, of course, when she lived there was there had been trees taken down to put down the complex. She was very upset when the senior center went in across the street after she had moved in and all the trees were removed. Not all of them but a lot of them were.
I think when we look at it, we can look at there’s a lot of county land where it’s going to be buffer, not be developed. We can look at tree planning efforts in some of those areas to replace what we’re going to be having to remove.
There’s going to be trees that are going to have to be removed for various reasons, so we should just understand that and have that as part of our program.
PCA: How should we manage wildfire danger while maximizing access to local outdoor recreation opportunities?
Ryti: The idea of creating a defensible space is important. One thing that I’m also concerned about with regard to wildfire is just making sure that wherever possible, we have alternate exits.
Also making sure we have as few cul-de-sacs as possible. I live on North Mesa. North Mesa really has no exit. Quemazon is similar. They’ve talked about trying to have some kind of alternate route out there that wouldn’t have to be a road that’s in place all the time.
We need to look at it from that perspective, too. Look at what we can do in just terms of maintaining space. I know after Cerro Grande, there was a lot of money for some thinning. That was a number of years ago. There are certain areas where they didn’t do much thinning. In particular, some of the very steep slopes didn’t get thinned. It’s just difficult to do, expensive.
We just need to look at those areas and say, “Unfortunately, some times of the year, instead of a forest, we have fuel”, and we see what the danger is. We’ve seen it throughout the West this last couple years with some pretty horrendous fires even coming into towns.
Even though it’s happened twice already, we evacuated twice, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen a third time. We need to have a defensible space.
I think that we can still allow people access to the natural environment, but there’s going to be times when we have to close the areas because of high fire danger. I think the public is generally understanding of that issue.
PCA: How should we balance the water needs of local citizens with the water needs of wildlife and ecosystems?
Ryti: Water is becoming more periodic in its presence, right? It’s becoming less. Some of the things that we depended upon in the past, monsoon seasons are getting shorter. The snowfall, snowpack is not as reliable as it was.
Wildlife regionally are actually suffering because of that. There’s some regional changes that are happening. In terms of managing the balance between what we use as citizens and what wildlife have, we need to have conservation of water as a goal.
I had heard an interesting idea about wastewater treatment plants. In particular, if we redesign and replace the White Rock plant, which is in the works, that you could design some of the treatment for wildlife.
That shouldn’t change the price very much. I would like to understand that maybe it doesn’t change it all. Maybe it can be just as cost-effective to have a little bit of areas. You can create habitat and use the habitat to do some of the treatment.
That was an interesting idea, I thought. That creates quite a mecca for wildlife to come in and use that, in particular birds. That’s even true with the large retention basin there behind Smith’s Marketplace. It’s become one of the hot spots for finding birds in the county. That wasn’t the intention of that, but you can look at the design of engineered features. We can do conservation in some design of engineered features to attract and provide water for wildlife.
PCA: The next one is a yes or no question. Then I’ll have some follow-ups. Do you believe that climate change is real?
PCA: What is the cause of climate change?
Ryti: The cause of climate change is primarily related to anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide.
PCA: How should we respond at the local level?
Ryti: We do have a goal for green energy. I think it’s in 2040 for the utilities department. That’s one thing. As part of that, I know some people have put up rooftop solar installations.
Like with anything else, there’s no free lunch, but that’s a pretty good option right now. It’s a pretty proven technology in terms of having it work. When the sun is not shining, you need to have batteries, and batteries come with their own set of baggage and potential environmental effects. The solar is a good option, and we have a customer during the day: the lab uses a lot of power. That’s actually a pretty good fit.
The only problem is in terms of when you reach a certain capacity. You’re going to have issues with your grid if there are too many people that are on solar. I think that we’re well short of that point now. We can promote solar.
We’re also investing in the small modular nuclear reactor project. We just have see if that one will make sense. We’ve invested in hydroelectric in the dams through our own utility. We have had a history of financing things like that. It’s just with nuclear power there are certain regulatory issues. Currently, the project isn’t well enough subscribed. They generate less waste, but there are still concerns about the waste disposal for those reactors as well.
I think that when you look at it, the solar seems like a pretty good option for Los Alamos County. We get a lot of sun. You can get grants potentially to put solar units on top of school buildings and the school buildings can get some income. That’s the other thing that people are really interested in supporting is the local schools, whether it’s the LA public schools or UNM-LA.
There are some things that we could do that actually would benefit many things and not just doing our part to stem the effects of climate change.
PCA: What distinguishes you from the other candidates on conservation issues and natural resource management?
Ryti: At some level, I don’t want to say anything negative about anybody else, but as far as I know most of the other candidates are fairly aware of the environmental issues. There has been a different level of interest in their professional careers perhaps and what they have been doing.
I’ve worked as an environmental scientist with a consulting company called Neptune and Company, and so it’s been our business to work in environmental issues. I probably know a little bit more about them than some people. There’s other people that are involved in some other aspects like in nuclear power generation, which I’m not an expert in.
I have a work history that’s been involved in environmental issues. It is one of my interests. It connects a lot of things, so I don’t think it’s a single issue to me.
Everything is connected. I don’t think that just looking at the environment is really just the environment. It’s how we fit into it and how we can better manage and have long-term stability.
I don’t know if I have anything else to say on that. Let people draw their own distinction with the other candidates.