This post is part of our 2018 general election interview series.
PCA: What do you believe makes Los Alamos County special?
Burke: I’ve lived here for 20 years this time around, and it’s the people that make it special. We have such a mix of people that have worked here for long periods of time and short periods of time.
The sense of community and that small town feel. Everybody knows everybody. I remember, when I used to live here back in the late ’80s, you weren’t afraid to leave your doors open.
You saw somebody having trouble and you always stepped up. You usually knew who you were talking to. Then, when I worked here as a reserve police officer, one of the greatest punishments that we could deal out to teenage offenders was to call their parents.
It’s that small-town feel, and yet the things that go on here — the science and the natural splendor that we have — they’re incredible because you’re not going to get them anywhere else. The people that work at the lab are the ones that teach at the university. Your instructor is somebody who does this for a living. All these things go into making Los Alamos such a tremendous community.
PCA: How should we grow while keeping Los Alamos County special?
Burke: “Grow” is an odd perspective on Los Alamos. We have physical constraints as far as available lands and housing. There’s a lot of talk about doing tourism and promoting it, spending money, and building things to try and bring tourists here, but Los Alamos itself as a tourism destination, in and of itself, I don’t think makes sense.
We should recognize that Los Alamos is, for all intents and purposes, a company town. We have the lab and, beyond that, where we’re surrounded by some national forests and national parks that I think the tourists are coming to see. I think, from that perspective, we are a support entity.
I don’t think it makes sense for us to spend lots of money, lots of taxpayer dollars to try and drive tourism to Los Alamos as a destination. What we should be doing is responding to the demand. The old “Field of Dreams” idea — “If you build it, they will come” — I don’t subscribe to that.
We need to understand from the Visitor’s Center, the Chamber of Commerce, the local businesses, and the hotels and say, “What do you see people doing? What are they asking for? Do we want to provide that? Are there ways that we can spend our money such that it benefits the community even if it doesn’t, in the long run, provide a draw for the tourists?”
If we say we want to create hiking trails, OK, hiking trails are good. We’ve got people that want to do that. With proper planning and the ability to do maintenance on them, I think those are good for the community, and if we have outside people that want to come here and enjoy what we have, I think we should support that. Then we take those tourism dollars and go ahead put those towards supporting that infrastructure.
PCA: How should we balance making Los Alamos County appeal to tourists versus serving the outdoor recreation interests of local citizens?
Burke: I think the interest of the local population should come first, because we’re the ones that pay for it. From the perspective of the voters and the taxpayers, it comes out of our pocket first. I’m bothered by some of the ideas that the county government puts forth as being tourism draws because, one, a lot of it is unsubstantiated.
Say, “Well, you know, let’s spend a million dollars because it’ll bring the tourists,” and we go into these large projects without a whole lot of public approval, community approval, and then we get another bill for it. The balance is, if our county government is proposing things that it thinks will benefit the local community, then they’ll have the local community feedback. The community will say, “Yeah. We think we should spend dollars on this.” If it turns into something that brings the tourists in, then so much the better.
But, to wantonly spend huge amounts of dollars in the hopes of bringing the tourists? Take a look at the Larry Walkup Center. The idea was, we’re going to have this high altitude indoor swimming pool with national draw and the Olympic teams are going to come here and train.
We have a community pool. We have a very large community pool. It is to the benefit of the community in a preponderance. The greatest users of it are going to be the local ones and the local high school and the swimmers. I know we have a lot of swimmers in the community, but we’re the ones that use it. Really, we should have a lot more of the say in the decisions that are made on how we spend the money and the things that we build. So local community first, tourism second.
PCA: What is the appropriate level of public spending on restoration and conservation of county natural areas and open space? How should this money be spent?
Burke: I get out occasionally and hike the trails. I did the one, not all of them. I wear a hat because I don’t want to get my head cooked. I’ve done the trails down from behind the pool out and about towards the bridge that’s out there and back. Those seem to be in good condition.
I walk the rim trail from the co-op back up to Smith’s, and that’s in good repair. What I would probably say, and I know it’s going to sound dismissive, but I think those trails that are more popular and get used a lot, they’re going to experience more wear and tear outside of natural erosion. I think we need to keep them available for the community.
It goes back to the other question. That is, the money that we should be spending should be for the benefit of the community. Now, blazing new trails? If the open spaces folks in the Parks & Rec Department go, “Oh, yeah. If we branch out, if we start cutting trails and it’ll bring us tourists,” I’m going to say no.
I think we should maintain what we have. We should spend the money on keeping up what we have, our infrastructure, essentially. Focus on the pieces that the community uses, and certainly take care of the ones that are getting hit by natural destructive forces on them to keep them available, but keep them in repair.
That’s where I think we should be spending our money. Prioritize our spending on the things that people are using, and not cutting new stuff that we think will draw tourists.
PCA: Are you familiar with the open space plan that was approved in 2015?
PCA: This was a plan with “Here’s what our open space is. Here’s how we should manage it.” Stuff like that. In that plan, there were a number of conservation measures, but there has been little to no progress on implementing those conservation measures. Do you have any comments on that situation? If so, what do you plan to do in that regard?
Burke: If we have a plan, and the only open space topic that I’ve heard of was the county talking about its commercial district here in downtown. That was to get the cars off of the space, get them off the road, or get rid of the roads between the library, and again, all the way at the other end, down to the old Smith’s. What they wanted to do is make that a walking mall.
That was the only open spaces thing that I had heard of. If the county had proposed a plan and the county council had approved it, I would say, one, “Did we have enough public input to agree with the plan?” because there are a lot of plans that come up that the public has very little involvement in. It’s our powers that be that are making decision for us autonomously.
But if we have a plan, we should look at the plan, and if it’s not being implemented, we need to find out if it still meets our needs. We need to put it back out in front of the voters, if it’s not being addressed, and say, “Should we be doing these things?”
If they say, “Yeah, we should,” then, yeah, we should be putting money at it. If they say, “No, we need to change our priorities,” or, “These are more important things to us now,” then we need to revisit the plan and change it.
One of my biggest concerns in this whole election and actually why I’m running for office is because there’s a huge disconnect between the county government, the county council, and the voters, and the taxpayers.
When they come up with these plans, a lot of them were done in vacuums, where they have survey groups of a hundred people that tell them, “Yeah, these are the things that we should be doing,” and then the county makes gigantic decisions based on those hundred people, and not on what the bulk of the population wants.
I think we need to get it back in front of the voters if it isn’t being addressed and find out. Is this still a priority?
PCA: In addition to the open space, Los Alamos has various urban greenery within the two town sites. Examples would be Ashley Pond, right here [on Fuller Lodge lawn], trees planted along Central Avenue, but also private yards. How should we promote and manage these resources?
Burke: There are some standard answers for it. I look around Fuller Lodge, and the trees are great, and the activities that they have here during the year are fantastic. I love the old trees, the large trees that give us all the shade.
They’re going to take resources. They have to be watered, they’re not going to survive here on their own. They’ve got to be trimmed and taken care of, and the pests kept off of them. There’s going to be a cost for that, but I see the old trees that we have as being tremendous assets.
The new trees, when they widened Central, it was like, “Cut everything down and plant new ones,” I was like, “I don’t think that makes sense. Can you work around it? You’ve got these bump-outs for bicycles, can we have the bump-out where the tree is, and not have to uproot this stuff?”
I enjoy seeing this. I talk to people that live in Santa Fe and they say, “Nothing in Santa Fe grows higher than about four feet.” This is a great asset for us, and a tremendous contributor to the visual appearance of the community.
On private property, one, we have to respect the owners of the property. It’s theirs. We would like them to maintain them. The best that we can do, as far as having folks water them, and maintain them, and clean up, and rake, and whatnot, is communicate the risks that they have to their houses if they don’t take care of these things.
There’s a giant apricot tree in front of my place that you have to duck to get past it. Maybe just me and the other owners of the properties that are there, just haven’t said, “How do we trim this thing, so that it’s really where we want it to be?”
I think we should spend money on maintaining the old trees that we have. Now that we have the new ones, we can’t abandon them, but I think we need to consider these things before we do them, instead of doing them and go, “Oh, how do we look backwards at fixing them?”
Again, private property, we can talk to the owners, make recommendations, and help them get there, but, in the end, it’s theirs.
PCA: You talked a little bit about the Central Avenue project. What should the county do when it damages or removes trees during construction projects?
Burke: Sometimes, it’s convenient to damage something during a construction project, because it gives you the opportunity to say, “Well, it’s beyond repair, we may as well take it out. It was in the plan for us to keep it, but now, obviously, we can’t, so we’re just gonna have to get rid of it.”
I see that in so many of the construction projects that the county does. On people’s private property, they’re out there to fix the pipes or whatnot, and then they’re damaging private property, or they’re damaging landscaping. I think it’s convenient. It’s a lack of consideration and a lack of concern.
I really hold the county government accountable for it. They had this tree-trimming thing going on recently, where they’re supposed to be trimming trees back, and they were cutting them down. That’s not my idea of trimming a tree.
If the people that are operating the equipment don’t know what things they’re supposed to do, then the county should have somebody out there that can direct them. I don’t agree with the convenience of damage as a mechanism for removing something.
We shouldn’t be damaging them to start with. Trim them, work around them, put up safety barriers, whatever it takes, but an ignorant approach to it isn’t acceptable.
PCA: How should we manage wildfire danger while maximizing access to local outdoor recreation opportunities?
Burke: We’ve had our experience in that, so hopefully we’ve learned our lesson about thinning the trees. There are a couple of areas that we have to look at. One of them, as you say, is part of the trail system. If we’re going to have trails, if we’re going to be managing them, we need to make sure that the risks of people using them don’t create an environment where we’re going to start a wildfire.
We’d like to have to make some limitations out there — smoking on the trails, open fires in camping areas, that kind of stuff — that we can put down some rules and then, hopefully, have some teeth behind them. People are going to, oftentimes, do whatever they want.
In order to do that, we have to take an approach that, if something does start, it doesn’t have the chance to mushroom into something really large.
In our community, we have to hold the homeowners accountable to keep fires under control as well. We have to make sure that they’re not allowing fire hazards or brush to build up along their property and flammable liquids next to the house and in storage. If they did start somebody’s house on fire and one of the houses up on the perimeters of the community, that could kick us into a fire as well.
We’ve got a couple of areas that I think we can have some controls over, and I think we should and, like I said, put the controls in place on people where we can in the outdoors and then, as a fallback to that, have a good plan for maintaining the exposure in those areas.
I need to talk to somebody about it that has some more expertise in it. All I can say is, from a common-sense perspective, these are things that would seem to make sense. The people that would implement it would be the forest personnel and, potentially, the county.
PCA: How should we balance the water needs of local citizens with the water needs of wildlife and ecosystems?
Burke: I haven’t seen an imbalance. Nobody has brought it up to me. I know the county has its little battles with drilling wells, pumps failing, the wells drying up and then moving into other ones. If that’s where we’re getting our water from, I don’t see that as being in conflict with wildlife. They’re not going to be able to get to it 3,000 feet below the surface.
If we are using water from the rivers and the streams, from the Rio Grande, if we’re pulling water from that, I guess our biggest concern would be make sure that we don’t.... We can use it. There’s a good supply of water through there, but we’ve got to be careful that we don’t mess it up, because there are other people and the animals that are dependent on that as well. In making sure of our survivability, we don’t want to muck it up for somebody else.
Then, as far as the streams, I know we’ve got the reservoir. I’m not aware that we block any kind of stream access in the forest up here.
I don’t think I’ve got a really great answer for you other than we need to be careful on those shared resources. The ones that are not shared, it’s less of an issue for the wildlife. The ones that we share, we have to be careful.
PCA: The next question is a yes-or-no question. Then I have some follow-ups.
PCA: Do you believe that climate change is real?
Burke: That’s a tough one to give a yes or no answer to. I get information from lots of sources. I’ve been getting information since I was a kid about the impact that we have on the environment and holes in the ozone layer.
How it affects our climate, just based on empirical evidence, I’d have to say there.... I would say there’s climate change, yes, that there are impacts that we have and that nature has on the climate. I would say yes, climate....
Read it back again for me, please?
PCA: Do you believe that climate change is real?
PCA: What is the cause of climate change?
Burke: We have a lot of them. We’ve got the rainforests. My girlfriend explained to me the whole thing about palm oil and how they’re trashing the rainforest for palm oil for products. It’s like, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.”
We’re really tied to our natural environment for survival. For us to be destroying so much of it for commercialization just doesn’t make any sense. I think we have an impact on it. I think nature has an impact on the climate change.
I get back to we’re not being careful in the part that we’re doing. We pollute our rivers. We destroy the wildlife that’s dependent on it. People are afraid to eat the fish. We have algae blooms. In some of those things, we could say, “Yeah, we’re doing it.” In other things we could say, “Maybe we’re doing it.”
We’re letting all the runoff from our crops go into the oceans. Maybe that’s bringing the algae blooms that are killing off some of the wildlife in the oceans. I think there are a lot of things that affect it. I don’t think we’re being as responsible as we could be.
PCA: How should we respond at the local level?
Burke: We live in a bubble up here. There are some things that bother me. There are cause and effects as we go along. One of the things that we have is our county government shows to change, just an example, its recycle. The recycle system now is every couple weeks. Now, what we have is people are putting their recycle in the trash. I remember when my recycle bin, it’s going to go in the trash. The county said, “Well, instead of that, what we’ve done is we’ve given you brush bins for your yard clippings.” Yard clippings and whatnot are probably good for about six months out of the year. Yet, recycle is something that we have all year long.
The county government has changed its focus from being ecologically thoughtful to pushing people on trimming their trees, so we need to make sure that their clippings are gone. We should have both of them, because what’s going to happen, as history will show from our county government, is they’re going to just keep raising the rates.
If people want brush bins, put brush bins and raise the monthly service a dollar a month or whatever and leave the recycle system where it is. In our community, we do have the issue with Los Alamos and the leftover waste from projects that they’ve done. I know people that are at N3B that are working hard to clean up that mess.
Yet, we still face the legacy mentality of people at LANL that said, “This is how we’ve always done it.” Quite frankly, my view has always been continuous improvement. How do we do things better every time? That whole mentality of, “This is how we’ve always done it,” is the exact opposite to making any kind of an improvement.
We’ve got to hold LANL accountable for it. They’re one aspect of the things that we have to clean up here. Our community is an aspect of the ongoing cleanup that we have to do as citizens to make sure that we’re taking care of our environment.
PCA: What distinguishes you from the other candidates on conservation issues and natural resource management?
Burke: I don’t know what their stand is. I can’t really say where I come out differently from them on conservation issues. Where I do stand out from the current county council and from any of the candidates that are running is I am very focused on the county government.
They’re out of touch with the people. They spend the way they want to. They run the business the way they want to. They come to the county council and say, “Here’s what we want to do.” The council says, “Oh, well, OK. Yeah, that’s fine. Go right ahead.” Quite frankly, my position is the county government is going to have to straighten out how it does its job.
When they come to the county council and say, “We want you to approve this thing,” I’m going to want to know, “What does it cost? What’s the impact that it’s going to have? How much is going to cost to keep it? What’s the lifespan going to be? What are our alternatives?” Give them the third degree about the things that they bring up to us and hold them accountable to the community.
If they’re doing things like these construction projects and they’re destructive, it’s like, “You know what? It’s going to come out of your budget,” which means it’s going to come out of one of the other things because you’re not going to get any more money to do these things. We’re going to hit them where it hurts. We’re going to go right after their wallet.
I think I’m going to stand out quite obviously. I think we need to really hold the county accountable because the county government and LANL are the biggest entities in this community that have the most direct impact on the lives of the people that live here. We need to hold both of them accountable. I plan to stand right up. I’m going to try to be right most of the time. I’m definitely going to make sure that people are explaining things to me and explaining things to the voters on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
If they’re mucking things up, they’re going to step up and say, “You know what? We screwed up, and we’re going to fix it. Here’s how we’re going to change it to make it better so that we don’t do it again.” That’s what I’m going to be pushing for. I’m not looking for business as usual, sitting on the county council.