Total Ban On Access To Local Open Space Is Bogus

BY REID PRIEDHORSKY
Los Alamos

I suppose it’s refreshing to hear Fire Chief Hughes state during last Monday’s Council meeting that open space is closed “no matter how good an argument you present to us” (at 17:56) until he decides otherwise, because it says the quiet part out loud: Los Alamos County leadership remains disinterested in non-elite citizens’ concerns or opinions, regardless of their merits.

Even though we’ve been told we will be ignored, I think it’s worth detailing why the total open space ban is a bad policy, and that better, more nuanced policies are available.

There is no disagreement that fire danger is currently very high. Re-iterating this fact, as Hughes did in his meeting comments and his recent editorial, does not argue for any specific policy. Rather, the argument is essentially: we have to do something (I agree!), this is something (hard to disagree), therefore we must do it (what!?). I have yet to hear any argument from those in favor of the total ban that includes a specific explanation of why our genuinely concerning situation requires a total ban instead of some more nuanced policy.

In my view, total ban on access to local open space is bogus for three main reasons.

First, it both overreaches and lacks important details. The order itself  bans use of “open space”; Fire Marshal Wendy Servey further states in a county Facebook post that “use and access of all … open spaces on public or private lands within the County are prohibited” (emphasis added). It seems highly dubious to me that the fire marshal has authority to close private land. Also, in my view, the order itself ought to be actionable and clear, without a flurry of additional statements in various venues that may or may not have legal force.

Further, the order does not define, explicitly or by reference, the critical term “open space”. Perhaps it means §16-9 of the County Code? This defines “open space, private” as “that part of a lot, including courts or yards, which is open and unobstructed from its lower level to the sky and is accessible to and usable by all persons occupying a dwelling unit on the lot”, which would seem to include my back yard (huh!?) but not Pajarito Mountain (because it lacks dwelling units).

Regarding the concern about rescue from open space during an emergency, that’s a risk that consenting adults should be able to choose for themselves. Communicate clearly what services may not available and let us decide what’s appropriate for ourselves.

Second, the full-closure approach is reactive instead of proactive. Fire season policy should have been written a long time ago in collaboration with the public. It’s no surprise there are serious fire concerns — this happens every year to varying degrees. Instead we get abrupt orders from on high. Yet again, we’re making and defending policy in crisis mode when we could and should have planned ahead. I’ll bet the chief would be having a better time if he had designed and justified his plan during calmer times.

Finally, the total ban ignores obvious and significant variation in risk. Windy days are different than calm days. Hot days are different than cooler days. Afternoons are different than mornings. Far from a trailhead is different than close to a trailhead. Sparse PJ forest near the co-op is different from White Rock Canyon is different than Graduation Canyon, which contains 2-foot deep pine needle drifts. Hughes’ editorial shows LAFD is aware of these risk variations (e.g., “greatest risk” being the “interior canyons”), but he chooses not to trust us with any serious argument about them.

As I write these words, it’s 40 degrees, drizzling, relative humidity 71%, and calm. That’s a lot different than a couple weeks ago when it was a cloudless 85° with gusts over 40MPH and RH in the single digits. Yet, open space policy is precisely the same in both cases. This makes no sense.

The total ban further diminishes trust in county leadership (and institutions generally) — trust needed to have a functional government and public safety initiatives. I suspect that because of its over-broad nature and poor justification, the ban will quickly become unenforceable, leaving us in an avoidable mess.

Maybe the total ban really is warranted. I doubt it, but make the case. Provide an actual rationale that articulates the risk factors considered and why those specific factors lead to a specific policy. Don’t just tell us that you’re in charge, you know best, and you’ve decided. We are grown-ups who deserve policies that can stand up to scrutiny.