Art by Asha Canalos
Miya King-Flaherty is a Public Lands Fellow with the Sierra Club, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her work is focused on educating people about the effects of fracking in the Northwestern region of the state. Miya works extensively with different communities in the four-corners region to build grassroots support to resist the harmful impacts of fracking on communities. She is currently helping with the Frack Off Greater Chaco campaign, which is working to stop fracking in Greater Chaco. The Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, along with many other local nonprofits, has a petition to submit comments to the Bureau of Land Management. The comment period is open until February 20th.
NMSP: Can you tell us about your life before you came to New Mexico?
MKF: I was raised in Los Angeles. I lived in the San Gabriel Valley with my sister and mother, and was raised by single parent. Early on, that kind of experience showed me how important it is to be independent and self-reliant to get things done.
When I was young, we moved back to Tennessee with my grandmother for about 4 years (my mom’s family is from Memphis, TN – from the South, where it’s very different from California). That was a pivotal and life-changing moment for me – I was going to a place that was regressing back into clear racial divides. So, that was a lesson for me to be very cognizant and aware of people’s intentions, things you don’t necessarily see. This experience led me toward being more of an introvert, and I learned to be very observant of my surroundings.
In 1998, we moved to New Mexico. I went to high school here; it was one of those moments where you don’t know anyone and don’t have any friends. You basically have to start at the beginning – all over again. I went to Manzano High School, an ABQ public school. I graduated and then went to UNM, and then studied biological anthropology. I always knew what I wanted to do. It was another avenue to get into primatology, primate conservation. I always wanted to be a primatologist, to conserve the Bonobos, because they are a great example of how (even though they are primates) of how larger community groups work well together. They’re matriarchal and endangered, and I wanted to be a champion for that flagship species. So biological anthropology was a way to do this. I also like cultural anthropology, because it’s important to know the people you’ll be working with in conservation. That interested me. So I got my BS in (biological anthro), and then I moved on to primate conservation – which was the reason I went to Oxford Brookes in England. I had spent one year as an undergrad in England – as an exchange student with a great core group. That’s where I met my future husband – he was an anthropologist, as well. To maintain our relationship, I decided to attend grad school in England.
NMSP: What brought you back to NM after you completed your master’s degree?
MKF: I’d been away for 7 years – I’d already spent much of my early adult life away from my family – so it was just time for me to come back to my mom and sister. I was hoping that after two college degrees, I could get a job in New Mexico, but I came back in 2011 – when NM hadn’t quite rebounded from the recession. It was a scary time, and I ended up doing some waitressing for about a year before I got back into the areas I was passionate about. I started working in fundraising after I left that job – working for nonprofits – I wanted to work with organizations trying to help on different issues. And then last year, working for NDI – New Mexico’s National Dance Institute, I focused on bringing dance and exercise to public school children in New Mexico. I think they have a really great mission, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about – probably because of the number of pressing environmental issues that needed to be addressed and worked on now (I always wanted to be a part of that movement). So I quit my job and after 3 months started working as a Public Lands Fellow for The Sierra Club. It’s a 2-year position; hopefully we can find some funding so that I can stay on. It’s a very interesting position – working within a broader coalition and educating the public about what’s going on with fracking in the Greater Chaco area. A lot of people don’t know about this in Albuquerque – I certainly didn’t know about it until I read the job description. So that’s what I focus on here at The Sierra Club, bringing awareness about what’s happening near Chaco through various means and activities.
NMSP: You’ve been with The Sierra Club for 1 year – how have things changed over that year? Has anything shifted for you over this time?
MKF: They have – I’d say that coming into this, I hadn’t realized how much work has already been done by the coalition, but certain things weren’t progressing – like the health impact reports. Rebecca Sobel (Wild Earth Guardians) – who has been invaluable to me – already knew what needed to be done as far as mobilizing people. But what needed to be done within the Navajo communities, developing relationships with impacted communities, is necessary to move anything forward. I didn’t realize how much collaboration with different cultures was needed – I learned how to be more humble, to listen, and not behave as an outsider know-it-all, instructing others on what we were going to do, etc.… I think, if anything, I come into this with the understanding that people from impacted communities will let me know what needs to be addressed , and then I can serve as a conduit to the broader public in ABQ.
NMSP: Were there specific people who influenced this career shift toward environmentalism?
MKF: Yeah, outside of my experiences with Sierra Club – when I was working on my thesis, my project was based in Cameroon. The reason I went out there was because I thought it was important to incorporate indigenous knowledge into forestry management plans – the people directly affected needed to be at that table. When I went out there, the organization EruDeF, the Environment and Rural Development Foundation, was doing that. Patience Nkwetta was my friend who worked on the environmental justice side of things, educating local communities but also making sure their concerns were brought to the table. Being exposed to her work showed me just how important it is that someone from the local area needed to be that avenue for communication. And this is important for any type of conservation – especially primate conservation. So she really inspired me on that level. And I think that’s why I started shifting away from just conserving primates to the need to incorporate people within environmental issues…
NMSP: So, as an activist, you meet people – perhaps at the edge of their community, where dialogue can take place between cultures?
MKF: I think that’s a really important need for getting to know the community you’re working with – for the community to open up to you. Within the Chaco Coalition – Daniel Tso – a community leader – very smart – is a great interface between Navajo and western culture – he’s really great at educating activists on how to behave, how to operate, but he’s also a great and inspirational figure for any environmental activist, because he knows how to listen to the community, he knows the best ways to approach people – even if he’s not necessarily from those communities. He’s a well-known person who serves as that interface.
NMSP: What do people need to know about Chaco Canyon?
MKF: I think more people need to know just how much oil and gas extraction has changed that landscape. They need to know what fracking is – a very advanced technology that combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing; it’s highly energy intensive; it’s caused many negative impacts – everything from the soil, to water, to air, … and a lot of communities are dealing with this. It’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for so many people. The attitude is that if it’s not in my backyard, then we don’t really need to know about it. But it’s a very horrible form of extraction that people need to know about – even Rio Rancho is facing the possibility of fracking. People need to understand how this technology affects the climate; it changes the air we breathe; people need to know that there’s a 2,500 square-mile methane cloud in the 4-corners region, right here in New Mexico. And methane is – since coming on board I hadn’t realized, but methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas associated with fracking. And I think most people know that Chaco is our state’s world heritage site – but don’t know how fracking is impacting the area – how horrible it is for communities on the ground.
People also need to know about the BLM, the Bureau of Land Management, this is the agency that’s supposed to manage our resources with a multiple-use mandate – and I know they have to balance energy development with grazing or recreation management – but what’s going on near Chaco is a good example of how oil and gas extraction is prioritized over all other uses. Putting pressure on these agencies – and even the Department of the Interior – which oversees the BLM is crucial. Putting pressure on our congressional delegates is also crucial; it’s really important to voice our concerns about that landscape.
NMSP: Can we discuss a bit more- how did your education segue into this field?
MKF: When I was doing anthropology and environmental conservation, working with communities helped wake me up to issues of environmental justice. When people, who are traditionally oppressed or come from a particular socio-economic background, they don’t necessarily have the voices or resources to speak out against atrocities.
So it’s important to preserve the environment we all depend on and to protect those communities who feel the most impacts. And without a viable functioning planet to support life, nothing else really matters.
NMSP: You’ve helped secure funding for air monitors for communities in the Greater Chaco area – and you were involved in training community members to use the monitors?
MKF: There is a core working group (working on air monitoring within the community). There’s Diné CARE – Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, Daniel Tso, Sierra Club, Kendra Pinto – a budding community leader, and Counselor Chapter House – an impacted chapter. The need to do the health assessment was already identified, but I helped to secure some funding – a community grant from WildEarth Guardians, and Diné CARE contributed funds along with Sierra Club – and through that collaborative effort we were able to secure some of the equipment. Also Sug McNall – a Sierra Club member who was a part of a global community monitoring project, the Bucket Brigade, where they use buckets to do air sampling – she donated two of them. And then SWOP (Southwest Organizing Project) also donated two – that’s how we got our funding and equipment.
NMSP: This equipment is expensive, and in most cases, it’s cost prohibitive for communities to take this on themselves?
MKF: Very much so. And the equipment we acquired isn’t state-of-the-art equipment – but it’s a start. And so our partner, SWOP, provided the training – Delandria carried out the testing at 5 different sites. We have some results and there are signs of toluene levels; we’ve just started to incorporate the result into a report. We’ve also started testing water at community wells and have carried out baseline monitoring. We’re hoping to developed the reports into a full health impact assessment – a broader study.
NMSP: What’s the difference between an environmental assessment and an environmental impact statement – in terms of how comprehensive one is over the other?
MKF: A good example of explaining these differences is by looking at the BLM Farmington Field Office and the RMP from 2003. The Resource Management Plan (RMP) from 2003 never analyzed the impacts of fracking, only conventional drilling because that was the type of development addressed in the plan. For any type of development that can affect the environment, human health, soil, you need to do thorough analyses, and thorough consultations for an Environmental Impact Statement (more thorough than an Environmental Assessment). The way the BLM is able to skirt this process and continue to lease lands without a plan that considers fracking impacts is by approving APDs – individual application permits to drill through conducting highly inadequate and insufficient analysis–EAs (Environmental Assessments). These Environmental Assessments are severely lacking in all the components included in an Environmental Impact Statement, and they also lack tribal consultation. Also ignored are the potential impacts within sacred cultural landscapes – areas that should be protected. So the BLM rubber stamps these applications using EAs, and conclude that there are findings of no significant impact (FONSI). This is why we’re doing the community impact assessment – to show there are significant impacts and what they are. This supports the need for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct and provide these communities with a comprehensive health and social impact assessment.
NMSP: Let’s talk about fracking in New Mexico. It’s been referred to as ‘not your grandma’s drilling’.
MKF: When fracking wells are drilled using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the noise is unbearable. And people who originally signed off on these leases were unaware of this. People didn’t really know what fracking was, and no one from the industry, BLM or Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), ever explained this to them. Some didn’t know how long their land would be tied up in the lease agreements and so on… – none of this was ever explained; people were taken advantage of.
NMSP: Can you describe what you’ve heard from residents in the Chaco region – what their experiences have been living so close to the extractions?
MKF: I’ve been to several community meetings – where people feel comfortable enough to share. The destruction of roads is a major concern. The dirt roads that are used by the community are now used by these large trucks and tankers. The local residents express concerns about safe travel. Community members also talk about poor air quality. At these fracking wells, methane is vented sometimes 24/7. Residents are forced to deal with this, sometimes continuously for hours throughout the day. I’ve listened to people talking about the headaches they experience, impacts to crops because of the soil contamination and changes. These areas experience changes to climate and the environment more drastically.
NMSP: What percentage of public lands is the BLM currently leasing to oil and gas?
NMSP: So the new land on the chopping block is in addition to the 91%?
NMSP: How do you respond to concerns that if we lose fracking, we lose jobs?
MKF: I would say that there are so many more opportunities to generate jobs and revenue that we haven’t even tapped into yet – like renewable energy – which is showing strong signs of growth in the employment sector. I know there is fear that prevents a change of mind about this. But renewable energy is the future. Fossil fuel extraction harms the planet and our communities; costs are high, the health costs and environmental costs far outweigh profits generated from extraction. I think the future will have to be renewables – it is a viable and long-term energy solution. Natural gas is finite, and so are the jobs.
NMSP: Could you speak to the instances in which people see fracking as a partisan issue? Is this a myth or reality – what do you experience when you’re talking to people?
MKF: When it comes to our environment, this is a nonpartisan issue. This is a health issue and should not be about generating more money for the oil and gas CEOs – people and companies who’ve always prioritized revenue over everything else.
People need to understand that there are some very real health and environmental impacts, and we have climate change to deal with. Let’s evolve this conversation and start moving it to another platform – and fracking is not just a local issue, it’s a global issue. We need to broaden our minds and start thinking about the global impacts.
NMSP: Getting involved in advocacy and organizing is hard work. Do you have any advice for others, based on your experience? What would have been useful for you to hear when you first took on this work?
MKF: Go in with really thick skin – because when you are organizing, relationship building is really important and can be challenging. I think when you are working in communities, understand that outsiders will not be easily received. It’s important to prove yourself and your intentions – that you really are there to help out with their interests – not just your organizational interests. Bridging that gap is important. Go in ready to listen and learn, and don’t go in thinking you have the solutions, because you don’t.
NMSP: Since the election, have you noticed increased local interest in Sierra Club?
MKF: A lot of people are concerned about climate change – which has so many broader implications and rippling effects. We need a viable functioning planet to be able to preserve America’s economy and our workers – it’s all connected. Yes, we’ve definitely seen a surge in volunteers and more donations, because people are worried about their future and future of their children.
NMSP: What do you tell people who come to you and ask ‘what can I do’?
MKF: We had a volunteer meeting one week after the election, and that was the common question: what can I do? One of the main things we do is try and direct people to where they’ll be most effective. For example, if you are someone who’s opinionated, writing an op-ed is a great way to engage on the political platform. Our delegates often look to newspapers and other media outlets to see what issues are important to people. So writing a letter to the editor is something people can do. Some are interested in giving presentations, and we’re there to help if that is an interest. We tell people it’s important to attend public forums where these issues are discussed, because it’s the best way to keep people informed and to create pathways for engagement. Additionally, forming action teams to address local issues is a great way to engage on a broader level.
NMSP: Back to your work with Chaco, what can people do in the immediate future to help?
MKF: 843 acres have just been leased. It’s deplorable that these lands and more are being leased when a management plan is not complete. We need support from D.C. and Udall. Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan have made commitments to protect Chaco Canyon and the sacred landscapes, but they need to hear from us. Also, the scoping period- which means public consultation- to update the plan remains open. The public can submit comments to the BLM through Feb 20th. There is also a Sierra Club petition and additional resources at www.frackoffgreaterchaco.org. You can see comments from the local communities, and the videos speak volumes to what is happening.
NMSP: It’s safe to say that people working behind the scenes need much more support?
MKF: Agreed. We absolutely need growing grassroots support.
NMSP: Any suggestions about how we move forward in terms of the long-term future?
MKF: It’s hard to envision a world long into the future sometimes. I’m in my early 30s, and I wonder what it is going to be like over the next 20 years. The changes are here, noticeable and have long-term implications; it’s important for other people to be aware of what’s going on, to connect and participate. The Albuquerque solidarity event (‘Standing with Standing Rock’ at the Army Corps of Engineers offices) was so powerful – so many people showed up – we need more of these events.