PEEC's Work Adds to Local Assets

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

The colorful brochure sets forth the goals of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC): "Seeking to provide opportunities for residents and visitors to discover the rich natural and cultural history of the Jemez Mountains region and to foster informed stewardship of the region's resources." A worthy course.

PEEC's bylaws limit its activities to education, and specifically prohibit political advocacy. In public issues, the features of "education" and "advocacy" may seem blurry at times, but they are very different animals. Education is a plow horse; advocacy a parade horse. The latter is prized for the picture it presents for a particular occasion; the former for skill in deep digging. Years ago I stumbled onto these traits.

In my work for clean air, I routinely read industry journals. I discovered the industry story gained from its trade journals differs noticeably from the snapshot it hands the popular media.

In its trade magazine, an industry seeks to inform itself as best it can, so its corporate leaders have the best basis to make the best judgments. In the popular media, the aim changes: the same industry now seeks to sway public opinion and legislative votes. Education converts to advocacy.

With a new aim, a new picture emerges. Many of the same facts are seen, but how differently they are marshaled. Some facts are left out; the context and shading change. The understanding taken from the two sources twists the mind like an optical illusion. For the well-based pursuit of better air, the trade journal is infinitely more helpful.

Since education is harder to do and in shorter supply than advocacy, it is more needed. Especially so in the long run.

How does PEEC see its place in environmental education? The organization currently seeks a center, a physical structure that is near to schools, transportation, trails, canyons and downtown businesses. PEEC now has a possibility of using the high school's L-Wing (on Orange Street), which the schools will not use this year. In exchange, PEEC would provide utility payments and lots of in-kind work.

For the long term, PEEC has at least six other sites in mind, of which the leading candidate is the abandoned sewage treatment plant in Pueblo Canyon.

Wherever it comes to be, PEEC's permanent home will be a center for pursuing its educational aims, through programs, materials and exhibits of all kinds, both indoor and outdoor. The intended users of the center include town residents and visitors, school classes, conferences and workshops.

Exhibits of a wide variety can be imagined. The subjects thought of first include natural history, cultural history, local geology and ecology, and the appreciation of local scenery and wildlife. Related exhibits might explain the physics of air and water in the environment.

For example, visitors could learn firsthand how the mountain vistas to the east and west of Los Alamos show the enchanting colors of New Mexico's sky and land. And at other times are lost in gray on gray. I speak of the physics of light scattering and long-range visibility.

The story is about particles, tiny bits of stuff drifting in the air, both natural and man-made. "Natural" usually means a smoky wildfire or dusty wind. "Man-made" means all the industries, cars and trucks that emit smoke and the gases (SOX and NOX) that form solids. These particles scatter the light in the air, you might say "mix up" light, so skylines fade to dim and gray from the deep turquoise and old gold.

Teaching the science of outdoor visibility can go from simple to very complex. An instrument for measuring how far you can see (the visual range) is simple enough for youngsters to use. On the complex end, high-powered computer simulations (calculations) can show how a scenic photograph would change with different air pollutant concentrations (as per legal limits) and sun angles (times of day). Experts in all aspects are found locally.

Programs in education are a key to sustaining a sturdy environment, as well as a desirable and prosperous town. The Pajarito Environmental Education Center works to broaden the understanding and appreciation of our natural and cultural surroundings. The work strengthens our town's assets of science, education and public attractions.

Column for Oct. 12, 2004