A Force for Nature, and for New Mexico
Half a century later, a parent of the environmental justice movement is still standing up for low-income communities in the Southwest.
Five miles south of downtown Albuquerque, on the banks of the Rio Grande, an urban oasis is taking shape on a 570-acre former dairy farm. On turf where cows once grazed, long grasses and irrigation ditches attract ground-nesting birds, migrating cranes, and wading birds. In the next few years, wetlands will emerge as native habitat restoration commences, and new trails will give visitors a place to stroll.
Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2014, is the Southwest’s first urban refuge. It’s a welcome addition to a neighborhood that’s gone from agricultural to industrial in recent decades, where green space has become scarce and where residents—predominantly low-income people of color—live in close proximity to clusters of junkyards, waste treatment plants, and chemical storage facilities.
The refuge can claim another first, too—as a public lands site with its own environmental and economic justice strategic plan, said its manager, Jennifer Owen-White of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—and that is in large part thanks to the work of Richard Moore. Through the environmental-education farm Los Jardines Institute, where he serves as program director, Moore has become Valle de Oro’s ambassador—an “essential partner in [its] environmental justice and community engagement work,” Owen-White says. Without his leadership, the land might have been gobbled up for further industrial development. Asphalt and cement companies had been eyeing the property, Moore says, and there was talk of expanding the local sewage plant when neighbors came together to form a Friends group to raise funding and support for the establishment of a National Wildlife Refuge.
A descendant of Puerto Rican farmworkers, Moore arrived in the Albuquerque area in the 1960s from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Ever since, he’s been a force of, and for, nature. He has championed the needs of the South Valley, an area that’s notoriously underserved and polluted. Residents complain that city officials have shown little restraint in granting permits to its many coal-fired plants and landfill facilities, contributing to high levels of toxic air pollutants and putting the population at greater risk for developing asthma and other respiratory problems. Meanwhile, Albuquerque’s drinking water supply has been persistently plagued by radon and arsenic contamination.
“Our community is targeted for anything and everything that others don’t want in their backyard, because we’re a low-income and working-class community of color,” Moore says.
Throughout his five-decade career, Moore has worked to raise awareness of environmental injustice plaguing communities beyond his backyard, too. He recalls an incident where contaminated soil was being trucked out of the South Valley, with the cleanup company mum on where it was headed. Activists followed the truck to Louisiana, where it was being dumped in an African-American neighborhood. “We made contacts with the local community” and let them know what was going on, remembers Moore. “It’s not just about cleaning up our community and dumping it on someone else. It’s the South Valley, North Valley, the city, the state, the region, the country, the world.”
Moore worked to spread this message as executive director of Albuquerque’s Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice from 1993 to 2010, and as the first elected chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. He emphasizes that “we cannot have environmental justice without economic justice.” So at EPA, as part of his work to ensure that community input factored into the revitalization of brownfields, he saw to it that the restoration efforts yielded local jobs.
Moore has also sought to draw attention to racial biases hampering the work of the environmental sector, which began to incorporate social justice into its core preservation-related goals only about 25 years ago. As part of the Southwest Organizing Project in 1990, he cosigned a letter critical of NRDC and other organizations, describing “a clear lack of accountability by the Group of Ten environmental organizations toward Third World communities in the Southwest, in the United States as a whole, and internationally.”
Despite his impressive resume, Moore is gracious and humble. In a gravelly voice tinged with wry humor and warmth, he points to others who deserve credit—including the single mother who raised him. He also speaks of a critical moment early in his career, when he and a group of activists were called into a northern New Mexico village to meet with a group of elders around a bonfire.
“The elders told us we were doing incredible work, but said, ‘Do you know what you’re getting into? This isn’t a momentary venture but a road you’re traveling, a lifetime,” he says.
The elders shared three statements, which Moore says still drive him today: Never forget where you came from; never forget those who’ve made it possible to be here; and give to others what’s been given to you.
Moore’s persistence has paid off. “As a result of Richard’s advocacy, there’s been an expansion of the vision of traditional environmentalism to include and embrace principles of justice,” says NRDC’s chief counsel, Mitch Bernard. “I think people who care about justice within the environmental realm owe a debt of gratitude to Richard.”
Bernard met Moore in the early 1990s, when Albuquerque’s Chicano neighborhood of Martineztown fought against locating a massive new federal courthouse in their historic community. Bernard assisted in the successful legal battle to keep the courthouse out.
“He’s a hero of mine,” says Bernard, who recently joined Moore for a day in Albuquerque, visiting the old haunts where Moore began his career as an organizer. “He’s one of the parents of the environmental justice movement, who believes in empowering people who lack political and economic clout.” National organizations and grassroots groups can “travel together,” he says, in a “constructive, transparent way toward mutual goals.”
Bernard isn’t the only one to recognize Moore’s contributions. The environmental justice giant has been honored with the Health Care Without Harm’s Environmental Health Hero award and received a Keep the Dream Alive award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council as well as a Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World award.
Though federal support for environmental justice programs has weakened under the Trump administration, Moore remains hopeful. Take the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. “The refuge is our legacy,” Moore says—and adds that landfills and slaughterhouses, hog farms and dollar stores are not. He describes the refuge as a “living classroom,” with migrating birds amid natural habitat. This summer, the Youth Conservation Corps has hired 50 local young adults to help restore the refuge.
“We will do whatever is necessary under any administration to preserve the historical, cultural, and ecological integrity of those 570 acres,” Moore says. “I have an obligation to live up to what those elders shared with me.”
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