N.M. Land Conservancy to honor noted conservationist

William deBuys

Staci Matlock

Years before William deBuys became a renowned conservationist, award-winning author, Guggenheim Fellow and soon the first recipient of a statewide conservation award, he spent a lot of time studying local culture at Mel Patch Lounge in Española.

“You could hear the corner pocket [on the pool table] called in English, Spanish, Okie twang, Tewa, Navajo, you name it,” deBuys said. “Everybody went there.”

A Maryland kid, deBuys enjoyed New Mexico’s cultural diversity. But he was awestruck by the state’s landscape, so different from where he had grown up. “It seemed to me so powerful,” he said.

DeBuys moved to New Mexico after earning a degree in American studies and creative writing from the University of North Carolina. Ostensibly he was to be a research assistant to Dr. Robert Coles, a psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. “I was the world’s worst research assistant,” deBuys said.

DeBuys didn’t think he could help Coles with research on people unless he understood the land. So he wandered the mountains on horseback, learning about forest management, water challenges and the people living closest to the land.

After a stint in California learning carpentry, deBuys drafted his first book, Enchantment and Exploitation, based on his time in New Mexico. After graduate school at the University of Texas, he landed a job directing The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina.

A few years later, deBuys was back in New Mexico with a grant, living in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on a farm with his family and working on his second book, River of Traps.

In New Mexico, he continued to do land conservation work with the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund, helping property owners place their land in easements to protect it from development. He helped craft the land deal that became the Pecos National Historical Park and he coordinated a grazing cooperative that earned him a national land management award. He worked on conservation projects with Sen. Jeff Bingaman and former Sen. Pete Domenici back when it was easier to work across party lines. In 2000, DeBuys was appointed by then-President Bill Clinton to chair the first board of the newly acquired Valles Caldera National Preserve.

DeBuys received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 and called it “a life changer.” The money allowed him to take a break from his job teaching documentary studies at the College of Santa Fe to research and write A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest.The book, published in 2011, explores the history of Western deserts and how a host of professionals, from wildland firefighters to water managers, deal with the dry landscape today.

“I’ve always wanted to write stories where the land was not just a stage where people acted out their dramas, but stories where the land is a character itself that shapes people,” he said. “In my work, I try to bear witness to the power and the influence of the planet on human affairs.”

DeBuys’ conservation career made him the top pick for the inaugural Jane Wing Petchesky Conservation Award from the New Mexico Land Conservancy. “We were looking for somebody who had a good solid track record of conservation in New Mexico,” said executive director Scott Wilber.

The award will be bestowed Friday, Oct. 12, during the conservancy’s 10th anniversary celebration and annual fundraiser. The award honors Jane Wing Petchesky, longtime advocate of open space and water conservation. She placed a conservation easement over her ranch in 2004, and in 2009 gave her ranch house to the conservancy to serve as the organization’s office. The conservancy has easements totalling more than 108,000 acres around the state, protecting ranches, farmland, historic sites and scenic open space from development.

DeBuys is at work on another book, The Last Unicorn, about the saola, one of the rarest mammals on earth, found only in a limited range of Laos and Vietnam. He said the pressures on endangered species like the saola, and on humans, are only beginning, if governments do not take serious action to adapt to climate change.

“If they don’t lead us, we’re going to be looking at a future where we won’t have forests and we won’t have near enough water to support the population or agriculture of the region,” deBuys said. “We’re looking at a true transformation of this region and other regions around the world. People really don’t understand the geopolitical stresses coming from climate change. It truly is the greatest challenge before mankind today.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

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