"I used to work at a travel publisher, but it never really synched up with my desire to be an environmentalist," says Ellen Cavalli, editor of the Rio Grande Sierran since February 2006.
Cavalli and her husband Scott, pictured above with son Benjamin, moved to New Mexico in the late 1990s from New York City. "We'd been wanting to buy some land and build a straw bale house," Cavalli says. "We took a road trip through here in 1997, saw how beautiful it was, and that did it. We got back to Brooklyn, looked at our little garden, and within a month we'd moved."
After two years near Santa Fe, the couple relocated to the San Francisco area when Cavalli's employer merged with another company there. But the Southwest was in their blood, and in 2005 they quit their jobs and headed back to New Mexico, where they bought a home in the Galisteo Basin near Santa Fe. They have since moved to a small village in an agrigultural valley further north where they now do their own organic farming.
"I love Dixon, where we live now," Cavalli says. "It's a real community, horse country, a little anarchist, lots of back-to-the-landers—an old farm and art town. It's the type of place we've always wanted to live."
Still, Cavalli wanted her work to align more closely with her beliefs, so she started focusing her freelance editorial business on promoting sustainable living and renewable energy. Even after taking up the editorial reins of the Sierran, however, she considered herself a reluctant activist. "I was a facilitator and a consensus-builder," she says, "but I wasn't the one originating the ideas and putting myself on the line as a leader."
That began to change in March 2007 when Cavalli learned that an oil and gas exploration company was preparing to reenter a 20-year-old oil well on the banks of the Galisteo River south of Santa Fe, near the property the couple had held onto when they moved to Dixon.
"I sent out an e-mail to connect people and ask if they were interested in writing an article," says Cavalli, who was pregnant at the time with her first child. She ran a couple of articles in the Sierran on the drilling threat, but remained on the periphery of the growing movement.
Then came a phone call in August from their tenant, Cindy: "It looks like they're going to drill next to your land!" Cindy had just come from a community meeting where a neighbor whose ranch in Texas had been destroyed by gas drilling just a year earlier displayed maps of proposed exploratory wells. And one well was smack next to the Ellen and Scott's property.
"I couldn't bury my head in the sand any longer," says Cavalli, who gave birth to Benjamin at the end of July. She joined a local grassroots organization, Drilling Santa Fe, educated herself about oil and gas drilling, and began speaking out. "I'm not a public speaker—there's a reason why I'm an editor, working behind the scenes—but I've found ways to push beyond my comfort zone."
She attended strategy meetings, signed petitions, sent letters to local papers, and helped others write their own. She and Scott wrote, designed, and distributed flyers, educational materials, and ads comparing Santa Fe with other areas in New Mexico that had been drilled. She wrote letters to county commissioners and state representatives, cajoled friends into writing, and helped coordinate Drilling Santa Fe's efforts. "Benjamin has attended more activist events in his first six months of life than I had in my first 35 years," she laughs.
Photo by Tony Bonanno
The group organized protest marches in downtown Santa Fe, above, turned out large numbers of citizens for public meetings held by the county, below, participated in a televised debate in Albuquerque with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, and got several hundred people to show up and protest the oil company's "horse and pony shows" to demonstrate how environmentally responsible they were and get the public to buy into their plan.
Photo by Tony Bonanno
"We're incessant—we make a lot of noise," Cavalli says. "One of our main organizers, David Bacon, says this anti-drilling campaign is the biggest movement he's seen in Santa Fe County. And it's just a critical mass of regular people like me."
The groundswell of public outcry is having an effect. In early January, Congressman Tom Udall and Senator Jeff Bingaman announced that oil and gas exploration needed to slow down, and on January 11 Governor Bill Richardson announced a 6-month moratorium on drilling in Santa Fe County. Two weeks later, he issued an executive order imposing that moratorium.
"Sometimes I look back at my pre-baby/pre-activist days," Cavalli writes in the latest issue of the Rio Grande Sierran. "The Old Me certainly got more sleep, but she didn't have my newfound sense of purpose. When I found my voice, I found my power, and I wouldn't go back. Inasmuch as motherhood has changed my life forever, so too has activism."
Among Cavalli's goals is to help make Santa Fe County a model of sustainability and renewable energy. "It feels like we've started something that we want to take to the whole state, the whole Rocky Mountain region. It's about renewable energy, but it's also about the public taking back its power. For too long our rights and our will have been trampled by corporations—this is a fight for democracy. It's not going to stop in the Galisteo Basin."
Photos used with permission.