Environmental advocate Ron Gardiner dies at 62

Gardiner was a self-taught and respected expert on natural resources who gained much of his knowledge exploring the mountains and rivers of Northern New Mexico

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Conservationist, seasoned outdoorsman and community planner Ron Gardiner died Sept. 25 at his home in Questa. He was 62.

Gardiner was a self-taught and respected expert on natural resources who gained much of his knowledge exploring the mountains and rivers of Northern New Mexico. His work as a grassroots organizer and planner emphasized the importance of local communities and sound science when considering environmental policy.

A native of Paterson, New Jersey, Gardiner moved to New Mexico in 1983. From the beginning, the former Army drill instructor and college quarterback was intent on understanding the culture and environment of his newfound home.

Victor Mascareñas, Gardiner’s friend for 24 years, said he found Gardiner dead at his home on Sept. 25 after Gardiner called that morning complaining of severe pain. An official cause of death has not yet been made public.

Mascareñas, a northern Taos County farmer, said the two would regularly meet on a stream bank to talk about water and life.

“He was a radical when I met him,” Mascareñas said. “He thought the water belonged to the river and I thought it belonged to me because of my water right. But over time, we learned so much from each other. In the end, we decided it was all about community.”

That emphasis on community and coalition building was an asset at the state capital, where Gardiner worked for years as a legislative staffer.

“He was just constantly working to bring people together who could achieve bigger things that they could individually,” said Paul Bauer Ph.D., principal geologist with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources. “He was especially good at communicating with every kind of person, whether it was an acequia user, a scientist, a politician, a rancher or a hunter.”

Among his achievements, Bauer credits Gardiner with securing funding to create an aquifer mapping program meant to generate useful data to inform decisions on groundwater management and development.

“He was very keen on having policy based on the best and latest science,” Bauer said.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, who hired Gardiner as a staffer for the Water and Natural Resources Committee when it was formed in 1998, said Gardiner had an acumen for navigating politics and getting tangible results. Gardiner loved politics, and was pragmatic when it came to seeing proposals succeed, even if that meant reaching out to industries and organizations that normally didn't get along.

“He was the backbone of much of my legislation regarding acequias and water works,” Cisneros told The Taos News Sept. 27.

Cisneros said he first brought Gardiner to Santa Fe to share first-hand environmental knowledge with the most powerful decision makers in the state. Cisneros said Gardiner’s years as a whitewater rafter, wilderness ranger and field biologist gave him a unique perspective with unusual depth. “He had the experience,” Cisneros said. “It wasn’t just his field of study in academia, he literally lived it. All members of the legislature would go to him with questions, and he had quick and smart answers for everyone.”

Among his notable publications were a report on monitoring the aftermath of the 1996 Hondo Fire, multiple wilderness surveys and a bird or prey survey from the mid-‘80s that become the foundation for what was eventually designated the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

Gardiner’s work as a citizen scientist earned him the New Mexico Earth Science Award in 2009 and an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico in 2011.

Gardiner also helped to found a water advisory board for Taos County, which was intended to foster more public involvement in the minutia of water law and water rights transfers. He was among the original members appointed to that committee.

“To me, Ron is a rare bird,” said Taos author John Nichols in written remarks prepared for the 2009 Earth Science award. “He’s like an eclectic renaissance man who has done a lot of everything. He is a true naturalist with a macroscopic overview of the whole ecosystem, rather than an academic specialist focused into more specialized areas of inquiry.”

If Gardiner had a niche, it was in bridging the gap between government and residents who loved nature but didn’t have the means to protect it.

“He was very much a part of this community and tried to educate people about just how important water is,” said Esther Garcia, a water activist and former mayor of Questa. Garcia and Gardiner collaborated on a variety of water issues, including the restoration of the beleaguered Red River.

Despite the accolades, Gardiner also struggled to see all of his ideas come to fruition, in part because he lacked the credentials of a more traditional academic. He wasn’t associated with a university or major institution. Instead, he was an outdoorsman, painter and resident from Questa with a well-stocked library, years of experience and intense passion for the place he called home.

“It took a lot of courage to be that individual citizen advocate,” said Steve Harris, a rafting outfitter and longtime friend of Gardiner. “He never wavered from that. He believed in himself and his vision. And he applied a really unique set of personality traits and capabilities to our landscape in Taos County.”

Most recently, Gardiner focused on his work as a consultant and community planner. He was the primary author on a rewrite of a community wildfire protection plan that was recognized with multiple awards at a conference this summer.

Late in his career, Gardiner became more comfortable as an activist, speaking out publicly against parts of the behemoth Abeyta Water Settlement, which he criticized for resting on limited science. Gardiner also feared the settlement would commoditize water, putting the environment and small communities at risk.

In the end, Gardiner’s varied projects and work were couched in a profound love for nature and the solace it provides.

The cover of Gardiner’s report 1993 report on the Pecos Wilderness included a quote from Aldo Leopold: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”

Friends say they’re organizing a memorial to Gardiner, but a time and place have not yet been announced.

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