Laura Paskus began her journalism career in 2002 with an internship at High Country News, and since then has worked as a print, online, radio, and television reporter. Currently a correspondent and producer for the New Mexico PBS series Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future, she’s also working on a FRONTLINE investigation into the military’s contamination of groundwater in New Mexico. Laura was a 2019 Leopold Writing Program Resident, and her book At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate came out in September 2020 from the University of New Mexico Press.
Elaine Stachera Simon: In the book you mention having East Coast roots — how did you end up in New Mexico?
Laura Paskus: I grew up in Connecticut and went to the University of Virginia for a bachelor’s in anthropology. I came to New Mexico to do contract archaeology
ESS: Your path evolved from archaeology to tribal consulting to journalism — how did that happen?
LP: I loved being in the field, but became uncomfortable digging up people’s pasts. So, I transitioned to tribal consulting — helping tribes have more of a voice in federal projects like dams and pipelines. But I became frustrated that tribes didn’t really have a role in these processes, and realized I’d much rather tell stories for the public than work on government reports.
At the same time, I fell in love with the New Mexico landscapes. It was a natural transition from fieldwork to journalism when I landed an internship at High Country News.
ESS: The title of your book is At the Precipice — so apparently you think there are still things we can do to mitigate climate change. Why was now the right time to write this book?
LP: Because New Mexico is warming, and rising temperatures in an arid region such as ours mean less water, regardless of the amount of precipitation. New Mexico faces challenges meeting all the water needs, including the environment’s need for water.
Since 1996, tens of thousands of acres of the Jemez forest have drastically changed due to wildfire, and 33,000 acres of conifer forests are lost forever. As a state, we need to decide what our future looks like — we keep doing things the same way even though the world has changed.
As a society, we need to be better at dealing with huge, pressing environmental problems — they make all the other problems worse.
ESS: Who is your target audience?
LP: I deliberately wrote At the Precipice for a general audience to make the science and how the environment relates to our lives and experiences readable and understandable.
It’s a bit nerdy, but I hope high school and college students read it. Young people are far more informed about climate change than their elders. My daughter, Lillie, and her generation are smart, savvy, and so much more aware of what’s happening to the climate than most adults give them credit for. Of course, I lugged Lillie around from the time she was a baby to public meetings, field visits, and interviews.
ESS: What will keep us from going over the precipice?
LP: The issue is that the state budget is tied to oil and gas. Yet, COVID has exposed how unsustainable it is to be dependent on one industry.
New Mexico needs to get serious about diversifying the economy. Clearly, there is a great desire for social change. Why not try something different? Yes, there are individual actions that all together can potentially have a significant impact, but there really needs to be large-scale change across the industrial sectors.
ESS: On the south side of our state, agriculture is critical to the economy. What does climate change mean for farmers?
LP: Agriculture is a big challenge. Even our bigger farms are still family businesses. The farming issue is tough, but the folks at New Mexico State University and the state’s farmers are smart enough to figure out how to use agricultural water more efficiently.
Some programs meant to make land use smarter had unintended consequences. For example, a lot of people transitioned off alfalfa when there were incentives to plant higher profit crops like pecans. But you can fallow an alfalfa field. You can’t fallow a pecan orchard that needs water all the time.
ESS: On a different note, you also wrote many articles about the West Mesa Murders in Albuquerque — how did those come about?
LP: I spent about a year on stories related to the West Mesa murders. For me, this was a big departure in terms of reporting, but the reasons I did it were along same lines of why I am interested in reporting on the environment and New Mexico communities. I am not from here originally, but this is really my home, and I do see journalism and my writing as an act of love for New Mexico and New Mexico communities. Although there was daily reporting about the West Mesa murders and the occasional outsider who was interested in the story, there was not a lot of reporting within New Mexico of the broader issues surrounding the murders of these 11 women. It frustrates and breaks my heart that they are not solved.
ESS: What have you been reading?
LP: I have an obscenely large stack of books waiting to be read. I just finished Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli — it’s awesome and everyone should read it. I also recently read Jennifer Ackerman’s The Bird Way and Jericho by Chuck Bowden, both of which are awesome, too.
Interview by Elaine Stachera Simon • Photos courtesy Laura Paskus
Originally published in Neighbors magazine