After being suspended from an Albuquerque, New Mexico public high school for possessing a pocketknife, David Pope decided to enroll in a local charter school that emphasizes architecture and engineering. Through one of its programs, the 17-year-old spent time studying not in a classroom but outdoors, in a small patch of cottonwood forest skirting the banks of the Rio Grande near a barren industrial zone dominated by graffiti-tagged warehouses and auto body shops. It may seem an unlikely place for the conservation of a tiny native fish that has been teetering on the brink of extinction for decades as a result of wide-scale habitat alteration: the Rio Grande silvery minnow, once found throughout some 3,000 meandering miles in New Mexico and Texas, has been reduced to less than 10 percent of its ancestral range, and its plight is further exacerbated by prolonged drought conditions. But last year, here on these few acres of open space, Pope and dozens of his peers helped create the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow Sanctuary and Education Center.
"It was a pretty awesome experience," says Pope. "We all got pretty familiar with the bosque (riverside forest) and we got to see our work help transform it."
Completed last autumn, the sanctuary is a quarter-mile stretch of waterway diverted from the river and engineered to replicate its original conditions, with small islands and plenty of oxbows and shallows in which the fish have historically flourished. For the minnow, its benefits are twofold: they can be bred and reared here for subsequent release elsewhere; and during drought times when stretches of the river are expected to dry up, fish can be collected and brought here, since water levels will be constantly maintained. Also, with kiosks and information on the species, the place will double as a much-needed tool to educate a community that remains relatively unfamiliar with the fish. Yet another positive dimension of the project, of course, is that it was largely designed and built by high school students who live in a city plagued by gang violence, drug abuse, and a teen pregnancy rate not unlike that of the once-prolific minnow.
The sight of teenagers congregating in the woods by the river would give any reasonable Albuquerque resident pause, but it has been a particularly gratifying one for Joaquin Baca, a hydrologist and an environmental education specialist with the Service's fisheries program who helped coordinate the work. "This project is a remarkable example of how to get urban youth not just interested but directly involved in conservation work," says Baca. "They dove right in, learning along the way and applying that to the work."
By October 2011, 10 students from Amy Biehl High School, located downtown, conducted preliminary work to remove non-native vegetation such as tamarisk, which persists on many riverbanks in the Southwest infusing soil and water with alkali to the detriment of native species.
The following summer, the local nonprofit New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors helped the Service construct a birding and interpretive trail at the site.
A third stage began in September 2012 when Pope and fellow 10th-graders from ACE Leadership High School initiated a conception stage, researching and developing ideas for kiosks and bridges. "ACE" stands for architecture, construction and engineering. Over a period of eight months, the students applied themselves to the work as part of their classroom curriculum, and teamed with Service engineers and a local architect to develop a budget and materials list, design ADA-compliant structures, and apply the finer points of their lessons in biomimicry.
"Biomimicry is a way to connect with nature that helps us understand and formulate design solutions," says Kris Callori, principal architect at Environmental Dynamics, Inc. "Nature has been designing products and systems for 3.8 billion years; there are success stories all around us."
Callori taught a string of eight lessons on the design principles of biomimicry and helped the students explore how they could inform the kiosk designs.
"We went to the site with the question 'How does nature communicate?'" explains Callori. "The students each found an inspiring organism to ask this question of, and then went back to the classroom and studied ants, mycelium, and various plant species. We discussed the patterns that each of these organisms share, and which ones could be relevant to our kiosk designs … incorporating elements of movement, multi-directional broadcasting, color, and shadow."
Eventually, kiosk and bridge designs were exhibited for review by Service engineers. From 100 designs, they selected three of both to inspire the build. Pope's design for a 30-foot bridge was selected as an alluring centerpiece that spans the width of the waterway.
"They [the engineers] made only one adjustment: put a few inches of gravel at the bottom of each of the post holes before we put in the concrete," says Pope proudly.
Pope's teacher at ACE Leadership High School Rob Shauger is likewise proud. "David took the initiative to design a computer model on the tight timeline of two weeks, spending on average eight hours each day and night working on it," he says. "It's a remarkable sign of success for our school that engineers approved a design from a student who left his traditional high school for more meaningful educational experiences."
The project also represents a significant milestone in silvery minnow recovery work. While the Southwest Native Aquatic Resources and Recovery Center in Dexter, New Mexico, rears the majority of minnows in the state, and there are smaller facilities used for the same purpose, "the Sanctuary is not only a rearing facility but also a refuge for existing wild populations during times of drought, which is important for maintaining genetic diversity of the fish," says Baca.
As such, the facility meets a "refugia requirement" ordered by the Biological Opinion released when the minnow was listed as endangered in 1994. With a possibly contentious new Biological Opinion due to be published later this year, the place could prove helpful in boosting community support. Current budgetary and maintenance issues have precluded scheduling the Sanctuary's official public opening, and how the facility may brighten the long-term outlook for the fish remains to be seen.
But it is likely to yield certain other far-reaching benefits.
"Perhaps most important," says Baca, "the project represents a kind of template for connecting young people to the environment and creating future generations who can apply practical skills to helping restore it."
If his bridge provides apt metaphor for connecting youth with nature to forge a healthier environment, he, for one, is content to be crossing it.
A number of partners were involved in the Sanctuary project: Amy Beihl Charter High School, ACE Leadership Charter High School, New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors, EDI Architecture, New Mexico Plant Society, Bernalillo County Master Naturalists, New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension, and the New Mexico State Parks.
Ben Ikenson is a former speech writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the author of two books. He wrote "Old Man and the River" in Eddies, Summer 2011.