On a crisp November day, as Tom Harvey, Paul Tashjian and Andrew Hautzinger are enthusiastically explaining their vision for Americas most recently authorized national wildlife refuge, two dozen wintering sandhill cranes are foraging in a New Mexico field that once was Prices Dairy Farm.
Harvey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region refuge supervisor for New Mexico and Arizona, Tashjian, a regional hydrologist, and Hautzinger, the regional Americas Great Outdoors coordinator, have big plans for the 570acre flatland that hugs a fish and wildlife habitatrich stretch of the Rio Grande 3.5 miles outside the Albuquerque city limit in the industrial South Valley.
It is the largest remaining tract of undeveloped farmland in the metro area, and its a key piece of historic flood plain land associated with the middle Rio Grande that has excellent restoration potential, says Harvey. We know historically what types of habitat it supported. We know we can recreate those easily on the site given the soils, the hydrology and the infrastructure.
Once the refuge is formally established, Harvey says, the idea is to mimic the Rio Grandes meandering past by restoring cottonwoodrich riparian bosque habitat, other native plant communities and wetlands for neotropical migratory birds, songbirds and raptors. The wetlands will be small because, in deference to the citys airport, the goal is not to attract more highflying cranes.
A goal is to attract people, to provide a valuable showcase for the public as they come on the property to see those restoration activities, participate in them and witness the evolution of the property as those things are restored, Harvey says. Theres a saying in the region: This isnt your grandfathers refuge; its your grandchildrens.
Those grandchildrenin the immediate vicinityare largely Hispanic, Pueblo Indian and poor. This wildlife refuge has become our anchor, says Mountain View Neighborhood Association member Angela West. As a single mother myself, when I look at this, I see mothers who can now bring their kids down here and share this with them whether they have a car that can make it 50 miles south [to Sevilleta Refuge] or not.
Ribbon Along the River
The units working name is Middle Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, but Tashjian says the Service might seek public help in determining a permanent name, perhaps one that honors Hispanic or Pueblo culture.
Whatever its eventual name, the urban refuge will have strong environmental education and community outreach components. Its up to us to meld that vision, put it out there and bring along as many different supporters and advocates for the refuge as we can while still staying true to our mission, says Harvey.
I think this has the potential for really being part of Albuquerques identity. Theres this real amazing core that the refuge will become part of, says Tashjian, referring to a conservationoriented ribbon along the river that includes Rio Grande Valley State Park, Paseo del Bosque Trail, the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the Albuquerque BioPark and the Rio Grande Nature Center.
But first the land must be acquired. Its estimated price, with significant senior water rights, is $15 million to $20 million, pending formal appraisal. Bernalillo County has committed $5 million. Harvey believes that other nonService partnersincluding the local flood control authority, the state of New Mexico, the Trust for Public Land, the Natural Resource Conservation
Service, Ducks Unlimited and the Bureau of Reclamationcollectively could chip in as much as $8 million toward a phasedin purchase over the next two or three years.
Once the land is in hand, Hautzinger envisions the refuge as a gateway to New Mexicos seven other wildlife refuges and the entire Refuge System.
He points out that a nearby lightrail station is connected to Albuquerque International Sunport (airport) by shuttle bus and to touristrich Santa Fe by train. He notes that 60 percent of New Mexicos population is within easy distance of the refugeincluding more than 100,000 elementary and secondary students.
With numbers like those, its no wonder neighborhood resident Angela West says, This is personal, and it will be measured in human terms as well as ecological in the long run.