On Earth Day, the refuge held its annual Community Celebration of Environmental Justice “to honor and organize for our communities and our rights to a healthy environment in which to live, work, play, pray and go to school.” Photo by Kyle Cahall/Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute
While the Mountain View community in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has more than enough “tank farms,” as the residents call the huge petroleum tanks in the area, it is short on green space.
So when community members heard talk that their main natural oasis, an old 570-acre dairy farm, might get developed and be lost, they got to work. The result: Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012, the first urban refuge in the Southwest and the first refuge in the nation to have an Environmental Justice strategic plan. The refuge “stands out like an emerald in the middle of all of the industry,” says Teri Jillson, president of the Friends of Valle de Oro Refuge.
At its most basic, Environmental Justice means making sure that ALL people can live in environmentally healthy communities. It recognizes that certain communities – often poor or minority – have faced adverse environmental situations and looks to prevent that from happening and remedy where it has already happened.
Mountain View was ready for some Environmental Justice.
The neighborhood is a largely minority area with industrial facilities next to schools, homes and businesses. Part of the neighborhood is a Superfund site where chemical storage and military activities once contaminated groundwater. The neighborhood is also home to the primary sewage facility for the city of Albuquerque.
'For the Community'
Since the refuge’s beginning, Refuge Manager Jennifer Owen-White has made sure to involve the community in every aspect of the refuge. “This is a refuge established, designed and built by the community for the community.”
To continue the grassroots support of the refuge – a key part of Environmental Justice –Jillson says the Friends “make sure to ask people what they would like to see on the refuge.” The Friends of Valle de Oro also developed a unique partnership with longtime community organizers and Environmental Justice advocates, Los Jardines Institute. Together the Friends, Los Jardines Institute, the Mountain Veiw Neighborhood association and Valle de Oro have been working on a shared future for the refuge and its host community.
Richard Moore, a national leader of the Environmental Justice movement, co-coordinator of Los Jardines Institute and a local resident, says: "This is an example of putting justice back into the hands of a community that has been historically treated unjustly. This is why Los Jardines Institute has been a significant partner on the planning, implementation and delivery of the Environmental and Economic Justice strategy for Valle de Oro."
The enthusiastic community support is one reason the Interagency Environmental Justice Working Group decided that the creation of the Valle de Oro Refuge could be a model for other communities, federal agencies and others working on Environmental Justice.
The community celebrates Environmental Justice. Photo by Kyle Cahall/Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute
“We are really excited about is the fact that Valle de Oro is a model for the nation, and we take that very seriously,” Jillson says.
To help put together films and blogs needed as a model, Valle de Oro turned to Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), a National Indian community college and land grant institution in Albuquerque, through the College Underserved Community Partnership Program.
SIPI “happily agreed to produce the education films and blogs at no cost to federal government,” says Kim lambert, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Environmental Justice specialist.
“It’s a win for all,” she says. “Students benefit by utilizing their learned curriculum to gain practical experience that can serve as a resume builder, while earning college credits through their academic institution. Federal agencies benefit by seeing an improvement in the effective and efficient use of resources. And the community benefits from the refuge and its Environmental Justice stance.”
The community is definitely benefitting.
At a ceremony last year highlighting a $1 million increase in funding for the refuge, Sara Carrillo, principal at Mountain View Elementary School in Albuquerque's South Valley, said of the refuge, “It is giving our families a safe place to connect with nature, spend time together, be healthy and reconnect with our history."
The refuge also provides direct benefits to the community in such areas as education, job creation and a local economic boost.
One project helps not just Mountain View but also Valle de Oro’s wildlife. The Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority is funding work to create habitat that will improve storm water drainage in the neighborhood.
Partners like the flood control authority have made Valle de Oro the success it is. The refuge lists more than 100 groups and agencies as partners. And they will continue to determine the refuge’s success overall and in Environmental Justice.
Says Owen-White: “My job is to put the community's amazing ideas together with sound science and engineering to create something that is sustainable for wildlife and people.”
Jillson works with Owen-White toward that goal. She is not just president of the Friends group; she is also a 22-year Mountain View resident who has raised two children there.
To her, Valle de Oro “represents a community victory and establishing something positive for the Mountain View neighborhood.”
That’s the fruit of Environmental Justice.
-Matt Trott, External Affairs, Headquarters