Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, the first urban refuge in the Southwest, is taking part in a pilot project that uses volunteers to record phenology – cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

In cooperation with the Refuge System Inventory and Monitoring initiative, the New Mexico refuge is participating in Nature’s Notebook, an online monitoring program of the USA National Phenology Network (NPN).

NPN describes Nature’s Notebook as a national effort in which “professional scientists and amateur naturalists regularly record observations of plants and animals to generate long-term data sets used for scientific discovery and decision-making.”

Valle de Oro Refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White hopes that by partnering with NPN and engaging nearby communities, she will be able to collect the data needed to gain an understanding of the ecological condition of the refuge, which was established in 2012.

Before 2012, the 570 acres just south of Albuquerque that are now the refuge were the longtime home of the Valley Gold Dairy. In the hopes of building on the community’s strong connection to the land, a Facebook competition was held to name the new refuge. The winning name – Valle de Oro – is a nod to the dairy’s history and reflects the heritage of the communities the refuge serves.

Valle de Oro Refuge is somewhat unusual in how its land was acquired. While most refuges acquire land through the use of federal funds, Valle de Oro received half of its land acquisition funding from nonfederal entities.

For Nature’s Notebook, NPN handles the recruitment and training of volunteers to observe, communicate and understand patterns in the phenology of plants, animals and landscapes, especially in response to climate change. NPN’s educational staff works with schools and community organizations to provide training and to schedule volunteers. The volunteers, Friends groups and citizen scientists are the muscle behind the refuge’s baseline data collection. The information they collect helps to inform sound management decisions on the refuge.

“This landscape has seen a lot of use over the years. We rely on these data to tell us what kind of habitat we should restore and how,” says Owen-White.

Albuquerque’s Nex+Gen Academy High School has designed a senior project around data collection at the refuge. Students have selected four ecologically diverse sites at which to collect data and monitor wildlife, plants and habitat. Teachers are working with NPN to ensure that students collect accurate and rigorous data.

This large-scale collaboration is a good model that could be replicated at other refuges. “Partnerships are the key to success and sustainability at this refuge, at all refuges,” says Owen-White, the only full-time staff member at Valle de Oro Refuge. Her advice to other refuges is to be open to outside help. “Other organizations have similar missions and want to be involved. So much more can be accomplished when you say ‘yes’ and explore ideas together.”

One of the greatest outcomes of the partnership among Valle de Oro Refuge, NPN and the local community, Owen- White says, is that the people who use the refuge feel connected to it. “More and more people in our community know about this place, and we credit the involved community with our success,” she says. “We want folks to know that we’re here for them. Anybody is welcome to come spend 30 minutes, or half a day, at Valle de Oro.”

Lindsay Brady is a social scientist at the Natural Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, CO. More about Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge’s phenology work is at https://www.usanpn. org/fws/vdo