Refuge Manager Sees Urbanites As Crucial for Conservation

Story and photos by Sarah Keller for the Intermountain West Joint Venture

Jennifer Owen-White looks to Albuquerque residents as allies in managing Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge’s manager, Jennifer Owen-White, asks for community input on how the former dairy farm should be restored to native floodplain and upland habitat.

It’s a sunny September afternoon in Albuquerque’s South Valley, and the cozy farmhouse that serves as Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge’s temporary headquarters is buzzing with activity. Refuge manager, Jennifer Owen-White, is busy answering questions from high school and college students as they prepare for the former dairy farm’s fourth birthday celebration. She jokes that getting the nascent refuge off the ground has been such a big part of her life, that it feels like they’re throwing a birthday party for her own kid.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge began taking shape in the early 2000s when community members heard the 570-acre dairy farm was going up for sale. They worried that it would share its fate with many other South Valley farms, by becoming an industrial facility.

Rio Grande river corridor in the autumn.

At the same time, the refuge’s many advocates also recognized its value as one of the last large swaths of riparian wetland in Bernalillo County. It was, and thankfully still is, a crucial save haven for migratory birds traveling the Central Flyway. With more than 90 percent of the Rio Grande’s wetlands lost in the last century, every piece of remaining floodplain is precious for keeping the ecosystem connected. In the end, more than half of the funding to buy the refuge came from non-federal partners who recognized the land’s value to conservation and the community.

Owen-White seems perfectly suited to run the Southwest’s first urban wildlife refuge. Her own love of nature took shape in a city, through exploring for frogs and lizards in Houston’s bayous. She hopes Valle de Oro will provide similar formative experiences for kids and adults in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

“This is so important because even though Albuquerque is in the top 15 in the nation for the amount of open space and parks per capita, the South Valley specifically has little to no access to open space,” says Owen-White. “Before this was a refuge there were no parks in the neighborhood.”

On the wall of a refuge meeting room, Owen-White points out an aerial photo of Valle de Oro showing the orderly outlines of hay fields. While farming is still important to managing the refuge today, a second map to the right shows how diverse its habitat will become. Colorful blue and yellow meanders outline plans to restore floodplain and upland habitat, plus add boardwalks, trails, and meeting pavilions.

That schematic is the product of almost three years of community meetings where Owen-White asked neighbors about their vision for refuge. Anything was fair game as long as the suggestions meshed with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policies. Then she paired the community’s vision with what science could support on the refuge.

“My job to make sure that the community that fought so hard for this feels like they really do have a role in its future,” says Owen-White.
Senator Martin Heinrich and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps Urban Conservation Corps members get together for a photo at a Valle de Oro refuge for the #1M4ValledeOro announcement event.

That process has led to plans for some non-traditional projects. A stormwater drain running through the refuge will form a saltgrass meadow, using wildlife habitat to biologically filter water rather than letting it rush through a concrete ditch. Valle de Oro may also become the first national wildlife refuge to host a community vegetable garden, helping to sustain the valley’s agricultural heritage.

Ultimately, Owen-White sees Valle de Oro as the front line in introducing urbanites to the refuge system and conservation work happening on the Middle Rio Grande’s more remote public and private lands.

“It’s really a chance for community members to see how land goes from a farm that was potentially slated for houses or an industrial facility, to becoming protected, and then see how that protected land gets restored,” says Owen-White. “People will see diverse habitat that really exemplifies the Middle Rio Grande. But right now they get to see themselves in the planning process. They get to see how conservation really works.”

Check out all the stories in IWJV’s Summer 2017 Newsletter:

Community at Rio Grand Headwaters Keeps Water Flowing

How One Doctor is Cultivating Conservation

Ecologist and Landowners Champion Wildlife and Human Values

Refuge Manager Sees Urbanites As Crucial for Conservation

“Quiet Leader” Receives Award for Impactful Partnerships