The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge has a special feature: it is the first national wildlife refuge to be built for this purpose in an urban area. Right now, it’s as much a construction project as it is a habitat.
But even when the wetlands and salt-grass meadows come to life here, the location will still have fuel terminals and salvage yards dotting the skyline in Mountain View, a neighborhood in southern Albuquerque, New Brunswick. Mexico.
Why we wrote this
This wildlife refuge is unusual because it focuses not only on habitat, but also on serving the residents of its urban environment. As the nation increasingly urbanizes, its values could become a model.
Forty federally regulated facilities, two Superfund waste sites and a sewage treatment plant lie between the refuge and downtown Albuquerque seven miles away, thanks to decades of industrial growth and strategic rezoning. While the refuge aims to restore the natural habitat of the floodplain, the highest priority is something else – serving the visitors themselves with an emphasis on community development, environmental justice and youth outreach.
At a time when around 83% of the country’s population lives in urban areas – with 89% projected to by 2050 – the approach to Valle de Oro could become increasingly important. And its very existence is a testament to community involvement.
Resident David Barber explains: The community “came together and fought hard for a long time to make sure this property becomes something that [we] could be proud of.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
From her office at the visitor center at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, still under construction, Jennifer Owen-White has a perfect view of the fuel terminals and salvage yards that dot the horizon.
Someday soon there will be wetlands, paths and salt grass meadows in the foreground. But those fuel tanks and abandoned cars will always appear like a thunderstorm cloud in the distance, an “important reminder,” says Ms. Owen-White, of “what my job is and why this refuge exists.”
Valle de Oro represents a kind of new dawn for Albuquerque, and in particular for Mountain View – this district in the south valley of the city. Forty federally regulated facilities, two Superfund waste sites and a sewage treatment plant lie between the refuge and downtown Albuquerque seven miles away, thanks to decades of industrial growth and strategic rezoning. For Mountain View residents, decades of nature slowly but steadily recede from the region.
Why we wrote this
This wildlife refuge is unusual in that it focuses not only on habitat, but also on serving the residents of its urban environment. As the nation increasingly urbanizes, its values could become a model.
There are 565 National Wildlife Sanctuaries across the country – all managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service – and 101 of them are technically considered urban wildlife refuges. Most of them, however, became “urban” over time as cities developed near them. FWS and the Mountain View community are doing something different in the South Albuquerque Valley.
Occupying 570 acres on the site of a former dairy farm, Valle de Oro is the first national wildlife refuge to be purpose-built as an urban refuge – an approach that in essence upsets the traditional dynamics of the wildlife refuge.
Yes, the refuge aims to restore a natural floodplain where wetlands, grasslands and dry habitats attract a variety of different species. But its top priority is something else – serving the visitors themselves with an emphasis on community development, environmental justice and youth outreach. At a time when around 83% of the country’s population lives in urban areas – with 89% projected to by 2050 – the approach to Valle de Oro could become increasingly important.
“It is a model in this country for knowing how to create these refuges for habitat, for people and for wildlife,” explains Gabe Vasquez, director of strategy and partnerships at HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors). “In a dusty, low-income neighborhood, having access to [nature] really is gold for the people of these communities.
Under construction, but open to visitors
Since its opening in 2012, the refuge has been under construction. But even though the sanitation work was underway, the public was able to freely access most of the refuge, which the FWS generally does not allow.
“We wanted to make it so that people could come and see what was going on,” says Ms. Owen-White, “mostly because it was their idea.
Indeed, protecting the 570 acres of the development is something the Mountain View community has been fighting for a long time before FWS came along.
With about 6,000 residents – about 80% of whom are Hispanic, according to US Census data – Mountain View is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Albuquerque. The primary school is over a century old (although rebuilt in 2017) and some families have lived there for five generations. Once primarily agricultural, the community saw zoning changes in the 1970s attracting a concentration of industrial activity to the southern valley. For decades the region has had one of the worst tunes and water quality in Albuquerque.
An “old tight-knit community”
David Barber has lived in the neighborhood since 1994, and he shared what one might describe as typical Mountain View experiences. He shoveled his driveway back in place after a storm swept it away, and he spent years not even letting his dogs drink tap water. But he also never locked his back door, and he has grown to love what he calls the “old tight-knit community”.
“There is a lot of pride here, even though we have to look for landfills to get to our home,” says Barber.
For three years he was president of the Friends of Valle de Oro, a local group that helped found – and is now helping to develop – the refuge. It was the community, more than the wildlife, that first involved him in the group, he says.
The community “came together and fought hard for a long time to ensure that this property becomes something that [we] could be proud, ”he adds.
“We want to maintain a green space and keep it available for the whole community for a long time.”
Already, Valle de Oro has been used to host community events and visits to local schools. There will be spaces in the Visitor Center for community meetings, as well as a shop and office for the Friends group. An oral history exhibit “Voices From the Valley” in the center will allow visitors to listen to local residents describe the community and its history. Local children will be able to work at the shelter during the summers, and maybe even longer. (Four of the shelter’s nine current employees have participated in youth programs, according to Ms. Owen-White.)
And then there is the refuge itself. The natural habitat of the Valle de Oro will help control flood waters and clean up stormwater. Part of the daily operations of the refuge will be monitoring for contamination of ground and surface water. There will be mosaics and murals by local artists, and spaces for outdoor classrooms and stargazing.
And while the sanctuary will be accessible to everyone, its resources and programming will prioritize Mountain View residents, which Vasquez says is essential for any purpose-built urban wildlife refuge.
Shelter managers must “target the populations that these shelters are intended to serve,” he says. Otherwise it’s “it’s the same [regular] visitors to a wildlife refuge.
“Valle de Oro is such a great example of how you do this in the beginning.”
A model for the future?
The refuge has marked trails like the one intentionally built for an urban community.
It is the first refuge established as part of the FWS Urban Wildlife Refuge Standards of excellence, and the first with a community base Strategic plan for environmental and economic justice. And then there are the other firsts: the first wildlife refuge to remain open to the public during its rehabilitation, and the beneficiary of a first of its kind. Designation Urban Night Sky Place.
“Every time we turn around, we’re the first to something,” says Barber. “A lot of people ask us, ‘How did you do that? “”
These are all roadmaps that other urban wildlife sanctuaries may follow in the future – and urban wildlife sanctuaries are going to be key to the future of conservation in America. FWS seeks to do this through a program dedicated to the conservation of urban wildlife, but as more Americans live in urban areas, it will be increasingly important to keep them connected to nature. says Mike Leahy, senior executive at the National Wildlife Federation.
“It’s hard to appreciate and understand something that you have no connection with,” he adds. “And if you don’t have any connection, you’re probably less likely to take action to support something.”
This need is particularly acute in Mountain View. And it strikes at the heart of how Valle de Oro hopes to be different from a traditional wildlife refuge.
“We’re really focused on people and the connection between people and the land,” says Owen-White.
Dressed in a shiny reflective vest and helmet over her FWS uniform, she is speaking out on a hot late summer afternoon outside the visitor center. The scene captures the current state of transition of Valle de Oro. Backhoes and heavy construction equipment rumble in the distance as the cliff swallows, which already nest in the roof of the nearby amphitheater, chirp and flutter overhead.
Helping visitors understand that Valle de Oro is not a normal wildlife refuge – that it is more dedicated to the Mountain View community than to a specific type of flora or fauna – is one of their greatest challenges, she said. The scenery won’t be the most impressive in Mountain West, but the story of its creation could be.
“Without knowing this story, it doesn’t sound very exciting to you,” she adds. “Once you know this story, every little thing you see can just be heart warming.”