Sowing Seeds of Justice Along the Rio Grande

As the nation’s first urban wildlife refuge that centers community and environmental justice, Valle de Oro may serve as model for more to come.

WRACKED BY SOME OF THE highest poverty rates in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the predominantly Chicano community of Mountain View, seven miles south of downtown, may seem an unlikely setting for a national wildlife refuge. The 11-square-mile area some 6,000 people call home also contains the state’s largest sewage treatment facility, several chemical manufacturing, asphalt, and concrete plants, sprawling auto salvage lots, bulk-fuel terminals, two Superfund sites and more than 40 other industrial sites regulated by the EPA. Not surprisingly, there are high levels of air pollution and groundwater contamination here.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Urban Interface

The Albuquerque community of Mountain View is home to more than 40 industrial sites. Thanks to decades of grassroots efforts, it is also home to a national wildlife refuge. Photo by Catherine Leicht / USFWS.

But thanks to decades of grassroots efforts, it is now also home to the first-ever national wildlife refuge being built, literally, from the ground up and in collaboration with the community it serves.

Established in 2012, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge set aside 570 acres along the east bank of the Rio Grande, what had been part of a large dairy farm. Its creation disabused notions then circulating of using the site for more industry or to expand the nearby wastewater plant. The refuge now protects the largest remaining plot of undeveloped farmland in the metropolitan area. Work is underway to restore the landscape to what the US Fish and Wildlife Service describes as “a mosaic of native Middle Rio Grande Valley habitats” that will be “an oasis to both wildlife and people.”

It’s clearly a work-in-progress. The landscape is still largely characterized by huge tracts of fallow alfalfa fields pocked with parched thistle and tumbleweed – not unexpected considering the land was subject to commercial agriculture for more than a century. When I visited the refuge last fall, the trees in the bosque – the riverbank forest of native cottonwood and willow – were crowned in hues of gold, orange and russet. The open fields that skirt them drew sandhill cranes and Canada geese to rest and forage along their journeys south. Upland, beyond the fields, oil silos and junkyards were clearly visible.

The refuge’s modest appearance, however, belies its significance. This is the nation’s first federal public land with a strategic plan to address environmental and economic injustice. It also signals a new era of conservation focused on collaborative management with historically marginalized populations.

“Valle de Oro is invaluable to the community,” says Richard Moore, a former Mountain View resident who co-chairs the inaugural White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “It brings access to open space, draws attention and resources, and creates opportunities.”

Moore is also cofounder of Los Jardines Institute, part of a local agricultural cooperative that helped build a national alliance of grassroots groups working to reform chemical and energy industries. In 2017, the nonprofit, along with independent advocacy group Friends of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and staff of the fledgling refuge together crafted Valle de Oro’s first Environmental and Economic Justice Strategic Plan. The document outlines a path for advancing participatory, inclusive decision-making and non-discriminatory public policy development, among other key principles.

The refuge is setting precedent for the US Fish and Wildlife Service too, as the first built under its Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, which aims to help cities pursue urban land conservation and increase public access to the outdoors. The program now includes more than 100 such refuges.

“At Valle de Oro, our [program] goals and critical environmental and economic justice work intersect,” says Cynthia Martinez, refuge system chief and native New Mexican. “I’m proud this is taking place in my home state. The refuge is an incredible asset to the community, and shows this work is doable elsewhere.”

A TRANQUIL BUT ESTABLISHED agricultural community, Mountain View is an unincorporated area in the city’s South Valley that grew alongside Albuquerque as it rapidly expanded during the Second World War. The neighborhood is bisected by a railroad, which transported uranium to Los Alamos in 1944 and still moves millions of tons of toxic materials annually, and was key in facilitating commercial-scale agriculture and industry here. Mountain View was rezoned in the 1970s to accommodate further industrial development, accelerating its deterioration.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 2012, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge set aside 570 acres along the east bank of the Rio Grande, what had been part of a large dairy farm. ​Photo by Ariel Elliott / USFWS.

sandhill cranes in valle de oro national wildlife refuge

The refuge is still very much a work-in-progress. Photo of sandhill cranes by Katie Knapp / USFWS.

people on a walk in Valle de Oro NWR

The refuge is meant to be an oasis for both people and wildlife. Photo of people on a bird walk by Cecilia Beltran/USFWS.

In 2009, a groundwater contamination study revealed that “nitrate contamination was discovered in the 1960s, but residents were merely encouraged to dig deeper wells, until 1984 when most … were put on nearby municipal water after a child was poisoned and hospitalized with methemoglobinemia,” a rare, life-threatening disorder that reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.

Many are still skeptical about the quality of water feeding the acequias, a network of irrigation ditches crisscrossing the Rio Grande Valley that has been central to agriculture for centuries. And continuing proposals to site more industry here are deeply concerning to a community whose members are plagued by some of the county’s shortest life spans.

“For decades, South Valley communities have been subjected to racist policies that have seriously affected the health and welfare of our people,” says Lauro Silva, a retired lawyer and current president of the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, which was created in 1971. In 2000, a pair of five-year NIH grants allowed Silva and partners to train more than a dozen area residents to become community research promotores, and help organize “bucket brigades,” volunteers equipped with vacuum pumps and EPA-approved buckets to capture emissions for air pollution data. The data they collated helped draw attention to the extent to which industries were impacting the area’s air quality.

Despite often fierce opposition over the past four decades, Silva and other South Valley leaders have scored several victories for the community, including hazardous waste spills clean-ups and the shuttering a “nuisance” racecar track. And they continue pushing for better regulation of industry to this day. Last November, for instance, community groups introduced a proposal, modeled after regulations in New Jersey and Minnesota, to limit pollution in disadvantaged communities, calling for the air quality board to consider various health, environmental, and equity indicators before approving permits. And in February, after years of rallying, they succeeded in getting the city to revoke an air quality permit for a proposed hot-mix asphalt plant.

Valle de Oro, too, is the fruit of this kind of tenacity.

It was locals who led the charge to create an urban wildlife refuge in their community. Before the federal government entered the picture, community members and activists had laid much of the groundwork for the refuge’s establishment, having advocated for years prior to preserve the land.

Marla Painter, an environmental justice advocate and Mountain View resident since 1997, says she logged countless miles “walking and knocking,” going door-to-door promoting the protection of the land long before it became a refuge. “It was really an organic process of people coming together, many of whom didn’t want to see old farmland get subdivided or new industry coming in,” she says.

But funds for the old farmland’s $18.5 million price tag did not materialize overnight. It required coordination within and beyond the neighborhood – no small feat given the special challenge of coalition-building among sometimes competing interests.

“The community that banded together … had diverse motivations,” says Teri Jillson, a longtime Mountain View resident who, along with South Valley Civitan Club president Ric Watson, cofounded the Friends of Valle do Oro before the refuge was established. Jillson was herself inspired by the prospect of an accessible student field trip destination and conservation-promoting resource.

The group lauded the site’s potential as an outdoor recreation site, tourist destination, and economic driver to state legislators; and partnered with Conservation Voters New Mexico and Senator Michael Padilla to spearhead a capital outlay effort that produced upward of $1 million.

A committee appointed by then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar included the property in a report outlining plans for a “string of pearls” network of conservation, recreation, and education sites along the river. Groups like Ducks Unlimited got on board, as did others, some not often politically aligned. Advocates for river conservation, water rights protections, and flood control all found common ground on this unlikely site.

After a significant early county commitment was augmented by local, state, and community sources, the other half was generated mostly through federal means.

“Fundraising began with neighbors digging into their own pockets for 10- and 20-dollar donations, which then spread out to the numerous partnerships, and finally to the Fish and Wildlife Service,” says current Friends group president David Barber.

In 2011, the Trust for Public Land, which works to create parks and protect public lands, sent an evidently persuasive letter endorsed by a range of signatories to Secretary Salazar. It clarified how the refuge would be ideal under the Obama Administration’s new “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative, which emphasized conserving river ecosystems, connecting youth to the outdoors, and creating new urban open spaces.

Ultimately, the Trust negotiated the land purchase agreement, acquiring the property in phases and then conveying it to the Fish and Wildlife Service to be developed into an urban wildlife refuge.

ALTHOUGH TOUTED AS a potential tourist destination and economic driver for New Mexico, the refuge is foremost focused on its immediate neighbors. This is apparent in many of the objectives outlined in its strategic plan, from integrating environmental justice principles into its development to conducting contamination monitoring to providing support, resources, employment and other opportunities. In 2021, an EPA grant enabled appointment of an environmental and economic justice program coordinator to update the plan over the four following years.

“The plan shows how this public land is going through hyperlocal democratization … to get to a point where the community manages and commonly owns the refuge, with community-based participatory processes and management structures to realize [its] goals,” says program coordinator Xavier Barraza.

“The whole idea,” says refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White, “is to involve community members as much as possible, so they ultimately guide refuge management and development to meet their needs.” Owen-White, who moved from further down the Rio Grande, in South Texas, has managed the refuge from the beginning, and many in Mountain View are quick to credit her dedication.

“She represents an emergence of leadership genuinely engaged with the community at every level,” says Silva’s wife, Magdalena Avila, a public health researcher and University of New Mexico associate professor emeritus.

Around the time the refuge was established, Avila and Silva helped start a community farm on a two-acre plot about two miles north of the refuge where neighbors can grow food and gather. In summertime, the garden bursts with corn, tomatoes, beans, squash, and green chilies; and its trees are laden with peach, plum and apricot – a striking contrast to the adjacent sewage plant and the railroad across the street. “One of the community’s most outstanding attributes is our deep experience working in social justice, which has brought us together,” says Avila. “We know each other’s struggles.”

Lauro Silva and Magdalena Avila

Lauro Silva and Magdalena Avila helped start a community farm on a two-acre plot about two miles north of the refuge around the time Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge was establish. Photo courtesy of Magdalena Avila.

But the community is by no means a monolith. As LJI cofounder Sofia Martinez says: “It hasn’t been a hunky-dory process. But truth, honesty, time, and commitment to develop trust … that’s been the beautiful and transformational aspect of this process, that folks have moved forward with this model despite often having to deal with very uncomfortable discussions and realities [that] continue in our work for justice.”

Already though, the refuge has been a consequential counterpoint to the neighborhood’s longstanding adversities. “The changes … have been a huge boost,” says Barber. “We now have a stormwater drainage system, sidewalks, street lighting, landscaping, and bike and walking paths.”

In 2015, refuge partners developed a “Toxic Tour” to give visitors an unvarnished glimpse of the neighborhood, spotlighting some of its EPA-regulated sites. Unusual fare for a wildlife refuge to be sure, it speaks volumes to the grim realities in Mountain View – and to the larger legacy of injustice that has pushed frontline communities like this one to fight back.

Back in 1991, Moore and Avila were among delegates at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC who helped draft the 17 principles of Environmental Justice. The summit itself was convened following a landmark 1987 study that found that toxic waste sites disproportionately affect poor communities of color throughout the US. Soon after, in 1991, in response to demands for government action, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order assigning federal agencies the task of identifying and rectifying hazards affecting these communities. The order also required them to incorporate environmental justice plans into their respective operations. Valle de Oro’s environmental justice plan is, in fact, a localized derivation of the one developed by the Interior Department.

OWEN-WHITE ACKNOWLEDGES the refuge’s social value will take time to fully realize: “It won’t happen overnight,” she says. “It’s about generational change, which takes committed, intentional effort over years and decades.”

Not unlike the ecological work at Valle de Oro, from expanding the bosque to developing seasonal wetlands, grasslands, and uplands.

Youth Conservation Corp at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge

Youth Conservation Corp work in a community garden with Refuge Manager, Jennifer Owen-White. Photo by Brett Billings / USFWS.

valle de oro national wildlife refuge

Ecological work at the refuge includes expanding the bosque and developing seasonal wetlands, grasslands, and uplands. Photo by Janelle Golden/USFWS.

Many area residents weighed in on design considerations for refuge habitat features, and local volunteers and youth crews remain consistently busy helping restore the land, incrementally, to a healthy, natural floodplain. In fact, along with serving field trips for Albuquerque school students, as Teri Jillson had hoped, the refuge is central to various youth corps programs. In a normal year, more than 100 young people have jobs based at Valle de Oro as they work on local, state, federal, and tribal lands. That number may well increase, given the newly established Indian Youth Service Corps that “seeks to provide meaningful education, employment and training opportunities to Indigenous youth through conservation projects on public and Indian lands, and Hawaiian homelands.”

The refuge has already been working with Indigenous youth via the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps. Brittany Chavarria, a 23-year-old member of the Pueblo of Isleta, interns at Valle de Oro through the program, helping its visitor services team create educational and interpretive programming. She is currently developing cultural sensitivity protocols for the refuge.

“Our ancestors have stewarded this land and passed on traditions that teach us how to respect and care for, not only the land, but for one another,” Chavarria said during a press conference at the refuge last year, when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the launch of the Indian Youth Service Corps. “That’s why I’m inviting Indigenous youth like myself to become involved with public lands that are the traditional homelands of our people. Federal agencies know more about our ancestral lands than we do, and it shouldn’t be that way. We need to make sure our culture and traditions don’t die with us – and that we pay it forward for future generations and for Mother Earth.”

The refuge is, in fact, situated on traditional Tiwa lands, just a few miles north of the Pueblo of Isleta, a community of about 4,000, and a sovereign nation that should be able to regulate industrial impacts on its land. The Pueblo has worked with its South Valley neighbors for decades, and has been especially instrumental in combatting contamination of the Rio Grande.

When Valle de Oro was established, the governor of Isleta, and then 13-year-old Brittany Chavarria, conducted a blessing ceremony. The Pueblo has since consulted refuge staff on the design of habitat enhancements that replicate historic floodplain conditions. Many Isleta members also created educational displays and murals for the refuge’s long-planned visitor center.

The 10,000-square-foot visitor center – a dramatic, modernist centerpiece set in stark relief against the old farmland — officially opened on the refuge’s tenth anniversary last September.

Flanked by native landscaping and a pond that attracts waterfowl, the solar-powered facility is clad in slats of reclaimed beetle-killed pine, and features water catchments, abundant natural light, and “bird-friendly” windows. It houses an amphitheater, classroom, community meeting space, career center, and interactive displays emphasizing the local natural and cultural history. It also includes a small library focused on environmental justice.

Altogether, the visitor center is both a welcoming place, and a powerful reminder that the 570 acres surrounding it belong to the members of this strong and determined community.

“The refuge is a beautiful gem that has seeded social justice throughout its infrastructure,” says Avila. “While it can never appropriate the work that started with the community, it can help advance it. The legacy and history of the people of Mountain View and the South Valley are written in our hearts. And Valle de Oro must uphold who we are.”

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