Lawmakers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife workers and volunteers donned hard hats and grabbed shovels during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge visitor center on Friday.
The 10,000-square-foot visitor center is expected to be completed in one year. It will include an amphitheater, education center, exhibit hall, staff offices, a space for the Friends of Valle de Oro organization and a new maintenance facility.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall applauded the local organizations that secured funding for the new center.
The center has a price tag of $7 million, which is all federal funding from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We took this land from a smelly old dairy, and look what’s it’s going to be now,” Udall said. “We want this to be a place for vibrant wildlife populations.”
The 570-acre refuge in the far South Valley is on a former dairy farm east of the Rio Grande. Valle de Oro opened in 2012 as the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest and is now transforming into a wetlands habitat. Isleta Pueblo Gov. Max Zuni said he was proud of the progress at the refuge.
“My grandparents always told me it is important to preserve and protect our wildlife. These are our neighbors,” Zuni said.
The new center is a “big step” for the surrounding Mountain View neighborhood, according to Valle de Oro refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White.
“We want the exhibit hall to be like a comfortable living room where people can have conversations about habitat and wildlife on the Middle Rio Grande,” she said.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Fish and Wildlife Southwest Region Director Amy Lueders said the new center was all about the neighborhood.
“We recognize that today’s youth are less connected to nature and more connected to electronics,” she said. “This refuge is an oasis for the community. We want to provide our families and our children with safe access to the outdoors.”
Corrales-based company Ideum, which designed the Penguin Chill habitat at the ABQ BioPark, will design the Valle de Oro exhibits. Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada said the new center will help share Albuquerque’s cultural and environmental heritage.
The new building will house a conservation career center. High school and college students can visit the space to learn about jobs in conservation and volunteer opportunities at the refuge.
“This land will be protected forever,” said state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. “This is incredible, to see an urban area taking the time, energy and money to protect this land. This can be the largest outdoor classroom in New Mexico.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.