ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Imagine the Rio Grande flowing down a concrete channel, its banks bare of trees. No bike trail. No wildlife.
That’s an Albuquerque that almost was. But thanks to a group of local residents and civic leaders in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that future never came to pass.
Their efforts to save not only the bosque but all of the city’s natural wonders would culminate in the formation of the city’s Open Space Division, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
The city will hold a celebration at its Open Space Visitor Center from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 2.
The event, “Honoring Our Past and Building Our Future,” will feature presentations from those instrumental in the creation of the Open Space Division, an open panel discussion, awards presentation and a birthday cake.
The city has approximately 30,000 acres of open space, including the bosque, the Elena Gallegos picnic area, the petroglyphs and the volcanoes, according to Open Space superintendent Colleen Langan-McRoberts.
She said it was citizens and visionary city leaders who saved what so many residents enjoy today. They recognized the dangers of unchecked urban sprawl and knew the city’s natural landscape and open spaces were vital to wildlife, recreation and community well-being, she said.
“This is not every city’s story in the United States,” she said. “A lot of the lands are privatized, but that’s not our story. What occurred here was very unique.”
Rex Funk was the city’s first superintendent of Open Space but his involvement started more than a decade before its 1984 formation.
Open Space origins
Funk moved to Albuquerque from California in the late ’60s, a time when the modern environmental movement kicked off and people were becoming more aware of the impact that development and human consumption were having on the planet.
“I had come from Los Angeles and I saw the destruction of its natural environment,” he said. “I got here and I thought Albuquerque still has a chance to save theirs.”
He got involved in the local environmental efforts. It was also about that time, Funk said, that the Bureau of Reclamation was floating around a proposal aimed at conserving water and making sure Texas got their fair share.
“They wanted to destroy the trees around the river and put it in an artificial channel,” he said. “They wanted a sterile environment where the vegetation wouldn’t take the water.”
In addition to the bosque proposal, a paper mill wanted to move into Albuquerque and use river water and trees from the surrounding mountains to make its product.
“Those two things galvanized people,” he said. “It got their attention.”
In 1969, the Legislature funded the Rio Grande Valley State Park Plan to preserve the bosque and keep the river in its natural habitat. Citizens formed task forces to advocate for the preservation of natural spaces in and around Albuquerque including not only the bosque and river, but the Sandia Foothills, the petroglyphs and the volcanoes on the city’s West Side.
These advocates set their sights on the historic Elena Gallegos grant, an 8,000-acre parcel of land owned by Albuquerque Academy that stretched from the foothills to the top of the Sandias. The City Council agreed to enact a tax so the city could purchase the land, save it from development and create an open space trust fund for the acquisition of other open space properties. Two years later, the Open Space Division was born.
“It was the whole frontier mentality of if there is no economic value, then it has no value at all,” Funk said. “With the open space movement, we showed them these places can have other values to a community.”
Funk helped establish the Rio Grande Nature Center and was instrumental in coming up with the plan on how to get funding to purchase the Elena Gallegos property, which is now a picnic area with hiking trails at the base of the mountains. His volunteer work led to a permanent position with the city and eventually being named the city’s first open space superintendent. Funk will give a presentation at the celebration outlining the division’s history.
Eye to the future
Langan-McRoberts said the division has an approximately $4 million operating budget. Bond money, property tax funds and the trust pay for land acquisitions and major projects. The nonprofit Open Space Alliance also provides some financial support through fundraising and donations.
Looking to the future, Langan-McRoberts said it’s important to continue protecting the city’s open space. A way to do that is by engaging children through after-school programs, summer camps and small projects that will help usher in the next generation of advocates.
“We want young people to know these lands exist and we want them to become important to them,” she said. “We want them to become stewards of the land.”
She said through the years, the city has worked to engage the public and encourage use of outdoor spaces through educational programs, public events and opportunities for low-impact activities. The division has 5,500 volunteers and docents to help manage the hundreds of thousands of visitors who use the properties each year.
Langan-McRoberts said it’s difficult to accurately count how many people visit open space properties annually because not all them have an entry fee or staff on site. Those that are staffed include Elena Gallegos, which averages 180,000 visitors annually, and Boca Negra in the Petroglyph National Monument with an annual visitor count of 65,000.
“We have quality of life here,” she said. “It does not take much to get out to a scenic place and have serenity. I can’t imagine Albuquerque with no bosque at all.”