‘A place for learning and connecting’ - Albuquerque Journal

‘A place for learning and connecting’

As the New Mexico morning sun starts to heat up the South Valley, hawks fly over the fields of a former dairy farm that is now the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.

On Saturday, the refuge hosted a visitor center grand opening and 10th anniversary celebration for the 570-acre urban wildlife property.

Refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White said the refuge is a “hand-in-hand partnership” with the community.

“I hope it’s a healing place,” she said. “I hope it’s a place for learning and connecting with others.”

The property boasts a lot of firsts: the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest, the first refuge to have an environmental justice action plan and the first to organize a “friends” group before the refuge was even designated.

A dedicated coalition helped prevent the former agricultural property from becoming “just another unwanted industrial development,” said David Barber of the Mountain View Neighborhood Association board.

“This is a space the community can be proud of, knowing that it will always be there for them,” Barber said.

For years, refuge projects have involved young people who are interested in conservation careers.

Staff also work with local schools to teach students about the region’s wildlife and landscapes.

“I love Valle de Oro because their plants and birds are very cool,” said Mountain View Elementary fifth grader Samuel Alvarado.

Elijah Lujan, an Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps member, has worked at the refuge since 2016.

He has seen the “amazing progress” of work to transform the farm fields into wetlands and grasslands.

Riverside bosque restoration projects are underway, and more walking and biking trails are being built.

“It’s been an even greater honor working here considering I’m from Isleta Pueblo, and these were once the lands that my ancestral people roamed,” Lujan said.

The 10,000-square-foot center visitor center first started construction in the fall of 2019.

Corrales company Ideum created interactive exhibits that tell the story of the surrounding ecosystems and incorporate the Tiwa language.

Murals by local artists line the walking trails and the center walls.

Amy Lueders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest region director, said Valle de Oro “belongs to everyone.”

“It creates a special place for wildlife, and safe, equitable access to the outdoors,” Lueders said.

The refuge is also an Urban Night Sky Place, as designated by the International Dark-Sky Association.

The property focuses on community-centered spaces. Parts of the exhibit hall are named the living room, the porch and the library.

“We want people to come hang out and spend time here,” Owen-White said. “It’s not a place that you go once a year — we want it to be a place that you come to over and over again.”

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