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Bosque plan depends on details

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What is the value of the bosque that extends along the Rio Grande as it flows through Albuquerque?

Take a walk deep into the maze of dirt tracks that thread through cottonwoods and willows, kicking up leaves in the fall and maybe startling a wary coyote or spotting a bald eagle on a tree snag, and the answer can be found in solitude and losing one’s human self in the great balm of nature.

Open up on a bike on the paved trail, and it’s as much about being away from cars for tens of miles as it is about being close to nature.

Pop down to Tingley Beach on a Saturday with friends in from out of town, and it’s simply an entertaining place to putter around that’s free and not a mall.

Fly home to Albuquerque, and it’s just a ribbon of green in the summer, gold in the fall and gray in the winter.

It’s no wonder that a discussion about changing access to the river – “bringing the river more into our daily lives” – has found broad, bland support and narrow, passionate opposition.

“The bosque” means different things to different people.

I would wager that the people who feel passionately about the bosque tend to love it as it is, in all its labyrinthine wildness. And that the people who have less of a connection to that ribbon of forest – most people – would tend to entertain ideas about changing it because, after all, who would argue with trails, walkways, bridges and sculptures?

And those things do sound nice. But the devil in Mayor Richard Berry’s “Rio Grande Vision,” which would invite more people to the riverbanks by creating more avenues for access, will be in the details.

What’s the carrying capacity of this landscape? Should people be encouraged to congregate in certain high-traffic areas and leave the rest wild? Or should a greater number of small trails be distributed throughout the forest to prevent a heavy load in any one area? Should we brighten up the bosque gateways and leave the rest alone? Can a fragile ecosystem stand more traffic at all?

A Journal Poll, conducted by Research & Polling Inc., found that a whopping 69 percent of people favored “adding things such as path trails, pedestrian bridges, boardwalks and viewing platforms” to the bosque.

If the pollsters had called my number, I would have been among the 6 percent in that poll saying “it depends.”

But then, during our recent, amazing rain-rain-go-away week, my opinion started to shift.

With record rains to our north, I got excited by the prospect of seeing the Rio Grande actually live up to its name and took an afternoon walk out to the Alameda pedestrian bridge to wait for the anticipated tsunami.

As the muddy river rolled by, carrying all of the debris from northern New Mexico’s arroyos, people started to gather. They rode up on their bikes, stopped and watched the river flow. They parked on their way home from work and, in dress clothes, came out to take a look. They came with dogs and friends and big Sonic cups and lots of cellphone cameras.

The cottonwood and willow forest known as the bosque is a treasure that provides shade and bird and animal habitat along the river. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

The cottonwood and willow forest known as the bosque is a treasure that provides shade and bird and animal habitat along the river. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

This went on all weekend on bridges up and down the river.

The Alameda bridge is a delight. It’s wide and restricted to people on bicycles, on horseback and on foot. Traffic flows on the roadway south of the bridge, but the view to the north is a perfect introduction to the bosque, the cottonwood and willow forest that brackets the river, the source of contention.

What brought everyone out during the big storm days wasn’t the beauty of that forest; it was a sense that something big was happening, that we might get to witness a natural disaster.

The irony of that was that we were waiting for expected flooding – which is natural to the bosque and far from a disaster. In fact, it’s critical to the health of the trees that grow along the riverbank. Historical floods (and low-intensity fires) made the bosque more healthy, and more of them now would do more to improve the place than walkways and bridges and signs.

In other words, the bosque has bigger problems than whether we put in boardwalks or trails and how close to it we allow a coffee shop or sculptures or kayak rentals. What the bosque really needs is a bigger group of passionate advocates, people who will fight for funding to thin the forest, to pull out invasive plants and to create floodways to improve its health.

In one of the architecture firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini’s “Rio Grande Vision” planning documents, a section labeled “Habitat vs. People” sets up the current conflict.

“There is disagreement about the appropriate and feasible balance between habitat preservation and human activities.”

Um, yes.

But as our gathering on the Alameda bridge told us, as did the ones at the beautiful pedestrian bridge that runs alongside Interstate 40, there are already plenty of good options for getting out and seeing the river. There are also plenty of good options for visiting the bosque – everything from the manicured Aldo Leopold trail west of the Nature Center to wilder paths that extend for miles through the forest to benches and picnic tables within a short walk of parking lots.

As hundreds of us experienced during the flood that wasn’t, the river is wide and awesome and easy to visit, and it’s exciting just the way it is.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or