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Debating nature in the bosque

MOUNTAIN VIEW – The ash-throated flycatchers moved easily, back and forth between young willows and old cottonwoods in the Rio Grande woods. A woodpecker – a downy woodpecker, or maybe a hairy one, or a ladderback? – sounded like a rhythm section for the blue grosbeaks’ lead vocals, singing across a gurgling river.

The river was high Sunday, or at least relatively so in this year of drought, when I visited this New Mexico State Land Office property, 200 acres of riparian woods – the bosque – near the southern end of the Mountain View neighborhood.

The young willows, which seemed particularly attractive to the birds, are nestled in a series of depressions carved into the bosque floor, linked by channels that wander through the woods. Dug this spring as part of an $800,000 project by the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, the depressions are already covered with sprouting willows.

The heavy equipment work creates a way to move runoff through the bosque, safely out of a neighborhood that has long lacked adequate flood control protection, said the flood control authority’s chief engineer, Jerry Lovato.


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In the process, the system will use the water to create the sort of wetland habitat, with areas for slow-moving, shallow water and plants like willows, that once was common in the bosque but is now almost gone, say State Land Office officials. The office has been working on habitat restoration for years at the site, but resources have been limited. The match between the flood control agency’s need for a place to send its water and the land agency’s desire to restore the habitat were a happy accident and a perfect match, Land Commissioner Ray Powell said in an interview.

“The stars all aligned,” Powell said.

But this is the Rio Grande bosque, a contested landscape where nothing is easy.

On my quiet Sunday morning walk, I thought the area looked lovely. Groundwater has seeped into some of the hollows, and the birds had colonized the former construction zone.

Trees are sprouting on State Land Office property in Bernalillo County's South Valley, where a major flood control and habitat restoration project was completed this spring. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Trees are sprouting on State Land Office property in Bernalillo County’s South Valley, where a major flood control and habitat restoration project was completed this spring. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

But for those accustomed to the rambunctious bosque woods, this newly manicured landscape – with old trees cleared away to make room for the wandering maze of wetlands – it has been a startling sight. And therein lies a small but interesting controversy that illuminates the difficulty of managing the Albuquerque area’s sprawling riverside parklands.

The 4,300 acres of riverside bosque, stretching from Bernalillo to Mountain View, is formally designated in state statute as the “Rio Grande Valley State Park,” but it is a state park in name only. As former state parks Director Dave Simon noted in a public forum last week, it is in fact owned and managed by a patchwork of government agencies.

While “environmental restoration” is frequently discussed as a goal for managing the land, there is no clear community consensus on what we as a community mean by that. City of Albuquerque Open Space Division Director Matt Schmader, speaking alongside Simon at a recent public forum on the bosque, described the difficulty of sorting out that question. Humans have been slowly interacting with and altering the bosque for more than a thousand years, Schmader said. Are we trying to “restore” to the conditions when large pueblo villages dominated the valley, or early Spanish farmers, or the ranchos of the 1700s?

As Lovato and his colleagues are learning firsthand, cutting down the bosque’s treasured cottonwoods is viewed by some as a sin against nature.


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Michael Jensen, an Albuquerque resident active in the bosque environmental community, is among those disturbed by what the flood control authority and the State Land Office did. In an interview, he said he was disturbed when he saw how many trees had been removed and how much earth had been moved. “The scale and scope of what went on in the bosque is way beyond what I pictured,” Jensen said.

Jensen’s reaction is common, said Marla Painter, a resident of the Mountain View neighborhood. “It’s shocking,” Painter said of the common initial reaction to entering the newly cleared and sculpted State Land Office property.

But Painter, whose academic background is in biology, said she understands why it needed to be done. Painter echoes the views of many scientists who say the bosque as we now know it is profoundly unnatural. Before humans bent on flood control restricted the Rio Grande’s channel, the river wandered a flood plain, leaving a mosaic of woods, grasslands and marshes across the valley floor. The intervention with heavy equipment is an attempt to do manually what nature no longer can, and Painter is eager to see the wetlands evolve in the State Land Office property.

“In 10 years, it’s going to be gorgeous,” Painter said. “Quite frankly, I wish that the whole park could have that treatment.”

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.