ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Every weekday for six hours, 18 Albuquerque youths endure the sweltering New Mexico sun, working to restore the Rio Grande bosque.
During their lunch breaks, the crew members sit at picnic tables under the much-needed shade of the tall cottonwood trees, chatting over their packed lunches.
After a one-hour break, it will be back to planting, dragging, shoveling and sweating – all to help restore the beauty of the bosque.
The kids are working for the city’s Bosque Summer Youth Program, which involves removing invasive plant species, seeding native plants, removing trash and maintaining the trails.
“The bosque is going to be a better place once they’re done,” said Mark Chavez, assistant superintendent of the city’s Open Space Division. “We’re getting youth involved in our community, and hopefully as they get older it will become a value to them for the rest of their lives.”
He added that the program has proved to be a “win-win situation” for both Albuquerque Open Space and the youths involved. Open Space is short on staff and doesn’t have enough hands to do all of the restoration needed; the youths will come away with knowledge about their local environment.
Crew leader Kyle Bality, an environmental planning and design major at the University of New Mexico, said the most important aspect of the program is educating youths about sustainability, because it will cultivate future residents who are more passionate about conservation.
“We try to get as much nonorganic, non-natural material out of the bosque as we can,” Bality said. “Removal is important so the native plants can thrive, and so we can keep the cottonwoods and the coyote willows.”
Edwin Valenzuela Bergeron, 19, says his favorite part of the job is planting native species, such as willows. Bergeron is a 2015 Rio Rancho High School graduate who will continue his education in the fall at UNM and major in environmental sciences and nuclear engineering.
“The last job I worked at was a maintenance kind of job, but here I get to be out where I love, which is a green-type scenery,” Bergeron said. “It’s more about life in a different sense; instead of making a motor run it’s about bringing things to life for people to enjoy.”
Youth employee Christina Chavez, 16, said she’s learning a lot through the program.
“I learned the difference between invasive species and native species of the trees here and I learned about how much people care about a bosque,” Chavez said. “A lot of people like what we’re doing, like cleaning it up and planting more native species.”
According to the online Bosque Education Guide, the three introduced tree species that are most common in the Middle Rio Grande Valley are salt cedar, Russian olive and Siberian elm.
Invasive species were first introduced to the bosque in the 19th century by settlers arriving in New Mexico, according to Bosque Watch, a quarterly published by the Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. These species absorb water at a much higher rate than native New Mexico plants that are adapted to the desert environment.
This is the first year of the Bosque Summer Youth Program, a 12-week program that began on June 1 and will end in August. The $134,000 program is paid for by funds set aside by the Mayor’s Office.