By Alex Limkin
(Originally published in the Alibi, December 13th, 2012)
A great advocate for New Mexico lands and wildlife, Aldo Leopold, is fittingly honored with a trail that winds behind the Rio Grande Nature Center. This mile-long loop takes visitors through lands he knew intimately.
Following the trail lined with cottonwoods, visitors can enjoy quotes from Leopold's writings posted every few hundred yards. These phrases, dating back a century, deal with the importance of our land base and reflect the thoughts of a man who worked to establish public land projects such as the Rio Grande Valley State Park, Albuquerque’s zoo and the Gila Wilderness.
The trail honoring Leopold was dedicated by the city in February 2009. Less than four years later, his work is at risk. Without any supporting data, Mayor Richard Berry has determined that the river corridor and the Bosque are “underutilized,” according to a representative at a recent public meeting. Albuquerque's top dogs believe the Bosque, an "environmental gem," can and should be better integrated into the fabric of the city. They intend to accomplish this by tearing down natural habitats and laying out roads, parking lots and infrastructure.
I attended the town hall meeting at the Rio Grande Nature Center on Tuesday, Dec. 4, to register my opposition. Berry was not present, but members of his development committee were on hand to answer questions. They said the purpose of the meeting was to find out what the community thinks about building in the Bosque.
Although they were not prepared to take comments, I spoke up from a page of prepared remarks because the Bosque cannot speak for itself. The mayor is an accomplished entrepreneur, and that's why I’m worried: Businessmen may be skilled in enterprise, but they are not good at understanding the fragility of a desert river ecosystem or respecting the deep connections Albuquerqueans feel to wild land.
During my remarks, I wondered aloud if the mayor and the members of his development committee bothered to walk the short length of the Aldo Leopold Forest Trail to read the quotes memorialized there. One near the riverbank where the Rio Grande flows beneath Montaño would have jumped out at them:
"The average Albuquerquean man, woman, or child, is in need of a place within walking distance of the city where he can enjoy a breath of fresh air and a sight of a few trees, a few birds, and a little water ... Just a good trail along the bank and clean woods."
This comment was made nearly 100 years ago when the Bosque was far wilder than it is today.
Berry’s development team believes we don't use the river corridor sufficiently. This stems from misunderstanding. When the mayor and his team visit the Bosque, they see a tract of trees and a stretch of river and think, “What can we build here that will attract visitors to this spot?” They don't understand that people are already coming precisely for what exists there—trees, birds, fresh air, a little water and a "good trail along the bank and clean woods." That is the attraction: nature.
A great part of my recovery from the wounds of war was communing with that sliver of land known as the Bosque, observing the river. The quiet, protected space, a haven where I could walk for miles, connected me to life beyond myself and aided in my recovery. There’s little doubt that the natural world offers healing to anyone who has experienced intense duress in their life.
Unlike other wilderness areas, it’s easy for me to reach the Bosque from anywhere in the city. I can go by foot, bicycle, bus or car, and trailheads and parking are obvious and adequate. Young and old alike can walk the distance required to reach the river. I regularly make the trip with my 86-year-old father, my 3-year-old nephew and my pregnant wife. Miles of trail exist in the Bosque, offering splendid views of the river, and a myriad of plant and animal life along its edges.
At the town hall meeting, the project organizers maintained that development of the Bosque will encourage better stewardship. I disagree. Education and exposure—not development—are the keys to promoting stewardship. Programs offered at the Rio Grande Nature Center and by the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program reach thousands of children a year. If we promoted environmental and outdoor education in school curricula, we could reach thousands more.
It is time to return to Leopold’s ethic and re-dedicate ourselves to the preservation and health of the Bosque. The mayor’s plan to incorporate our wild area into a concrete maze of traffic lights and gridlock, if allowed, would be a great disservice to the environmental gem that is our river wonderland, and one of Albuquerque’s greatest features.
Let the Bosque be.