In New Mexico, a wildlife refuge with urban roots

By Henry Gass

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge has a distinction: It’s the first national wildlife refuge to be purpose-built in an urban area. Right now it’s as much construction project as habitat. 

But even when wetlands and saltgrass meadows come to life here, the location will still have fuel terminals and salvage yards dotting the horizon in Mountain View, a neighborhood in south Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

This wildlife refuge is unusual for its focus not just on habitat but on serving the residents of its urban locale. As the nation grows increasingly urban, its values could become a model.

Forty federally regulated facilities, two Superfund waste sites, and a sewage treatment plant sit between the refuge and downtown Albuquerque 7 miles away, thanks to decades of industrial growth and strategic rezoning. While the refuge aims to restore natural flood plain habitat, the bigger priority is something else – serving the visitors themselves through a focus on community development, environmental justice, and youth outreach.

At a time when an estimated 83% of the country’s population lives in urban areas – with 89% projected to do so by 2050 – the approach at Valle de Oro could become increasingly important. And its very existence is a testament to community engagement. 

Resident David Barber explains: The community “came together and fought hard for a long time to make sure that this property became something that [we] could be proud of.”

From her office in the visitor center at the still-under-construction Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Jennifer Owen-White has a perfect view of the fuel terminals and salvage yards that dot the horizon. 

One day soon, there will be wetlands, trails, and saltgrass meadows in the foreground. But those fuel tanks and junked cars will still loom like a storm cloud in the distance, an “important reminder,” says Ms. Owen-White, of “what my job is and why this refuge exists.”

Valle de Oro represents something of a new dawn for Albuquerque, and in particular for Mountain View – this neighborhood in the city’s south valley. Forty federally regulated facilities, two Superfund waste sites, and a sewage treatment plant sit between the refuge and downtown Albuquerque 7 miles away, thanks to decades of industrial growth and strategic rezoning. For Mountain View residents, it has been decades of nature beating a slow but steady retreat from the area.

This wildlife refuge is unusual for its focus not just on habitat but on serving the residents of its urban locale. As the nation grows increasingly urban, its values could become a model.

There are 565 national wildlife refuges across the country – all managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – and 101 of them are technically considered urban wildlife refuges. Most of those, however, became “urban” over time as cities grew near them. FWS and the Mountain View community are doing something different in Albuquerque’s south valley.

Occupying 570 acres on the site of a former dairy farm, Valle de Oro is the first national wildlife refuge to be purpose-built as an urban refuge – an approach that, in essence, turns the traditional wildlife refuge dynamic on its head. 

The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The former dairy farm site is unusual in being the first national wildlife refuge purpose-built as an urban one.

Yes, the refuge aims to restore a natural flood plain where wetlands, grasslands, and dry habitats attract a variety of different species. But its bigger priority is something else – serving the visitors themselves through a focus on community development, environmental justice, and youth outreach. At a time when an estimated 83% of the country’s population lives in urban areas – with 89% projected to do so by 2050 – the approach at Valle de Oro could become increasingly important.

“It’s a model in this country for how to create these refuges for habitat, for people, and for wildlife,” says Gabe Vasquez, the strategy and partnership director at HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors). “In a dusty, low income neighborhood, having access to [nature] is really gold for people in those communities.”

Under construction, yet open for visitors

Since it opened in 2012, the refuge has been under heavy construction. But even as remediation work has been ongoing, the public has been able to freely access most of the refuge – something that FWS typically doesn’t allow.

“We wanted to make it so that people could come and see what was happening,” says Ms. Owen-White, “especially because it was their idea.” 

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White stands in the performance space at the refuge visitor center on Aug. 18, 2021, in the Mountain View neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Indeed, protecting the 570 acres from development is something the Mountain View community had been fighting for long before FWS arrived.

With about 6,000 residents – of which about 80% are Hispanic, according to U.S. census data – Mountain View is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Albuquerque. The elementary school is over a century old (albeit rebuilt in 2017), and some families have lived here for five generations. Once mostly agricultural, the community saw zoning changes in the 1970s draw a concentration of industrial activities to the south valley. For decades, the area has had some of the worst air and water quality in Albuquerque. 

An “old, tightknit community”

David Barber has called the neighborhood home since 1994, and he’s shared what could be described as typical Mountain View experiences. He’s shoveled his driveway back into place after a storm washed it out, and he spent years not even letting his dogs drink the tap water. But he’s also never locked his back door, and he’s grown to love what he calls the “old, tightknit community.”

“There’s a lot of pride down here, even if we have to look at junkyards to get to our house,” says Mr. Barber.

For three years he’s served as president of Friends of Valle de Oro, a local group that helped found – and is now helping develop – the refuge. It was the community, more than the wildlife, that first got him involved with the group, he says.

The community “came together and fought hard for a long time to make sure that this property became something that [we] could be proud of,” he adds. 

“We want to maintain a green space and keep this available for all of the community for a long time to come.”

Already, Valle de Oro has been used to host community events and visits from local schools. There will be spaces in the visitor center for community meetings, as well as a shop and office for the Friends group. A “Voices From the Valley” oral history exhibit in the center will let visitors listen to local residents describe the community and its history. Local children will be able to work at the refuge during summers, and perhaps even longer. (Four of the refuge’s nine current staff came through youth programs, according to Ms. Owen-White.)

The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge visitor center has murals and interactive displays. In addition to being a home for animal and plant species, the refuge places a top priority on serving people who live in the neighboring part of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And then there’s the refuge itself. Valle de Oro’s natural habitat will help control floodwaters and clean stormwater. Part of the refuge’s daily operations will be the monitoring of ground and surface water contamination. There will be mosaics and murals from local artists, and spaces for outdoor classrooms and stargazing. 

And while the refuge will be available for everyone to visit, its resources and programming will prioritize Mountain View residents, something Mr. Vasquez says is critical for any purpose-built urban wildlife refuge.

Refuge managers need to “target the populations that these refuges are intended to serve,” he says. Otherwise it’s “just the same [regular] visitors to a wildlife refuge.”

“Valle de Oro is such a great example of how you do that at the beginning.”

A model for the future?

The refuge has been blazing some trails as one built intentionally for an urban community.

It’s the first refuge established under the FWS’s Urban Wildlife Refuge Standards of Excellence, and the first with a community-based Environmental and Economic Justice Strategic Plan. And then there are the other firsts: the first wildlife refuge to stay open to the public while it’s being remediated, and recipient of a first-of-its-kind Urban Night Sky Place designation

“Any time we turn around, we’re first at something,” says Mr. Barber. “We get a lot of people inquiring, ‘How did you do that?’”

These are all roadmaps other urban wildlife refuges could follow in the future – and urban wildlife refuges are going to be key to the future of conservation in America. FWS is seeking to do this through a dedicated Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, but as more Americans live in urban areas, keeping them connected to nature will be increasingly important, says Mike Leahy, a senior manager at the National Wildlife Federation.

“It’s hard to appreciate and understand something you don’t really have any connection to,” he adds. “And if you don’t have any connection you’re probably less likely to take action in support of something.”

That need is particularly acute in Mountain View. And it strikes at the heart of how Valle de Oro hopes to be different from a traditional wildlife refuge. 

“Our focus is really on people, and connecting people with the land,” says Ms. Owen-White.

Wearing a bright reflective vest and hard hat over her FWS uniform, she is speaking on a warm late-summer afternoon outside the visitor center. The scene captures Valle de Oro’s current state of transition. Backhoes and heavy construction equipment growl in the distance while cliff swallows, which are already nesting in the roof of the nearby amphitheater, chirp and flutter overhead.

Helping visitors understand that Valle de Oro isn’t a normal wildlife refuge – that it’s dedicated more to the Mountain View community than any specific kind of flora or fauna – is one of their biggest challenges, she says. The landscape will not be the most awe-inspiring in the Mountain West, but the story of how it came to be could be.

“Without knowing that story, this doesn’t look very exciting to you,” she adds. “Once you know that story, every little thing that you see can just warm the heart.”