A unique refuge offers sanctuary for community residents as well as wildlife

The Valle De Oro National Wildlife Refuge, just five miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is unique – so far. The first such refuge in the southwestern region, it also is the first urban wildlife refuge in the US to be built from the ground up with widespread community involvement and thus can be a model for best practices. After years of planning, the refuge’s visitor center will officially open this fall. 

It also is a reminder of the region’s long, complex, multicultural history. In the South Valley, it was historically part of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro historic trail, which crosses the refuge’s eastern border. The surrounding Mountain View community is inhabited by families whose heritage dates back to early Hispanic settlers and more recent immigrants. And Price’s, which owned the Valley Gold farm that is now the refuge, became a corporate giant. (Its wonderful ice cream is still remembered by long-time residents.) 

But Mountain View, an unincorporated community south of Albuquerque, also is home to the city’s sewage treatment plant. After rezoning in the 1960s, “Mountain View was soon enveloped by industry—auto recyclers, Albuquerque’s sewage plant, paint facilities, and fertilizer suppliers—that left a legacy of contaminated groundwater, two Superfund sites and high levels of air pollution,” High Country News says

The community had almost no parks, no walking trails, and rates of asthma and other chronic diseases higher than other parts of Albuquerque. “Which is one reason the Valle de Oro project was able to get off the ground in the first place,” KUNM reported in 2016. “Volunteers, residents and community groups along with the county government enlisted the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies….to improve environmental health in communities just like this one. Now the federal government is looking at this as a model for environmental justice projects elsewhere.” The refuge was a signature project of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative.

“One way to think about urban refuges is that they extend into a community in such ways as planting islands of refuge in schoolyards through partnerships with public schools, helping people plant native plants in their yards to attract local birds and wildlife, and giving presentations at schools. In turn, the community extends into the refuge by using it for activities they already participate in within their community that are compatible with the refuge’s goal of restoring the natural environments to benefit wildlife. The goal is for the refuge to become a part of the community and the community to become a part of the refuge..”

During the long planning process which led to the 570 acres being designated the nation’s 559th national wildlife refuge in 2012, educational programs and restoration of the shallow seasonal wetlands, cottonwood bosque, grasslands, and upland habitats helped make Valle de Oro a hotspot for birders from near and far, with about 230 species of resident and migratory birds documented. Now the Friends of Valle de Oro which grew from that work also offers a model for community support groups to facilitate public engagement and promote environmental awareness. “As one of the few wildlife refuges in an industry-burdened community, refuge staff and community leaders are working to leverage this open space to create a healthier environment not just for raptors and swallows, but for the people of Mountain View, as well,” reports High Country News. 

The refuge is making a slow transition from fallow farm fields to wetlands. Trails that will eventually carve through a restored Rio Grande bosque, the cottonwood forest that lines the river, are still being planned.

But there are challenges with being an urban wildlife refuge in an industrialized area –  on one hand, fears that more industrial development could affect the refuge, and, on the other hand, fears that ‘green gentrification’ could change the neighbourhood’s make-up and cultural identity. To help address these challenges, the Los Jardines Institute has created The Valle de Oro Environmental and Economic Justice Strategic Plan—the first of its kind to steer a wildlife refuge’s goals – and the refuge staff notifies residents of hearings for proposed new industrial projects.

The Plan offers a vision of the future. “In the year 2037 we envision that the Middle Rio Grande Valley habitat restoration efforts over the previous 20 years have resulted in a continuum of native environments, ranging from a historically similar Rio Grande Bosque with associated wetlands, to adjacent Chihuahuan and Great Basin desert upland areas. The restoration of these native habitats has been accompanied by an increase in number and diversity of native birds and wildlife – both migratory and resident – associated with these habitat types.”

“The Refuge functions not only as a home to native flora and fauna, but continues to serve as an important route for stormwater runoff from the surrounding neighborhood, thus helping reduce the impact of flooding on the local communities. The Refuge wetlands and the AMAFCA swale also serve the important function of cleansing water before it reaches the Rio Grande Bosque, thus improving the native environments of the Bosque southwest of the Refuge. People of all cultural and social groups in the South Valley and Greater Albuquerque area feel welcome and safe at the Refuge, and visit frequently for a variety of reasons.”


The Wildlife Refuge Helping a Community Fight for Environmental Justice. YES magazine, Apr. 16, 2021 (originally published by High Country News)

Valle De Oro: An Experiment In Environmental Justice, KUNM, Jun 7, 2016.

Valle de Oro – About the Refuge. US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Environmental and Economic Justice Strategic Plan 2017-2020. April 2017