The bosque is an oasis for recreation and wildlife

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In the midst of the lazy, winding waterway of the Rio Grande lies an ecological system that a lot of people have come to know as a place for a peaceful stroll or a quiet horseback ride.

Mike Stearns-News-Bulletin photo: Providing a shady walkWay is the bosque near the Belen bridge over the Rio Grande. Foot traffic, bicycles and horses are allowed on the ditch roads and in the bosque, but motorized vehicles, including ATVs, are prohibited.

But the Rio Grande bosque holds much more importance than that.

The bosque is defined as the forested area from the river’s edge to the ditchbanks. At points, it can be a quarter-mile wide. At other points, it is only a few hundred yards.

The Rio Grande bosque is the largest such ecosystem in the world, stretching 200 miles from Cochiti Lake to the northern edge of the Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge near Socorro.

According to Tom Thorpe, the public information officer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the bosque has international recognition.

“The bosque treed area along the river is the largest continuous cottonwood forest in the world,” Thorpe said. “It is quite unique and is a great natural resource.”

As a vast ecosystem that contains two endangered species, large wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities for visitors, the management of the bosque comes under the MRGCD in whole or in conjunction with several other agencies.

Due to fires and one small fish, the area has received national notoriety over the past decade.

The most famous endangered species in the Rio Grande system, the silvery minnow, is responding to conservation efforts to restore its habitat.

According to Thorpe, the recovery of the minnow is going well.

But as important to conservationists as the minnow’s recovery is, MRGCD Planning Specialist Yasmeen Najmi explained that what is good for the minnow is good for the bosque’s restoration as well.

“The bosque is a national and international important ecological resource, because it is such a big migratory flyway,” Najmi said. “It is rare in its size for a riparian area. That habitat is very important for a lot of species of wildlife.”

The bosque is noted as a natural flyway for migratory birds that range from sandhill cranes to various hawks and vultures.

Carved out of the bosque are various refuge areas, including Whitfield’s Wildlife Conservation Area near Belen.

The Southwest willow flycatcher has been on the endangered species list since 1995. It is listed in the least concerned status of the endangered list and is a small insect-eating bird that is olive-gray in color.

As the bosque is restored, the bird that ranges in migration from Colorado to as far south as Ecuador gains habitat and is increasing in numbers.

The old dairy, donated by the Whitfield family, now serves as a habitat for birds and native wildlife of all types.

Project Manager Ted Hodoba explained that more than 200 species of birds, or about half of the known species in New Mexico, use the habitat at some point in the year.

Although mostly sawgrass meadow, the wildlife area is attached to the bosque and its boundaries even extend to the river. Wildlife that needs wooded areas are seen at Whitfield often, such as the Swainson’s hawk that nests in the trees of the bosque and feed in the sawgrass.

“It really is their kitchen,” Hodoba joked.

The wildlife area provides protection and habitat. But even more than that, restoration of the cottonwoods and native plants and trees is happening at Whitfield.

“We have planted over 6,500 native trees and flowers to enhance the natural habitat for the wildlife,” said Hoboda.

“This is important because if you look to the north or south of the us, it is agriculture or urban.”

For the past several years, wild fires have damaged and destroyed hundreds of acres of bosque. The dry and sometimes dangerous brush is a hazard that has ignited flames and fear in the area.

With the introduction of the levee system to the Rio Grande in the mid-1990s, any drought becomes dangerous for potential fires.

One of the most important issues facing the bosque management is fire prevention and controlling the fuel that not only burns very hot and fast, but limits access for fire teams to battle the blazes.

“We have had some really large ones over time,” said Thorpe. “Fire, fire suppression and ways of keeping fuels down is a lot of what we do and what agencies do along the bosque. If a fire gets in there, it is a little difficult to fight sometimes.”

Thorpe noted that the MRGCD accepts input from the towns, counties and cities as to how wooded they want their area of bosque. He also said area fire departments are the ones that fight blazes within the bosque.

“We work with areas and towns and cities,” he said. “If they want something, then we are not there to force them, but it is our responsibility, and if things get too bad then we do have to take care of business. Areas like the wildlife refugee is managed on their own.”

Najmi explained that the fire danger was not always like it is now, but has developed over time.

“We have a drier system now and a higher density of trees,” Najmi said. “We are seeing a lot more catastrophic fires. I am sure that there were always fires, but not as severe.

“Fire management for public safety benefit and for the benefit of the bosque and to protect the bosque itself is the major goal and objective of the work we do in the bosque.”

For the Los Lunas Open Space Division, under the watchful eye of Pat Jaramillo, fire has not been a significant issue in that part of the bosque in the past several years.

While some small fires have been quickly extinguished by local firefighters, evidence of bonfires and campfires has been found in the Los Lunas area.

Jaramillo and his team of three employees have been removing crates and other burn material that have been stockpiled for future bonfires.

“A lot of this happens after hours; at 11, midnight, or one in the morning,” said Jaramillo.

“We all don’t have the resources to do it,” he said of patrolling the bosque. “For all the miles (the MRGCD) has to cover, we are helpful for them. Even with us, there is just three of us. It is really tough and we can’t always be there. That is why we have to rely on the public.”

The bosque provides an oasis for an otherwise arid region. The protection that it gives for wildlife makes it a natural habitat for hunting and fishing.

But the sensitive ecosystem is guarded by some restrictions of activity that can happen within the bosque.

The enjoyment of the bosque can be experienced by hiking, biking and horseback riding. Most of the trails are along the ditchbanks within the bosque.

No motorized vehicles, including four-wheelers and off-road vehicles, are allowed in the bosque.

“It is mainly designed for foot traffic or horse traffic,” said Thorpe. “As recreation goes, things are changing all of the time.”

Thorpe noted that creating more recreation opportunities is an increasing part of managing the bosque.

“It is always good to think about this stuff because it is there for people to enjoy,” he said. “If we can make that enjoyment a little easier to do, then that is a great thing.”

Thorpe indicated that hunting was more popular in the southern part of the bosque, while riverwalks are being considered for the Albuquerque metro area.

Jaramillo noted that a walking trail has been added at the Los Lunas River Park.

“It goes about a mile and a half south,” Jaramillo said. “It also acts as a firebreak.”

Najmi explained that no one agency can handle the management of the bosque. As a staff member of the MRGDC, she explained that more than 150 agencies and governments have a stake in the wooded river-fed ecology.

That is not always a bad thing, according to Najmi.

“It also brings needed resources for management of the bosque,” said the planning specialist. “It is really critical. We have limited resources to put toward the bosque.”

From national agencies to the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to villages, towns and cities, the bosque is a playground and a refuge that is worth preserving.

“It is very important for entities — at all levels — to contribute to its management and restoration,” said Najmi. “It is not something that the taxpayers of the district could fund on their own.”

Najmi also noted that interest groups, such as the Friends of the Bosque and the Ditch Bank Bandits, provide invaluable help in maintaining the bosque.

Daniel Silva, founder of the Ditch Bank Bandits, explained that he grew up on the bosque in Los Lunas at Carson Park. The fishing and walks within the bosque that he enjoyed are now being passed down to his children.

The group regularly has cleanups in the bosque to keep the natural resource alive for future generations.

“We try to make it cool to the younger generations to be aware of their surroundings while pleasing the older generations by actually doing something positive,” said Silva of his group’s preservation efforts.

“It creates awareness and we try to lead by example,” said Silva. “We hold events where we either fish and clean up, walk for cancer and clean up or just clean up.”

Najmi noted that groups such as these provide a valuable public service and play a key role in keeping the bosque enjoyable. She also said that it takes the towns and governments to make sure the bosque is protected.

“I think that it is important for local agencies and governments to feel invested in the bosque,” she said. “It makes it possible for the communities to use the resources sustainable because they are participating with the management.”

In Los Lunas, Jaramillo explained that being a life-long resident gives him a vested interest in the bosque’s protection and restoration as head of the open space division for the village.

“The whole thing is that we are here to conserve and preserve the open spaces,” Jaramillo said. “We use it ourselves. All we ask is that people follow the rules. They are there for a purpose. Some people don’t understand and think we are trying to be the bad guys.”

He firmly ascertained that is not the case.

“I grew up here and have lived here all of my life,” Jaramillo said. “I have fished along those ditches and still do. People are dumping illegally and starting fires all of the time, that is what destroys the place. We are just out there trying to keep it a nice place for people to use and a safe place.”


-- Email the author at mstearns@news-bulletin.com.