Mill levy to help with conservation efforts

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Only a handful of people gathered to hear a presentation on a proposed quarter mill levy for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District last Saturday morning.

Abel Camarena, treasurer of the VSWCD board of supervisors, began the slide show by saying the district's mission and goal is conservation and to ensure the sustainable use of the water, soil, air and plants.

"Basically quality of life issues," Camarena said. "We are the stewards of the land now and we are teaching those who will be stewards in the future."

The district was founded in 1947 and is a political subdivision of the state. The district covers more than 1.4 million acres. While the heart of the district is Valencia County, it also takes in portions of Bernalillo, Cibola, Sandoval, Socorro and Torrance counties.

The seven-person board is made up of local landowners who volunteer their time to serve.

Camarena said the beneficial programs offered to the residents of the district are both recreational and educational.

"Whitfield (Wildlife Conservation Area) is a jewel of an example of conservation efforts," he said. "Along the river and on all our lands we have to be aware that agricultural lands change due to development. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but things do change."

And with those changes, the district keeps a close eye on issues such as soil conservation and water quality. Other programs the district offers include bosque management and restoration, clearing out undergrowth and "ladder fuels" along the river, which make fires all the more dangerous.

Camarena said places such as Whitfield also serve as real-world laboratories for studying things such as the effects of organic herbicides on noxious weeds.

"Once that study is complete, that's information we can share with the public," he said.

The mill levy, if approved by the voters, will be in place for 10 years. While state statute allows the district to request an entire mill, the VSWCD is only pursuing a quarter, Camarena said.

"We as a board serve in an open forum. We use our best judgement, with the input of others, on how to manage the district and its funds," he said.

The VSWCD board of supervisors meets at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of each month at Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area Visitors' Center, 2424 N.M. 47, Belen.

Camarena acknowledged that right now, everyone is concerned about money.

"We are very aware of that," he said. "We are very cognisant of how the money needs to be used if we are given the opportunity."

The district will continue to pursue state and federal funding sources, many of which are competitive grants that the district is going up against other entities for.

Camarena said the mill levy will help the district with its annual operating costs of about $343,600.

The district does have two full-time employees, but Camarena said the volunteers make all the difference.

"Without our volunteers, we would be hard pressed to make this function, he said. "They help us conserve and stretch our dollars."

In regards to non-native species such as Chinese elms, Russian olives and salt cedars, local agriculture producer Albert Chavez said the district needs to do more than just educate people about the negatives of what he called "water suckers."

"Your property might be clear, but if your neighbors isn't, well … People think, 'Oh, there's a free tree, I'll just keep it and prune it,' not realizing that it will drop millions of seeds on their neighbors property," Chavez said.

Supervisor Charlie Sanchez Jr. said that was a very important point. With the mill levy, the district will be able to pursue more grants, he said, which will allow the district to go beyond education and partner with private land owners to help them remove the invasive species.

Linda Heinze, a volunteer with the Friends of Whitfield, asked if after the removal of the invasive trees, was the district replacing them with other trees.

"The Russian olive trees provide a lot of food for wildlife," Heinze said. "It's not really conservation if you're just removing the vegetation."

Camarena said the district encourages people to bring in native species such as cottonwood trees and coyote willows to places they wanted trees on their property.

Sanchez said the district has cleared close to 180 acres of high-water using, non-native species in different areas and that has cost nearly $1 million already.

"There are two corridors we're looking at now — one in Bosque Farms and another near Carson Park in Los Lunas," he said. "It will be about $70,000 for both areas."

Eligible voters within the district have until 5 p.m., Friday, April 5, to register to vote at their respective county clerk's office.

Absentee ballots can be requested from VSWCD starting Monday, April 8, through Wednesday, April 17. Call the district office at 865-5807 to find out how to get an absentee ballot.

Absentee ballots can be returned via mail or submitted at either polling place through election day, Tuesday, May 7. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The polling places are the USDA Service Center Field Office, 2600 Palmilla Road in Los Lunas and the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area Visitors' Center in Belen.

The district is holding three more public information meetings about the mill levy. The next one will be at 6 p.m., Thursday, March 21, at the Los Lunas Teachers' Resource Center, 800 Coronado Rd. NE.

The others will be at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 9, at Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area Visitors' Center, and at 10 a.m., Saturday, April 20, at the Los Lunas Teachers' Resource Center.


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