LA COSTANCIA—It was a good day to give away some trees. 

Half way through the 2 1/2 week tree giveaway put on by the by the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District last month, most of the 130 native trees being offered were already claimed.

Whitfield trees

Ray Schaedler, left, was one of more than 100 people who took advantage of a tree giveaway hosted by the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District last week. He took home a desert willow with the help of Johnny Chavez, right, the district’s field project crew lead.

Lindsey Diaz, the conservation program manager for VSWCD and Johnny Chavez, the district’s field project crew lead, were on hand at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, where the district offices are located, to help people decide which one of the five types of trees would be best for them.

Tricia Marez went home with a New Mexico olive because they are easy to care for and will hopefully provide some shade once it’s mature.

The tree giveaway was held this year instead of the annual Desert Willow Festival, which was canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on large gatherings. The trees were donated to the district by the wholesale native plant nursery on the Santa Anna Pueblo, Diaz said.

“We initially asked for 100 but when they heard what we were doing, they threw in an extra 30 trees,” Diaz said. “We’ve worked with them in the past for the Desert Willow Festival. They have really good, native products and they’re local.”

After the announcement went public, Diaz said about 300 people reached out to staff at the VSWCD office asking for a tree. Since the trees couldn’t be handed out at a large event, people were asked to come to the WWCA in the span of a few weeks to pick up their new plant.

“It was a really awesome response,” she said. “We did prioritize people who are members of the Friends of Whitfield. We always want to acknowledge what they do for us.”

Founded in 2008, Friends of Whitfield, an independent, nonprofit, is dedicated to supporting the conservation of wildlife and habitats through environmental education, research and restoration at Whitfield.

“Most people just want more trees in their yard, and free is appealing,” Diaz said. “I did have people tell me, ‘I want to care for a tree,’ which was really great. Some people already have trees and wanted a different kind.”

There were five native trees offered by the district — desert willow, New Mexico olive, Goodings willow, one-seeded juniper and piñon.

Diaz said having people come in one at a time allowed her and district staff to engage with them and talk about the benefits of planting native trees and plants.

“It was a good education opportunity. Native plants use less water and you really don’t have to amend the soil,” she said. “The root systems help hold soil in place and the trees create shade.”

The idea to give away trees specifically came from district manager Madeline Miller, Diaz said.

“She wanted us to be part of a global effort of planting more trees so we thought we’d do this since we couldn’t have the festival,” she said.

The annual Desert Willow Festival, which started in 2014, is usually held in mid-August and the sale of native and drought tolerant plants during the festival helps purchase materials for Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area and support its educational activities at its visitor center.

“We wanted to have some kind of event for the community,” Diaz said. “We are hoping to do this again next year. It’s been a great tool to let people know who we are, what the district does and all the opportunities we provide.”

The Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District was formed in 1947 and encompasses 1,438,000 acres, including all of Valencia County, a small portion of northern Socorro County, Isleta Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo.

The district is responsible for the conservation and sustainability of natural resources such as agriculture, soils, water, plants and animals, and is overseen by a seven-member volunteer board of supervisors, five elected and two appointed.

The Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, 2424 N.M. 47, is on the west side of the highway, one mile north of the Belen river bridge.

For information about the conservation area, VSWCD programs and special projects, visit whitfieldwildlife.org, or call 864-8914.

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