This April, the Public Lands Alliance (PLA) gave me the opportunity to do a whirlwind trip to visit public lands nonprofits in New Mexico. If you’ve followed Newswire for a while, you may have read about my adventures last year in California which involved me driving across the state in a rental car to visit an inspiring group of nonprofit partners.
This trip to New Mexico was no less exhilarating, and as Marketing and Communications Manager for PLA, I am amazed and humbled by the stories nonprofits had to share with me and to witness the innovative ways they serve public lands visitors.
Through this photo blog, my goal is to shed some light on the great work they do but I know I can only skim the surface. I hope by reading this article, you will be entertained and interested in these fantastic groups and that you'll seek to learn more about them.
For my first stop in New Mexico, I visited the Valles Caldera National Preserve and took a trip around the caldera of an ancient supervolcano.
Thanks to the Los Amigos de Valles Caldera and the National Park Service (NPS), I was given a ‘backstage pass’ to see the caldera in all of its vastness. What I originally imagined would be a two or three hour visit turned into a full day excursion with the nonprofit in the backcountry of the preserve.
During our trip around the caldera, we stopped at Sulphur Springs, an area with bubbling mud pots and fumaroles.
This adventure was a real treat, not only because the area is so compelling but because I had some understanding of the Amigos’ projects on the land from an article I had written with them a year before. I knew the nonprofit had invested time, money and volunteer resources into stabilizing the preserve’s wetlands and I knew they were working hard to expand their visitor services, but seeing it in person was so worthwhile.
Due to historic overgrazing by cattle and sheep, wildfires and poorly built or maintained roads, many of the preserve’s wet meadow landforms were damaged by channel incisions which resulted in fractured watersheds and erosion issues. The Amigos, the NPS and partners have helped address this problem by using restoration methods to reconnect wetland streams and minimize the loss of soil. To really dig into their work on this project, check out their publication which highlights their successful restoration work on the Valle Seco within the preserve.
A reconstructed wetland area near Valle Seco. The nonprofit and partners used a
"plug and pond" method to reduce the size of erosion-prone headcuts and reconnect wetlands.
Los Amigos de Valles Caldera, PLA Staff and Friends in front of the preserve's Visitor Information and Gift Shop.
The next stop on my agenda was to visit the Valle do Oro National Wildlife Refuge, the Southwest’s first urban wildlife refuge.
Just a few miles south of downtown Albuquerque, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners are transforming a former dairy farm into a refuge for local wildlife, migratory birds and for communities in the area. I met with the Friends of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and the refuge staff for a short trip around the site to witness their wetland construction projects and to learn about their plans for the future.
The collaborative work these folks are doing on the refuge to include local communities in their planning and outreach is incredible. As an urban wildlife refuge, they are not only creating a space for wildlife and habitat, but they are creating opportunities for underserved communities to connect with nature through environmental education programs and recreation opportunities. In their commitment to serving local communities, they also developed an Environmental and Economic Justice Strategic Plan to outline a strategic path for the refuge to integrate environmental and economic justice into its daily practice.
Cottonwood trees in the background of the refuge note the bosque area, where these trees line the Rio Grande.
Driving south, I visited Las Cruces, New Mexico and explored Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument
There’s something special about driving south on I-25 and knowing you’ve made it to the region of Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks, even before you’ve seen signs for it. The sharp, craggy rocks, outlined against a blue New Mexico sky are a vivid sight.
Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument is part of the National Conservation Lands system, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This monument is comprised of four areas around Las Cruces, all with picturesque views and interesting ecological, natural, cultural and historic characteristics.
The Organ Mountains are known for their steep, needle-like spires that resemble the pipes of an organ; Source: BLM
When I stopped to meet with the Friends of Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks, they were ready for a hike in the sunny, 90 degree weather and, together, we drove to the trailhead for Soledad Canyon. The Friends Group works to promote recreation opportunities at the monument and spearheads stewardship programs that empower Las Cruces communities to take care of this unique place.
The Friends Group's newest Executive Director, Patrick Nolan, and Friends staff, Brenda Gallegos
posed for a photo with me in front of their office in Las Cruces.
Windswept in White Sands National Monument
Heading north again, I stopped at White Sands National Monument: the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.
This monument is 275 square miles of soft, white sand and it is mesmerizing.
At the Visitor Center, I met with retail staff from Western National Parks Association, a nonprofit that partners with 71 national parks across western states through operating retail stores and providing visitor services and critical funding for parks.
The Visitor Center alone was a neat sight. The architecture is an example of Spanish pueblo-adobe, constructed
between 1936 - 1938 by government agencies, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA); Source: NPS
At sunset, I also attended an interpretive program led by an NPS volunteer and learned about the unique dune vegetation that thrives at this site and the incredible amount of water that the fine gypsum sand keeps in place.
On our hike, the NPS volunteer showed us that the water table of the dunes is only three feet below the surface, keeping the dunes at 99% humidity year round. This high ground water (high for the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert that is) keeps the dunes in place and supports vegetation like the soaptree yucca.
Each part of the soaptree yucca was used by Native Americans: from the young flower stalks, rich in Vitamin C, to the flower pods which were boiled to eat, to the leaf fibers used for ropes and sandals, and even down to the yucca roots which were chopped and boiled to use as soap. The photo below shows the NPS volunteer sharing the awesomeness that is this yucca.
The stem of the soaptree yucca grows just tall enough to stay above the advancing dunes.
Believe it or not, those yucca stems may be twenty feet tall in the dunes!
And there's really nothing quite like a sunset on the white sand dunes in New Mexico.
The spring winds grew quiet as the sun set and the dunes and sky burst with color.
From White Sands to the Valley of Fires: my public lands adventure continues
After White Sands, I visited Valley of Fires Recreation Area, a site managed by the BLM and possibly the youngest lava flow site in the U.S. The Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA) is a nonprofit retail association that partners with this site and provides interpretive items and maps specific to several public lands in the region. PLIA is a go-to resource for visitors seeking information on public lands in the area. If I hadn’t reached out to PLIA for this trip, I would never have known this unique site existed.
A nice hike on the boardwalk takes you through the lava rocks to see Chihuahuan desert plants and wildlife.
Cacti and blooming cholla were abundant on the trail, growing in crevices and depressions in the rocks.
For my last two stops, I spent the day at Bosque del Apache and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuges
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in south-central New Mexico is a birding sanctuary that's internationally known as a migratory stopping point for sandhill cranes. Each winter, an average of 22,000 sandhill cranes winter in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. For this trip, I met with Friends of Bosque del Apache, an energetic nonprofit that leads the Festival of the Cranes each November and brings people together from all over the world to photograph waterfowl at the refuge.
While I didn't visit during crane season, there was a wide diversity of ducks, geese and shorebirds at the refuge.
Last, but not least, I ended my trip with a windy nature walk on a trail in Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. This 230,000 acre refuge is often overlooked as people head up and down I-25, but it is absolutely worth a stop. As I met with the Friends Group, Amigos de la Sevilleta, I learned about their efforts to raise awareness about the refuge through educational hikes and events.
Here is just one of the hikes, located next to the Visitor Center, that allows for expansive views of the refuge.
I also learned that this Friends Group has teamed up with both Friends of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and Friends of Bosque del Apache to encourage tourists to visit all three wildlife refuges as part of a "Refuges of the Middle Rio Grande" experience. The brochure they produced in English and Spanish is truly a collaborative initiative to educate visitors about these contrasting wildlife refuges. It was an awesome example of nonprofit partnership and I'm glad I had a chance to see these three places myself, for all their unique features.
A Great Public Lands Experience, Thanks to Partners
Believe it or not, this post doesn't cover all of the sites I saw and it can't fully describe the kindness people showed me in New Mexico. The week was a reminder that a great experience on public lands doesn't happen by chance but by the dedication and passion of those who serve the lands so people like me can learn and enjoy.
I'm grateful to the public lands community for all that you do to protect these special places and for the day-to-day work you accomplish so that visitors can have life-changing experiences. For those serving public land sites in New Mexico, thank you again for giving me insight into so many amazing places. For those who've never been to the "Land of Enchantment," I hope this post will entice you to go visit!