City Councilors in Albuquerque voted Wednesday to halt construction of a trail in the Rio Grande bosque. Many nature advocates say their trust was damaged when the city started cutting a six-foot wide path through the forest along the banks of the river without giving public notice.
Nearly 200 people showed up at Albuquerque’s City Hall to oppose the city’s bosque development plans. They chanted “Mister Mayor, Be Fair, Save the Bosque!” Then, in order to be allowed into the council chambers, they put down their picket signs and filed in silently.
Councilor Isaac Benton introduced a piece of emergency legislation to immediately cease all trail construction along the river between Central Avenue and Interstate 40.
“I really regret having to bring forth this legislation,” Benton said. “It’s intended to reestablish the dialogue and rebuild public trust.”
Wildlife advocates and people who want to keep the bosque close to its natural state say they were in the middle of negotiations with the city on how best to develop the bosque while protecting sensitive habitat.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry proposed a wide multi-use trail through the bosque a year and a half ago and hundreds of people opposed that plan saying it turned a wild landscape into a manicured park.
A coalition of environmental activists called the Bosque Action Team received three versions of the city’s plan early last week. They say they were asked to offer input, but then were shocked to discover heavy machinery blading a trail along the river the very next day.
“I’m going to stand before you and apologize that these last two weeks did not go as well on the public notice side of things as they should have,” Michael Riordon, Albuquerque’s chief operating officer, told the council. “But we wanted to get this trail work done to be stewards of the bosque.”
City officials say spring nesting season is approaching for birds and they needed to get the project off the ground. The wide trail will be covered in crushed rocks and is intended to accommodate everything from wheelchairs to horses. Riordan said he thought stakeholders were on board.
“As far as we knew,” Riordan explained, “it was a plan that had been vetted for two and a half years.”
Councilor Trudy Jones questioned whether there was a need for more public input.
“Are we talking about the fact that something started before we got to say one more thing and change it just a little bit?” Jones asked. “It seems like everyone is in agreement that we were almost in agreement as to what was going to happen.”
Jones questioned whether any good could come from halting the process now that it’s been started.
But Councilor Ken Sanchez said the city should have waited until the community came to consensus.
“The mayor gave his word, and we as elected officials are only as good as our word,” Sanchez said. “He said that there would be a process that would be given to the public.”
The measure passed on a party line vote. However, because the mayor hasn’t signed it and will likely veto it, construction in the bosque continues.
Gail Garber with Hawks Aloft works to protect birds in the region. Down in the bosque the riverbank was, until recently, a dense thicket of willows. Now, she says the freshly cut trail is of concern.
“The problem is right here,” Garber said, standing on the riverbank. “This is the part that should have been left a thicket. It’s really valuable in the spring and would be absolutely packed with warblers.”
Garber says ideally this section of the trail should be moved away from the riverbank.
“Time will tell. It remains to be seen if the city follows an ecologically sensitive restoration process,” Garber said, “or if they just go along and blade wherever they want to regardless of public input.”
The city has agreed to meet with stakeholders and environmental experts next week to see if they can find a middle ground.