The new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge is a place of firsts: it’s the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest and the first wildlife refuge in the country to have an environmental justice plan. It's also the first time kids in one largely Hispanic community have had a wild outdoor space to play in close by.
To get to the Valle De Oro National Wildlife Refuge, about 15 minutes south of downtown Albuquerque, you first have to drive through some of the poorest and most polluted neighborhoods in New Mexico.
"Just wanted to point out this facility on the left hand side that we’re coming by. This is a chemical storage facility, you can see the cars in the back there," says Richard Moore, an environmental justice activist from the South Valley. He’s leading a tour of the polluting businesses in the Mountain View neighborhood next to the refuge.
"That particular company had a spill at one time, had an accident inside, and our community was never notified," he says as the tour drives down an industrial leg of southwest Second Street.
The road passes through clusters of gasoline storage terminals, junkyards, concrete crushing plants, then there it is: 570 acres of grassy fields, edged by a forest of cottonwoods bordering the Rio Grande.
Moore says the green spaces and nature trails of the wildlife refuge are something this community hasn’t had in a long time.
"This is a very historical piece of land for a lot of reasons, and our elders constantly remind us of that—that they walked their children and now some of our children up and down the Rio Grande, up and down the bosque and so on, and pointed out birds and ducks and trees and plants and this kind of thing. So to us, it’s a living classroom."
Moore says reintroducing kids to the “living classroom” of the great outdoors has a special meaning here. For years, this land housed a large dairy operation, but before that, it used to be farm fields, part of the South Valley’s agricultural past that was lost when industrial businesses started taking over the area in the 1970's.
That’s one reason Moore, along with others in the neighborhood, started advocating for the creation of the refuge when the dairy farm closed down in the late 1990’s. Valle de Oro opened its doors to the public in 2013.
"Already you can see the benefits that it has on the young people here. They’re already asking questions and getting back to nature," says Towana Yepa, who came out to Valle de Oro with her son Talon for a community party at the refuge. Talon is playing in a sandbox with a big smile on his face.
Playing outside isn’t so easy for kids in this part of town. There are almost no parks, no walking trails, and rates of asthma and other chronic diseases are higher than other parts of Albuquerque.
Which is one reason the Valle de Oro project was able to get off the ground in the first place. Volunteers, residents and community groups along with the county government enlisted the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies, after the Obama Administration stepped up efforts to improve environmental health in communities just like this one.
Now the federal government is looking at this as a model for environmental justice projects elsewhere.
"This is a teachable story, where yes we can work together, yes we can combine our assets," says Matthew Tejada, director of Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "No single entity can just come in and solve a problem. Those problems are complex, they’ve usually been around for decades, there are all sorts of factors that have created an area with environmental justice challenges, with the demographic and economic and health issues that are all facing these communities."
The work on Valle de Oro is far from done, Tejada says, and there’s a lot more to do to make sure the refuge is a real starting place for addressing the South Valley’s longstanding problems with pollution, poverty, and access to nature.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation.