In Leopold’s Footsteps

A century of conservation efforts inspired by ecologist Aldo Leopold.

THERE IS A SULFUR BOG and a series of burping ponds in a little valley on the south end of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The aquamarine ponds that feed the marshy area below the valley emit a very particular rottenegg smell.

Years ago, a road was cut through the forest and up the valley that lies alongside these wetlands. The road altered the way the water from rain and snowmelt ran down the hills and into the valley bottom. The result was that a series of deep gullies threatened to drain the sulfur bog and its ponds.

On an August weekend, I joined about 20 other volunteers from the Albuquerque Wildlife Federation (AWF) to stop the gullies from reaching the wetlands and destroying them. That weekend we were building one-rock dams and Zuni bowls—simple, effective, and inexpensive stone structures that slow runoff, and trap sediment and seeds so that new grasses, bushes, and trees can take root, further slowing the water and stopping the erosion.

This kind of volunteer-driven restoration work is the specialty of the Albuquerque Wildlife Federation, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this month.

MOST OF THE HUNTERS who gathered in Albuquerque on July 21, 1914, had witnessed in their own lifetimes the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the decimation of the bison. They acknowledged that most of that damage was done by hunters like themselves, and reasoned that if things continued in the same way, there would soon be nothing left to hunt.

The organization born from that meeting was the brainchild of Aldo Leopold, one of the first Forest Service managers in New Mexico and later author of the seminal ecology text A Sand County Almanac. Initially incorporated as the Albuquerque Game Protective Association, the sportsmen actively promoted wildlife protection laws, starting with the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

During the following decades, the group advocated for a system of national game refuges, the creation of the State Game Commission, and closed deer- and elk-hunting seasons. They also made it a habit to publicly shame those who violated the new game laws. Over time, however, they focused less on hunting issues and more on overall species conservation. By the 1970s, AWF increasingly focused on ecological restoration work. By the 1990s, the reenergized nonprofit and its volunteers were leading the improvement of habitat for the sake of wildlife throughout the state.

New Mexico’s landscape is not only an ecological treasure, but also an economic gold mine. Tourism generates approximately $5.9 billion for the state each year, and hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and other types of outdoor recreation are key contributors. Without a doubt, the health of the state’s economy is dependent on the health of the rivers, lakes, and wildlife habitat that support these activities. The work this small conservation group does reaches far beyond the rims of the canyons where they haul rocks and plant willows.

THIS SUMMER, AWF volunteers will focus on nine habitat restoration projects throughout the state. One of these is Cebolla Canyon, in El Malpais National Monument, near Grants. Eighty years ago, a productive spring in the valley attracted a number of families who started truck farming. Unfortunately, the very road the farmers built to the area also drained the meadow and the spring. Eventually they had to move away, and cattle tramped into what was left of the wetland, destroying the plants that once held the soil in place. A massive arroyo grew in the canyon and the wildlife moved out. In 2000, AWF volunteers set to work, fencing the spring to keep the cows out, constructing small dams in the arroyo, and planting trees, shrubs, and grasses to help stop the erosion.

“It took 70 years for the problem to get this bad, and it will take 70 years to fix it,” says Kristina Fisher, vice president of AWF. “But we’ve already seen 100 acres of wetland come back, as well as ducks, geese, salamanders, turkey, and elk.” The Sora rail and the yellow-headed blackbird, two bird species uncommon in New Mexico, also started nesting in the area again.

Limestone Canyon, in the San Mateo Mountains southwest of Socorro, is a small, steep canyon dressed in towering ponderosa pines. Historic logging and cattle grazing in the area caused the stream to dry up and the cottonwood forest that grew along its banks to die off. For seven years, AWF has built an impressive number of one-rock dams in the streambed to get the water to slow down and seep into the ground.

The results have been dramatic. The stream is flowing again, so much so that it is overflowing its banks at times and bringing nearby meadows back to life. Last year, volunteers found cottonwood sprouts, which have not been seen in the valley in more than 50 years. Elk and deer have also returned, and there is talk that the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog could even come back.

“PERHAPS THE BIGGEST ecological impact of these projects is that we have a dedicated group of people with a long-term commitment to these places,” says Bill Zeedyk, the guru of watershed restoration in the American Southwest. A soft-spoken retired Forest Service manager, Zeedyk guides the AWF restoration work to ensure it has a scientific basis and a solid plan to work from.

“You need to have people who are committed to the land. With a lot of these projects you can’t see an immediate result, but it grows over time,” he says. “The cumulative effect of years of volunteer work is ecologically significant.”

The AWF restoration projects do indeed have a core group of volunteers, but they also have a wide range of people like me who join in when they can. There’s also a growing number of people from out of state who plan part of their visit to New Mexico to work with AWF.

“This kind of work offers visitors to New Mexico the perfect opportunity to get to places they would never otherwise be able to see, and to meet New Mexicans they would never otherwise meet,” says AWF president Michael Scialdone. “Our projects are an ideal way for visitors to get an intimate connection with our state and the public lands that we all own.”

It may seem hard to believe, but for many of us, carrying rocks, planting seedlings, building dams, and putting up fences is fun. It’s the kind of work that makes you feel like you’ve made a difference. Plus, at the end of a long workday there are buffalo burgers and fabulous campfire conversations.

AWF volunteer restoration projects are listed on its website (abq.nmwildlife.org), as is information on its monthly meetings. The AWF will host its 100th anniversary celebration on Saturday, July 19, at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, near Albuquerque. The public is invited.

“AWF was founded on the same principles that Aldo Leopold later articulated in his land ethic writings,” says Fisher. “That is, people should be citizens of the ecological community, not conquerors of it.” ✜

Jim O’Donnell is the author of Notes for the Aurora Society: 1500 Miles on Foot Across Finland (Infinity Publishing, 2009). Find him in Taos and at aroundtheworldineightyyears.com.