Can a Wildlife Refuge Help a Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice?

In Albuquerque’s South Valley, activists are happy for more green space but worry about how gentrification will affect their local ecosystem.

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Albuquerque’s South Valley was once a thriving oasis of food production watered by a network of historic irrigation canals, or acequias. Today, it’s home to several historic neighborhoods along the Rio Grande, including Mountain View.

After much of the area was rezoned in the 1960s, the residents, who are mainly Chicanos as well as recent immigrants, came under siege by the structural forces of environmental racism that dictate who lives near polluters and who doesn’t. Mountain View was soon enveloped by industry—auto recyclers, Albuquerque’s sewage plant, paint facilities, and fertilizer suppliers—that left a legacy of contaminated groundwater, two Superfund sites, and high levels of air pollution. 

Now, six decades later, Mountain View is facing yet another transformation. In 2012, the community became the first in the agency’s Southwest region to have a piece of land within it—570 acres—designated as an “urban wildlife refuge” managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The program started 11 years ago as a way to connect with new and more diverse segments of the population, by meeting people where they live—including the 82 percent of Americans who reside in cities. Known as the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, it sits on land that once was a dairy farm. After years of planning, the refuge’s visitor center will officially open this fall. 

As one of the few wildlife refuges located in an industry-burdened community, refuge staff and community leaders are working to leverage this open space to create a healthier environment not just for raptors and swallows, but for the people of Mountain View, as well. 

The refuge is a work in progress, currently undergoing a slow transition from fallow farm fields to wetlands. The visitor center is under construction, and trails that will eventually carve through a restored Rio Grande bosque, the cottonwood forest that lines the river, are still being planned out. It’s very much in an “ugly duckling phase,” refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White said on the phone in late February. But despite its incomplete state, the refuge has remained open: Student groups visited on field trips, and, during the pandemic, it provided an important green space for the locals.

For communities like Mountain View, where 74 percent of residents identify as Latino, this kind of access to open space is rare. Several studies have shown the unequal distribution of green space in the U.S., where white residents have more access to parks than low-income communities of color.  

But this piece of undeveloped property is notable for another reason, too, said Richard Moore, a local environmental justice activist who now serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. When the former dairy farm went up for sale in 2010, there were rumors that Albuquerque’s sewage treatment plant, also located in Mountain View, was eyeing it as a place to expand its operations. “One of the solutions was to save those acres in a primarily Chicano community there,” Moore told me last November. “Once that happened and we were able to get it declared as a federal refuge, that locked everything out except what the community wanted in.”

Moore is one of several organizers who fought for decades against industrial pollution in Mountain View and across the country, rising to national prominence in the environmental justice movement. He’s now working with the refuge to align the priorities of the land with those of the community through his nonprofit, the Los Jardines Institute. One way of doing this has been through the creation of The Valle de Oro Environmental and Economic Justice Strategic Plan—the first of its kind to steer a wildlife refuge’s goals. The plan was developed by the Institute and the refuge’s nonprofit arm, the Friends of Valle de Oro.  

The refuge’s role goes beyond the typical mandate to protect wildlife and plants; it is also engaged in developing community resources, such as a “living classroom” where students can come to learn about the flora and fauna. It’s also hiring local teens for seasonal youth corps positions, among other types of community engagement. Still, Owen-White knows there is a lot of work to do when it comes to engaging with the local residents. “But trust gets built over generations, not over five years or seven years,” she said.

As part of building that trust, the refuge staff has promised to notify residents of hearings for proposed new industrial projects. Most recently, a construction permit for an asphalt plant was approved in October less than a mile from the refuge. Residents filed a petition to appeal the permit, arguing that siting more industry is a form of discrimination that “violates the state’s constitutional legal guarantee of equal protection and due process,” said Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, who is representing community groups. (Disclosure: High Country News board member Marla Painter, is a co-petitioner on the permit appeal for the asphalt plant mentioned in this story.) 

Though it can’t legally get involved, the wildlife refuge has submitted its own comments to the city’s Environmental Health Department about the plant’s possible impacts to wildlife. And the Friends of Valle De Oro has signed on as a co-petitioner. It’s a striking example of how the community’s needs and the refuge’s needs intersect. After all, what is harmful to wildlife and the land is generally harmful to people.  

But it also points to a frustrating reality: That residents see their own health prioritized only if there is wildlife habitat in their neighborhood deemed worthy of protecting. “Unfortunately, people tend to—or at least people with money and power tend to—gravitate more toward protecting these places than their neighbors,” Jantz said. He’s alluding to a criticism voiced by environmental justice organizers for years—that the conservation movement and its supporters have been more focused on preserving the environment as a place for wildlife than as a place where people also live.  

Mountain View residents like Magdalena Avila worry that as more outsiders become invested in the refuge—80 percent of the nonprofit’s membership is composed of wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts based in Albuquerque and elsewhere—the neighborhood’s makeup, and its cultural identity, could change. “Valle de Oro cannot become more important than the people of this community,” Avila told me one afternoon from her home over Zoom.  

Avila first moved to Mountain View in the 1990s, and to her, it’s always felt like home. “(There’s) a cultural rootedness that makes it special,” she told me. “Here you’ll hear parties, especially around graduation or in the summer, puro mariachis and banda and stuff, all that ambiance is just very raza, I love that.” For decades, she has worked as a public health researcher and activist, and up until last year, she taught about health equity at the University of New Mexico. Moore, Avila, and Avila’s husband, Lauro Silva, became strong voices in the early environmental justice movement. (Silva is also a co-petitioner on the case against the asphalt plant.)

For Avila, Mountain View has to be seen as an equal partner, with community members having more ownership over Valle de Oro’s future. She’d like to see benefits that extend beyond programming, like local full-time jobs for residents—in other words, more equitable representation at the refuge.  

Aryn LaBrake, the executive director of the Friends of Valle de Oro group, says she understands Avila’s concerns; the aim of the refuge’s youth corps program is to train residents for future employment, she explains. She hopes the refuge can be seen as a model for other partnerships working across class and culture or race. “The refuge, their staff, the friends group, and our staff are absolutely committed to going above and beyond to provide support to our local community.” 

Meanwhile, there are still some big issues to tackle, including how to mitigate Valle de Oro’s potential impacts on the community. New amenities like a refuge and a bicycle trail that leads to it could raise property values. The phenomenon is called green gentrification, and Avila fears that if the community members don’t stay vigilant, Mountain View will hollow out and go the way of other tourism-based towns like Santa Fe—becoming an artifact of itself.  

“Part of organizing and community engagement and the social justice is to ensure the grounding of the Chicanos in this community, the immigrants in this community, the residents of that legacy that is here,” Avila said. “We don’t want to be erased.”

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