“Biophilia” – Letter From a Wildlife Biologist

Dear Mayor Berry,

Re:  Comments on ABQ the Plan: The Rio Grande Vision

I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the Rio Grande Vision document.  Henceforth, I will refer to the document as the “RGV.”  I am a professional Wildlife Biologist and was employed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for 24 years.  Since 1999 I have served as a consultant to various non-governmental conservation organizations on a variety of conservation issues.  I live just 2 blocks from the Rio Grande Nature Center.  I am attracted to this area because of the natural diversity of life it supports and the seasonal spectacle of migratory birds that rely on the Rio Grande corridor for habitats that support them during migration.  And the howling of coyotes in the evenings is always a special treat.  Wild nature lifts my spirits, as it does for most people.

A central figure in the early development of Albuquerque was Aldo Leopold—arguably the most insightful ecological thinker of his time and a former member of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce (1918-1919).  He is venerated throughout the Rio Grande Bosque on kiosks and a trail is named in his honor.  In his book “A Sand County Almanac”, Leopold developed the tenets of what he called the “Land Ethic.”  He summarized that ethic with the following profound statement:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, beauty and stability of the biotic community.”

Leopold followed this sentence with “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold understood that healthy human communities required healthy natural ecosystems for their support and wellbeing.  He also understood the importance of setting aside significant tracts of wild areas as forever protected from ecologically destructive human development.  He understood the social and ecological importance of the Rio Grande Bosque as a natural amenity within Albuquerque and actively advocated for its protection in the early 20th century.

Thirty years ago our State Legislature had the wisdom to act on Leopold’s vision and established through legislation the Rio Grande Valley State Park—a contiguous swath of riverside, “riparian”, vegetation protected and preserved in perpetuity along a 22-mile reach of the Rio Grande through the heart of Albuquerque.  Few American cities can boast such a magnificent natural amenity within their city limits.  Nearly 5,000 acres are protected from development that degrades the natural character and ecological integrity of the Park.  Protecting and restoring the ecological integrity of this natural treasure should be the top priority.  Many cities have invested millions of dollar to recreate such green amenities, while all we have to do is protect, and restore where necessary, what we already have.

However, I fear that the RGV starts us down a path of incrementally destroying the natural and ecological integrity of the Rio Grande corridor through yet to be fully defined “developments.” The opening statement on the website for the RGV states “The Rio Grande Vision (RGV) is about connecting Albuquerque to the river, while protecting the spectacular amenity and resource that flows through the heart of our community.” (underlining added)  The clever marketing slogan “connect, protect and excite” suggests three co-equal objectives for the RGV.  However, the vision document throws the “protect” objective under the bus with little more than honorable mention and no specific plans for significant protection and ecological restoration efforts throughout the RGVSP.  Imagine how spectacular the “amenity and resource that flows through the heart of our community” could be if a significant portion of the anticipated funding for RGV projects were directed to the objective of protecting and restoring the ecological health of the bosque.  This should be the first priority of the RGV, and would greatly enhance the value of the “connect” and “excite” features.

The State Legislature clearly recognized the importance of preserving the natural character of the Rio Grande corridor through Albuquerque:

Rio Grande Valley State Park Act, Section 2 (3/15/1983).  “DECLARATION OF POLICY. – The preservation, protection, and maintenance of the natural and scenic beauty of a designated portion of the Rio Grande and its immediate corridor is in the public interest.  The designation of the Rio Grande Valley State Park will enable people to enjoy the recreational, environmental, educational, and wildlife benefits of the river.  Therefore, the legislature declares it to be in the public interest, in furtherance of sound environmental policy to and for the good of the people to establish the Rio Grande Valley State Park.” (bold font and underlining added for emphasis)

The RGV significantly deviates from this mandated purpose.

Riparian areas are the life blood of biodiversity in the Southwest.  A majority of our plants and animals, many of which are rare and endangered species, depend upon riparian ecosystems.  These riparian ecosystems are themselves endangered with 80% of them already destroyed or severely impaired throughout the Southwest. 

Economic studies consistently show that human communities near significant protected natural areas have healthier economies.  Most people love Nature, a phenomenon world-renowned ecologist Dr. Edward O. Wilson refers to a “biophilia”—an innate reverence for nature among humans.  He wrote a book on the topic.

A leading cause of plant and animal endangerment, decline in biodiversity, individual species population declines, and species extinction is habitat destruction and fragmentation.  As suitable habitats decline and the remaining pieces get smaller, Nature suffers exponentially.  As human populations increase concomitantly with development pressure, Nature invariably loses unless strictly enforced protection measures are in place.  Reestablishing connectivity among remaining patches of wild nature is a major goal of modern conservation biology theory and practice.  The RGV would work against this goal by contributing to further habitat fragmentation and degradation.

As I read the enabling legislation for the Rio Grande Valley State Park and the Bosque Action Plan, adopted by the Albuquerque City Council in 1993 as a “Rank Two Facility Plan,” it appears to me that such protection is already in place—and could be violated by proposals in the RGV.

The RGVSP enabling legislation mandates the “preservation, protection, and maintenance of the natural and scenic beauty of” the RGVSP.  The duly promulgated Bosque Action Plan sets forth various policies to carry out and ensure the conservation of the bosque in its natural state.  Key policies (some paraphrased) of the Bosque Action Plan include:

Policy 1:  Land use decisions shall be ecologically compatible.  This policy requires an evaluation of the ecological impacts of facility development proposals within and adjacent to RGVSP, prior to any surface disturbing action.

Policy 3:  The RGVSP shall be managed to preserve and enhance its ecological diversity.  This policy must guide the entirety of the proposals (both near- and short-term) identified or alluded to in the RGV.

Policy 4:  Regeneration of cottonwood trees shall be emphasized to perpetuate their existence.  The plan recommends temporary over-bank flooding to promote cottonwood regeneration.  Such periodic flooding would likely be incompatible with many inside-the-levees structures and trails proposed in the RGV.

Policy 6:  All submittals for development, both private and public, on properties located on or adjacent to the RGVSP shall include a complete extraordinary facilities form submitted to the Open Space Advisory Board—for their review to ensure compliance with the Bosque Action Plan and other established requirements.

The RGV establishes a disturbing departure from the duly established and legally binding “conservation mandate” for the Rio Grande Valley State Park.  The RGV must fully comply with the legislated purpose and the approved policies of the Bosque Action Plan.

All proposals for developed facilities must undergo formal environmental review with meaningful public involvement and must be submitted to the Open Space Advisory Board for their review and approval.  With proper oversight, I believe there are many conceptual ideas within the RGV that would be beneficial and compatible with protecting and conserving the ecological integrity and natural beauty of the RGVSP.

I recommend the creation of a technical oversight group with appropriate areas of expertise relating to conservation biology and restoration ecology to ensure that proposals are compatible with the conservation mandates identified above.

I request that all ongoing and future developments be suspended until the RGV is brought into compliance with the Bosque Action Plan and receive meaningful public scrutiny, appropriate technical review, and required approvals to ensure compliance with controlling legal and policy documents.


David R. Parsons

Wildlife Biologist