Urban Wildlife Refuge Part 5: The Southwest's First

A true collaboration between the local residents, area businesses and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proves that building a wildlife sanctuary from scratch also builds a strong outdoorist-minded community.

By Kristen Pope December 1, 2015

Once a dairy farm; now the Southwest’s first urban wildlife refuge. Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, which recently celebrated its third anniversary, is located just a few miles south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande, and has a unique creation story among National Wildlife Refuges.

Valle Oro is the result of multiple, collaborative partners who came together to protect and improve the land and is an example of the power of collective action at a local level, says refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White. “We spend a lot of time and effort getting our community involved and engaged in the refuge design and development. It’s all farm fields right now and with community input and support we will be working over the next couple years to restore it to native habitat and build trails and a visitor center and those kinds of things.”

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Jennifer Owen-White, Refuge Manager, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently working with community members to help restore the 570-acre refuge habitat and develop facilities on the site. They’re expanding and adding trails, boardwalks, overlooks and a visitor center as well as planting native trees and shrubs and creating wetlands. The refuge is also working to serve neighborhood needs, including adding stormwater drainage to help protect nearby areas from flooding.

The refuge’s central location makes it a convenient destination for nearly half of New Mexico’s residents, especially those in nearby urban areas. “It’s really exciting because 45 percent of the entire state population is within 30 minutes of the site,” Owen-White says.

Refuge visitors enjoy fantastic birding, including sandhill crane viewing at certain times of the year, as well as hiking and photography opportunities. Photographers marvel in the gorgeous views of the Rio Grande and Sandia Mountains, which turn a beautiful pink color at sunset, as well as opportunities to snap images of birds and other wildlife.  

In addition to recreation opportunities, Valle de Oro educates visitors about the natural world. Last year, more than 4,500 kids attended educational programs at the refuge, and more than 5,000 visitors attended special events and programs.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Native American Youth Corps members, Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Michael Black, Rio Grande Bird Research staff, La Plazita Institute staff, and Valle de Oro staff participate in a bird tagging demonstration at the refuge.

“Many people say ‘Why do you do all that when it’s still just farm fields?’ and that’s kind of the whole purpose of building this refuge with complete community involvement and engagement,” Owen-White says. “One of the biggest things we have to offer is that we’re basically a blank slate, so lots of different groups can get involved and have their voices heard and make an impact on the refuge and the community through the refuge.”

 And many groups are taking advantage of this great opportunity to get involved. Over a dozen organizations contributed to purchase the land, and many more are assisting with other refuge needs. “We’ve started out with this spirit of partnership,” Owen-White says. “Now, more than 125 different partner groups are involved in some way, from design to education, research to outreach programs on the refuge. Everybody’s so excited about it because it’s a really great opportunity to start something from the ground up and be a part of that.”

Project partners include community, education, advocacy, environmental justice, and volunteer groups, and they would love to add some outdoor groups to the mix. “Because this refuge is starting from the ground up, it’s a great opportunity for the outdoor industry to be involved,” Owen-White says.

They’re looking for design ideas, support with special events, education, outreach, service days, and spreading the word about the refuge and its offerings. “The more people who know about Valle de Oro, the more people who can be involved and help bring this project to reality,” Owen-White says.

Read about five other urban refuges from coast to coast and our tips to help outdoor brands and retailers tap into these unique resources.

1. America’s First Urban Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia’s John Heinz at Tinicum
2. New Orleans’ Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge
3. Portland’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge
4. L.A. River and the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge
5. Albuquerque’s Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge
6. Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Visit the Fish and Wildlife Service to find the refuge closest to you.