Down by the Río: veterans, young people join forces for the Río Grande del Norte National Monument

Young military veterans, volunteers and staff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently welcomed 37 high school students to the Río Grande del Norte National Monument to collaborate on a unique stewardship project and field trip. Together they planted approximately 30 cottonwood trees and more than 500 milkweeds plants to help slow erosion and improve habitat for wildlife and insect pollinators along the Rio Grande as it flows through Rio Grande Gorge Recreation Area. The students were from the Native American Community Academy (NACA) in Albuquerque and Taos Vista Grande Charter School. They came to learn about the Rio Grande watershed and take part in a component of river restoration and stewardship.


portraitThe event marked the end of an eight-day restoration effort completed by veterans who are part of Southwest Conservation Corps’ Veterans Fire Corps program (left). The veterans crew removed invasive tamarisk and Russian olive from an island and along the bank of the Río Grande to improve habitat and water quality for a variety of wildlife, such as the endangered Southwest willow flycatcher, and for people downstream who also depend on the river.

The project is the result of a partnership between the Southwest Conservation Corps, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Bureau of Land Management, Conservation Lands Foundation and RBC (Royal Bank of Canada). The Conservation Lands Foundation received a $35,000 grant from RBC Blue Water Project to support its Restoration-Stewardship Program, which builds partnerships like this one to bring conservation corps and volunteers together to benefit BLM’s National Conservation Lands. This is the fourth year RBC Blue Water Project has supported the program.


“These lands belong to all of us, and I’m delighted to have these great partners helping the next generation get some hands-on experience with their management,” said John Bailey, Monument Manager, BLM. “I hope this Monument and these efforts will help teach us skills so that we are not just owners, but also stewards of public lands.”


Veterans corps members teamed up with groups of kids as they spread out near the river banks and campsites, equipped with shovels and work gloves. They made quick work of digging right-sized holes and getting plants in the ground. Cottonwood trees were planted with “cocoons” made by Land Life Company, designed to go in the ground, provide water and support seedling growth through the first year and improve survival rates for the new plantings. (above)

MaryDawn Kidd, a conservation corps member and army veteran who served as a medic in Afghanistan, helped students plant milkweeds. “I have been looking for a way to work outside and in conservation for long time, and this is a great experience.”

odonnell_nm_rgdn_nat_mon_nmwa_clf_tree_planting_orilla_verde-140-copyThree college-aged Youth Ambassadors representing the Valle del Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque also attended. During a break for lunch, they spoke to the students about the city’s reliance on the river for drinking water and how both the monument and refuge, which is located on the Rio Grande seven miles south of downtown Albuquerque, help protect water quality and are connected in one watershed.

“What inspires me is that we’ve seen how working for conservation and to improve the environment also helps improve and create healthy communities for people,” said Makenzie Sanchez, 18, Youth Ambassador and Albuquerque native (below).odonnell_nm_rgdn_nat_mon_nmwa_clf_tree_planting_orilla_verde-020-copy

The Conservation Lands Foundation works to protect, restore and expand BLM’s National Conservation Lands through education, advocacy and partnerships. In 2017, CLF will focus its partnerships with conservation corps on recently designated monuments, such as Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, Sand to Snow National Monument in southern California and Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada.

“Recently designated national monuments need restoration and stewardship, and they are a great opportunity for conservation corps to gain work experience and provide service to the American people,” said Kevin Heiner, Regional Director for Southwest Conservation Corps. “It’s great to have opportunities for veterans and youth to work on some of these newly protected monuments, like Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, to improve habit, water quality and to make sure the public can get out and enjoy these great places.”

Veterans Fire Corps photo by Angel Pena; all other photos by Jim O’Donnell. To learn more, email char@conservationlands.org


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