Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park
At Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, located in south-central New Mexico, there are three basic missions, Park Superintendent Stan Ellis told me, just a couple of weeks before he retired.
First, restoration and preservation: The first objective here is to restore the
wildlife and native plant communities in those areas where they have been damaged
or displaced by human activities and invasive species, and the next objective
is to protect any natural environment remnants and any cultural resources.
Second, outdoor recreation: The purpose here is to attract those drawn to the
outdoors, for example, birders, native plant enthusiasts, hikers, sportsmen and
Third, education: The aim here is to enrich the knowledge of adults and children about the wildlife and native plant communities along the Rio Grande, teaching them about the crucial importance of our environment.
The park, dedicated on December 13, 2008, marks the realization of a 25-year dream, which was nurtured by retired State Representative J. Paul Taylor, State Senator Mary Kay Papen and State Representative Joni Gutierrez.
Located along the west bank of the Rio Grande, southwest of the community of Mesilla, the park contains about 300 acres, but will likely be expanded to include some 1000 acres.
At the entrance, it features a new $2 million, 7,500-square-foot, energy-efficient visitor center and administrative complex, which has been designed for future expansion. The visitor center houses interpretive exhibits and classrooms, and it includes an outdoor amphitheater and a native plant garden.
At this point, the park grounds — the culmination of an earlier wetlands restoration project promoted by the Southwest Environmental Center and by Las Cruces — have about a mile of trails that lead through a floodplain grassland, a riverside mixed woodland and, along the river basin’s western escarpment, Chihuahuan Desert scrubland.
In the floodplain grassland, with heavily saturated soils, the century-old Picacho irrigation drainage ditch (listed on the National Register of Historic Sites) and several excavated ponds, you will find a variety of native wetland plants including saltgrass, wolfberry, bulrushes, cattails and reeds and even a few (mostly planted) cottonwoods and willows.
Unfortunately, you will also find dense stands of that aggressive invader, the saltcedar, or tamarisk, growing primarily in the sandier soils.
In the mixed woodland, which occurs between the river bank and the higher scrubland, you will find occasional cottonwoods and willows as well as native plants such as screwbean and honey mesquite, three-leaf sumac, Torrey’s wolfberry, and four-wing saltbush. You will also find, unfortunately, still more dense stands of saltcedar.
In the scrubland, you will discover signature Chihuahuan Desert plants such as
honey mesquites, four-wing saltbush, ephedra and various cacti.
Potentially, according to natural scientist Robert Sivinski’s 2005 vegetation survey of the park area, you might find within the boundaries a variety of unusual plant species such as the night-blooming cereus, the dune prickly pear, the Pecos sunflower or even the rare Scheer’s beehive cactus.
Along the drainage ditch and ponds, you stand a good chance of seeing numerous water-loving wildlife species, including ducks, herons, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, muskrats and, possibly, even newly re-established beaver. Throughout the park, you will come across birds such as various raptors, ravens, roadrunners, Gambel’s quail, pyrrhuloxia, curve-billed thrashers, western kingbirds, black-chinned hummers and many others. (The park’s bird list has already reached about 175 species.) You will frequently see mammals such as ground squirrels, black-tailed jackrabbits and desert cottontails, and with good luck, you may even see a javelina, raccoon, coyote or bobcat (most likely, in the early morning or late afternoon).
Restoration and Preservation
Restoration and preservation of the bosque environment will not come quickly, cheaply or easily. “The vegetation in this park area has been heavily impacted by river channelization, irrigation ditches, drains, roads and off-road vehicles, alien weeds (especially saltcedar), and centuries of livestock grazing,” said Sivinski in his survey. Nevertheless, there is still hope. “...there are some interesting remnants of the original Rio Grande floodplain in this area,” according to Sivinski.
Fortunately, Park Ranger Ken Abalos told me, the park has a comprehensive resource management plan, prepared by Blue Earth Ecological Consultants under state sponsorship before the opening. Long term, the plan is aimed at eradicating invasive species, restoring native plants, expanding the wetlands, and enhancing native plant and wildlife diversity.
We will, said Abalos, start “with vegetation management.”
Plans are to begin by removing a stand of saltcedar
near the visitor center. Most work will proceed during winter months so that
the impact on bird migrations, breeding and nesting will be minimized. Plans
are, as near as possible, to take the saltcedars out by the roots. In addition,
the park staff intends to apply for grants to help fund
saltcedar eradication and native plant restoration throughout the park.
Of course, the park can never be returned to its original state, when the Rio Grande wandered freely across the river basin, frequently altering course after torrential rains upstream. The flow will remain throttled and controlled by the Elephant Butte and Caballo dams and the downstream irrigation system. The park can, however, become an important part of a broad effort to restore the environmental health of floodplain grasslands, mixed woodlands and aquatic habitat along the 100-mile course of the Rio Grande through southern New Mexico.
Even as the park is being transformed, it offers special opportunities for recreation and fun. Already park rangers and volunteers offer tours for birders (on the first Saturday of every month) and for native plant enthusiasts. Further, rangers and volunteers have plans to build strategically located blinds for birders and wildlife photographers. In the near future, they anticipate installing small non-intrusive signs to identify native plants around the garden in the visitor center. Scouts are contributing by building bird perches just north and east of the visitor center. On the first Saturday of each February, the park will mark the celebration of National Wetlands Day. In the future, it may become the setting for an annual sportsmen’s festival, with exhibits and events revolving around outdoor skills such as fly fishing, archery and wild animal tracking.
In the interest of protecting the wildlife and native plant communities, the park has been declared off limits for off-road vehicles, bicycles, horses and pets.
It is critically important, as ranger Alex Mares says, that the park — with its floodplain grassland, mixed woodland, desert scrubland and classroom facilities — provides an ideal venue for environmental education, especially for young people.
Working together, park rangers, public school teachers and students have already initiated several multi-disciplinary programs and professional development workshops, many of them based on the Bosque Education Guide (Lower Rio Grande Edition), a detailed instruction book prepared by educators and New Mexico State Parks.
As Mares points out, such educational programs may hold profound value for our children, who are becoming increasingly isolated from the outdoors and captivated, instead, by electronic media. The programs can connect children with their environment, helping them understand the importance of our natural surroundings. They can help invigorate children, offsetting the physical inactivity that has led to significantly higher incidences of obesity — and the consequent risks, according to the Sierra Club, of “increased rates of diabetes, heart disease, asthma, arthritis, some cancers, and poor health status.” They can excite children, helping them deal with academic, behavioral and even neurological problems. For instance, extensive studies have shown according to the Bosque Education Guide, that, “while not a panacea, increased outdoor time, including both guided and non-guided learning in natural settings, can significantly reduce [attention deficit disorders]-related symptoms in some children and can lead to improved academic and behavioral issues in others.”
A Work in Progress
In remarks during the dedication ceremony for the park, New Mexico Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish said, “Protecting and restoring the Rio Grande and the Bosque are essential elements of our newest state park, the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. The park will offer extraordinary educational opportunities for all New Mexicans — in particular our children — to learn about their natural and cultural heritage.” Given the visionary goals, the park will be a work in progress for years to come.
A Visit to the Park
If you wish to visit the park, which is open every day of the year except for New Years Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, take Exit 140 from Interstate 10, which runs between Las Cruces and Mesilla. Follow Avenida de Mesilla for about three quarters of a mile south to Calle del Norte in Mesilla (first stoplight). Turn right. Drive two miles west to a bridge across the river.
Immediately after crossing the bridge, at the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park sign, turn left. Follow the designated dirt road southward for about a mile to the visitor’s center.
For more information about hours and events, call the park at 523-4398. If you wish to become involved with the park, contact the Friends of the Mesilla Valley State Park through the park phone.
By Jay W. Sharp
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