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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2009

A Work in Progress

As it approaches its first anniversary, the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park still has growing to do.

Story and photos by Jay W. Sharp



At the new Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park near Las Cruces, there are three basic missions, Park Superintendent Stan Ellis told me recently, just a couple of weeks before he retired.

Bosque Park
Picacho Drain, the historic irrigation drainage
ditch that runs through the park.

First, restoration and preservation: The 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, as well as 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 wildlife photographers.

Third, education: The aim, according to Ellis, 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.

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, dedicated on Dec. 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 encompasses about 300 acres; in the future, it will likely be expanded to total some 1,000 acres.

At the entrance, the park features a new $2 million, 7,500-square-foot, energy-efficient visitor center and administrative complex. The visitor center houses interpretive exhibits and classrooms, and it includes an outdoor amphitheater and a native plant garden.



Flora and Fauna

At this point, the park grounds — the culmination of an earlier wetlands restoration project promoted by the Southwest Environmental Center and Las Cruces — boast about a mile of trails. These lead through a floodplain grassland, a riverside mixed woodland and, along the river basin's western escarpment, Chihuahuan Desert scrubland.

What's a "Bosque"?

The word "bosque" refers to the native gallery forests and floodplain grasslands of Southwest river basins. When the Spanish first came to the Southwest, bosques lined much of the Rio Grande along its course through central New Mexico and the western Texas borderlands. When Don Juan de Oate led his colonizing expedition to the Rio Grande near today's San Elizario, Texas, after a punishing passage through the desert sand dunes of Mexico's northern Chihuahua in April 1598, his effusive chronicler, Gaspar Prez de Villagr, described the river's bosque as "Elysian Fields." He spoke of the "pleasant wood. . . beautiful, agreeable shades. . . a million little birds. . . and many kinds of fish." Since Oate's arrival in New Mexico, we have lost some 95% of the Rio Grande's bosques and two-thirds of the native fish species.

In the floodplain grassland, with its heavily saturated soils, the century-old Picacho irrigation drainage ditch (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and several excavated ponds, you will find a variety of native wetland plants. These include, for instance, 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, 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 mesquites, 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 even find within its 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, for example, ducks, herons, 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 hummingbirds 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

Despite the creation of the park, restoration and preservation of its 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, according to Sivinski: "There are some interesting remnants of the original Rio Grande floodplain in this area."

Bosque Park
Interior of the new $2 million, 7,500-square-foot visitor center.

Fortunately, Park Ranger Ken Abalos told me, there is a comprehensive park 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.

The plan will, said Abalos, start "with vegetation management." Within the next few months, plans are to begin 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, in the near future, 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.




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