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New Mexico is on track to host the first urban national wildlife refuge in the U.S. Southwest, thanks in large part to Bernalillo County’s persistent efforts.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) joined county officials late last month to announce federal approval of a 570-acre former dairy farm in the county as a refuge.

Bernalillo County, N.M., where Albuquerque is located, has pledged $5 million towards the estimated $18 million to $20 million it will cost the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to acquire the Price’s Dairy property. The county’s annual operating budget is about $200 million, according to Commissioner Art De La Cruz, a leading proponent of the project.

Greg Hiner is the Trust for Public Lands’ project manager for the proposed refuge; he said the county’s role has been essential.

“Here the county stepped in early; the county stepped in big, and the county stepped in unequivocally and said we believe that this is important — and we believe that this is so important that we’re going to put in $5 million,” he said.

“Without having that, I’m not quite sure we could have made that announcement here a few weeks ago.”

Salazar said the county and its partners’ plans fit perfectly in the context of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, announced last year. “I applaud the vision of the landowner, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bernalillo County, and all other partners, for recognizing that this special place can, and should, be protected for future generations,” he said.

Bernalillo County, N.M. Commissioner Art De La Cruz speaks about the benefits an urban wildlife refuge will bring to the area. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (l) and Joy Nicholopoulos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are also pictured.

Only a handful — fewer than 5 percent — of the more than 550 national wildlife refuges in the country are in urban areas. And the more commonly known refuges are far larger, some as big as 100,000 acres. The refuge in Bernalillo would be five miles from downtown Albuquerque, and more than 110,000 elementary school children live within a half-hour of the site, according to Jose Viramontes, who is shepherding the project for FWS.

The Great Outdoors initiative seeks address the “nature-deficit disorder” in highly developed areas where children and families have little access to wildlife and vast open spaces, he said, calling Bernalillo County’s role in the local project “monumental.”

“The America’s Great Outdoors initiative fully recognized the value of these urban landscapes in contributing towards our sort of conservation portfolio throughout the country,” Viramontes added. “We were looking more and more at properties like this, and the land was still available.”

There’s another value associated with urban refuges, call them accounts receivable. According to a FWS study of recreation on America’s refuges, estimates of annual sales for local communities, job creation, employment income and tax revenue all show that for every dollar invested by the federal government in the refuge system there is an average $4 return to the local communities.

Additionally, the county stands to reap more from the land in federal hands than in its current privately owned status. Similar to payments in lieu of taxes, jurisdictions with refuges receive refuge revenue-sharing payments.

“In this particular project we anticipate that we’ll be paying as much or greater than what the county currently receives from the landowner in taxes,” Viramontes said. That’s because as agricultural land, it is eligible for a county tax exemption. “From a tax base perspective there’s no net loss.”

The county, FWS and the Trust for Public Lands (TPL) have for years been exploring the possibility of establishing a refuge at the site. Earlier efforts fell through, but timing was on the county’s side when FWS began to focus on smaller properties near big cities.

The working title for the project is the Middle Rio Grand National Wildlife Refuge, but Viramontes said a naming competition could eventually be held involving the local community and school children.

De La Cruz, in whose district the property lies, has been interested in the parcel since before taking office in 2009. Previously, he was the county’s parks and recreation director for 14 years, so his open-space interest comes naturally.

“I wanted to try to secure the Price’s Dairy because the district I represent has a significant amount of historical agrarian property, and unfortunately, like many communities, much of it is disappearing,” De La Cruz said.

He worked to build coalitions of stakeholders who also had an interest in preserving the property, including TPL, FWS, the state and Albuquerque.

“By the time it came to a vote on the local level, we already had those people behind us,” he said. The commissioners’ vote to approve a $5 million set-aside for the property was a unanimous 5–0 in favor. The allocation sunsets late in 2012, so the partners have their work cut out for them. Viramontes said additional funders are being identified and are coming forward to help.

“Right now, we have an acquisition boundary; we have a willing seller. We just need to match up the money with the seller, and we’ll have a refuge,” he said. One potential source is the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress established the fund in 1964 to use revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling to support the conservation of America’s lands and waters.

FWS intends to work with its partners to establish environmental education programs at the refuge and provide demonstration areas for sustainable agriculture. Once fully restored, visitors to the refuge will likely be able to see waterfowl, small mammals, and neotropical migrant birds, such as the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.

De La Cruz grew up in the district he now represents and recalls that as a “poor kid,” visits to Price’s Dairy were a treat on school field trips.

“As much as I enjoyed visiting there as a little kid, when the cows and dairy were in full effect,” he said, “I just look forward to it being a location for kids again. I spent a whole career working with family and kids, and I just look forward to seeing some kids out there.”

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C h a r l e s T a y l o r
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National Association of Counties
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