Ecology with Room Service
April 1, 2001
by Alex A. Avery
Approximately thirty miles northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, an extensive—and in some ways unique—ecological restoration program is underway along six miles of the Rio Grande River. Intended to restore the region's native riparian forests and marshlands, the project involves an unusual combination of efforts by government, the private-sector tourism industry, and Native American groups. It is a laudable and exemplary effort to preserve a piece of North America's evolving landscape-and a portion of Native American cultural heritage as well—in an economically responsible way.
Located on the Tamaya tribal reservation lands of the Santa Ana Pueblo, the Cottonwood Forest Nature Preserve is an effort to restore part of the Bosque (pronounced ôbos-keyö, the Spanish word for forest) that once extended the entire length of the Rio Grande River. The Bosque has been significantly degraded during the past half-century by flood-control efforts that transformed the Rio Grande from a broad, shallow river with many braids into a narrow, deep-channeled course.
After a massive flood in 1941 put Albuquerque under water, a half-dozen dams were built by the federal government to prevent flooding and to capture water for irrigation and other regional uses. The Middle Rio Grande Project, however, had an unintended side effect: the still waters behind the dams caused the river's sediment to settle. Freed of the energy-robbing sediment, the river now flows faster, which allows it to pick up new sediment. Thus, the energized Rio Grande has scoured a deeper river channel and lowered the surrounding water table, completely altering the natural ecology of the riverbanks and destroying the Bosque. The dams also prevent the river from flooding high enough to overflow its banks, thereby eliminating an important element of the earlier ecosystem. As a result, nonnative plant species have invaded the altered landscape and crowded out the indigenous cottonwood. Large fish species, such as the shovelnose sturgeon and grey redhorse, went extinct in the Rio Grande more than one hundred years ago because of the local farmers' excessive diversion of water for irrigation. Other species are now endangered, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow and birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher. Project managers hope that the restoration will provide a suitable habitat for these and other threatened Bosque species.
Funded and coordinated by several government agencies, the project was conceived by the pueblo's Native Americans. There's a certain amount of irony here, in that many scientists believe that Native Americans were responsible for the continent's most wrenching ecological change—the extinction, twelve thousand years ago, of North America's once-abundant elephants, camels, horses, and sloths. Having never experienced human predators throughout millions of years of evolution, these species were easy prey to the newly arrived human hunters—a phenomenon illustrated today on the Galápagos Islands, where wildlife still have not developed a fear of humans. Early Native Americans also deliberately altered the landscape to improve game hunting; for example, they extended the Great Plains hundreds of miles east by setting forest fires. The damage to the Bosque, by contrast, was done by people of European descent.
Although the restoration project covers only a tiny portion of the Rio Grande, the various parties have high hopes for it. The pueblo's Tamaya tribe is promoting the project as an ecotourism attraction, complete with a brand-new Hyatt Golf and Spa Resort strategically located beside the preserve. The Rio Grande may never again flow freely, but the efforts of the tribe and others will restore at least a small portion of the river to its historic beauty.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.