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Restoring the Río Grande’s riparian forests

Djuna Carlton and Rivala García for The Taos News 

For the past two months a local coalition planted 250 trees along the Río Grande in the new National Monument.

Friends of the Río Grande Del Norte is made up of concerned citizens and community organizations dedicated to the conservation of our public lands in north-central New Mexico.

On Nov. 9, an assorted group of individuals, the Taos Heartwood Coalition, and the Friends of the Río Grande Del Norte gathered to plant trees on the east side of the river in Orilla Verde Recreation Area.

While planting trees, we were fortunate enough to see several elusive river otters hiding among river rocks and shy big horn sheep scaling the cliffs. This sighting reminded us of the importance of preserving our natural landscape.

Many other community members and groups have become involved in this process. The tree planting happened thanks to many of community friends including: Heartwood Coalition, Rivala Tree Fund, Enos García Elementary School fifth-graders, Chrysalis High School, Trout Unlimited, Rivers and Birds, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Taos Archaeological Society, Taos High School Interact Club, Taos Devic Group, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Americorp VISTA, Conservation Lands Foundation, Rio Grande Restoration, Los Rios River Runners, Shay Kelly’s family, Wild Earth Llama Adventures and individual citizens.

Roberta Salazar, the director of Rivers and Birds, has been instrumental in organizing these tree plantings. This fall, she organized school and community groups to plant the 250 cottonwood saplings.

From the start, the project has focused on youth participation. Organizations such as the Rivala Tree Fund and the many participating schools are educating Taos youth about the endangered environment and its restoration.

Jason Weisfeld, a teacher at Chrysalis Alternative School and a regular participant in Rivers and Birds events, comments that “planting trees … is one of those acts that not only connects kids with people but connects them with the land and the water that flows on it.”

In this community effort to restore the native habitat along the Rio Grande, the Bureau of Land Management began to plant cottonwoods at the Orilla Verde Recreation Area in 1995.

John Bailey, the manager of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, explains managing public land is all about partnerships, collaboration, and shared knowledge. “We are thrilled to have the Friends of Rio Grande del Norte collaborate with the BLM,” Bailey said.

Their collective purpose this winter is to restore the river’s natural habitat.

Rivers have unique types of water-loving native vegetation called riparian forests. Over the centuries of human habitation, those native riparian forests along the Río Grande have been declining due to encroachment by nonnative trees such as salt cedar.

Today riparian habitat accounts for less than half of one percent of New Mexico’s landscape. Much of the native species are declining due to human manipulation of the river’s flow. Because of man-made dams, the Río Grande no longer floods in the spring. Riparian cottonwood trees cannot seed effectively without spring floods, and have been replaced by the invasive, non-native salt cedar.

Thanks to volunteers and supporters such as the Friends of the Río Grande del Norte, our riparian habitats are gradually returning.

Today, if you drive down to the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, thanks to the work of so many volunteers, you will see many cottonwoods in various stages of life.

People camp beneath their shady canopies, children climb their sturdy trunks, and wild creatures dwell on or around these trees. It is obvious to see that this is the way the river should be.

This natural symbiosis is only achievable through the continued presence of our native trees.

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