Earl James


The Río Grande Returnsa deeply evocative phrase that vibrates the harp strings of our imagination, calling forth a reassuring image of a mighty river unleashed from its dams and ditches, flooding the bosques with nutrients, hosting great flocks of migrating snow geese and Sandhill cranes in the winter without the human-engineered interventions we now must use, like crutches or walkers, for the once grand river.


Of course, the imagination is one thing, and current on-the-ground reality quite another. It’s far too late in the history of human habitation of planet Earth to imagine that, left to itself, the Río Grande, or the Pecos, or the Gila or any of New Mexico’s rivers, or for that matter any forests, rivers, oceans, grasslands, and virtually any species alive on Earth today, will recover their former grandeur or numbers on their own. Since we have overwhelmed the planet’s resources with our consumptive ways, now it’s up to us, all of us, to return the favors we have received from the planet by managing its recovery, and that includes the Río Grande.


What greater goal can there be than restoring the Río Grandethe lifeblood of New Mexicoto a healthy and life-sustaining state, even if with less mythic grandeur and lower flows than in our Hollywood version of its history? What is needed is more of an equal partnership with the river, a truly symbiotic relationship.


With that in mind, Alan Hamilton, Conservation Director for the NM Wildlife Federation, decided to take on the task of imagining and restoring sustainable, river-honoring ways of life in the Río Grande watershed. As a conservationist and psychologist, he values both the power of on-the-ground action and the power of the imagination to move us to greater goals. This has given rise to an innovative approach to restoring the Río Grande: establishment of a nonprofit initiative that markets locally grown food products, beautiful coffee-table books about the river and artisan farming, and supports restoration projects.


The organization is called Río Grande Return. It’s an online market, where $15 from each sale of a basket of locally produced food products goes toward funding projects to:

  • restore or preserve the Río Grande watershed;
  • promote and protect traditional agricultural lands, farming practices, native seeds and products in the Río Grande watershed; and
  • promote new ways of educating people about the importance of protecting our agricultural lands, our rivers and the cultures that have historically developed in relation to the Río Grande and its waters.


The balance of the sale price of each food basket goes to the local farmers and beekeepers that produce the goods. Río Grande Return has the added virtue of funding the organization’s work without depending upon the traditional sources from outside the communities. Perhaps most importantly, it is a tool that enables local farmers along the Río Grande to own the responsibility of caring for their own small stretch of the river and its watershed.


Hamilton has recently been engaged in developing a coalition of 20 partners and 16 land tracts to apply for a $1 million grant from the North American Wetland Conservation Act. The grant was approved and funding will begin flowing in 2013 to establish five conservation easements and one fee acquisition [is there a word missing here, such as district?] that protect in perpetuity 850 acres of palustrine emergent wetlands[non-tidal wetlands substantially covered with emergent vegetation], forested wetlands and upland buffer. An additional 1,007 acres of wetlands will be restored and enhanced on five tracts, including the Río Grande Corridor at Buckman, Santo Domingo Pueblo and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. In total this contributes 1,857 acres of protected, restored and enhanced palustrine and forested wetlands, irrigated agriculture and wetland-associated uplands. This is only the first phase of a project with a goal of protecting and restoring between 8,000 and 10,000 acres of wetlands and buffers along the Río Grande.


Critical funding for contracting a bird biologist to write many of the technical aspects of the plan and grant proposal came from Río Grande Return. In other words, from people like you and me who recognize the many values of becoming part of this unique and creative giving circle. With this important grant in place, Alan now plans to devote part of 2013 to building Río Grande Return into a much larger and more impactful entity.


But even at its current level of operation, Rio Grande Return has funded a number of other projects, including a restoration plan for the old Buckman town site west of Santa Fe, one of the few places in Santa Fe County where the public can access the Río Grande; enhancement of a spring in Diablo Canyon near Santa Fe, with the long-term goal of reestablishing the bosque through the principle of induced meandering and floodwater storage, and a project to restore a sacred spring of Zia Pueblo that had gone dry. There are several video clips on Río Grande Return’s website with Pueblo members talking about the importance of this work in the context of global warming.


Which brings us back to sustainability. If there is any truth to the recent announcement from Los Alamos National Laboratory that NM and the greater Southwest is in the beginning of a 40-50 year mega-drought, nurturing some form of livable river communities and agriculture along the Río Grande will be a major challenge. But restoration of the Río Grande is of central, singular importance to any vision of re-creating a sustainable regional economy in NM. Just try to imagine NM, historically and in the future, without the Río Grande flowing through it—a completely dry riverbed from Taos to El Paso, perhaps filling slowly with discarded refrigerators and junk cars. You can’t really believe that would ever happen, can you?


And yet this central feature, this absolutely indispensable gift to the landscape we call NM and to its rich cultural history and traditions, is more or less treated as your average kitchen water faucet. Turn it on and out comes water. From where nobody thinks about, assuming it will always be there and some distant authority will always make it so, leaving us free just to consume at will, with no responsibility to return the gift the river gives us.


But Alan Hamilton knows that arrangement can’t last, and it’s not a healthy arrangement in the first place, for the health of a community is reflected in the way that it treats its local landscape and water sources. The more detached you are from your river, its care and protection, the less healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically—you and your community become.


Hamilton’s involvement in river conservation and restoration issues began as a board member of a small family foundation that was giving to the now-defunct Alliance for Río Grande Heritage, a coalition of seven or so environmental organizations attempting to protect the river. This experience showed him that environmentalists were not fully trusted by all elements of NM’s population, people whose involvement and support were necessary to the success of the venture. He wanted to understand contemporary New Mexicans’ views of the Río Grande, in order to understand how to engage them in this huge project.


What he discovered after conducting dozens of interviews of parcientes, mayordomos, soccer moms, environmentalists, public officials, chamber of commerce typesall mixed age and gender groups from Taos to El Pasois that very few New Mexicans have any actual relationship with the river, partly because it has become physically cut off from easy access or from any immediate role in our daily lives. There was more of a mythic view of the river than a real understanding of the condition or role it plays today. One of the recommendations of the study was to find ways to get people more involved by creating more access to the river, making it more of a destination with nature centers, picnic grounds and river trails.


When I asked Hamilton what the trigger was for establishing Río Grande Return, he said: “Foundation money for wetland restoration or riparian conservation was drying up, and it became apparent that the whole funding paradigm for environmental work needed to be re-imagined in some way. Río Grande Return is a funding source that’s not coming from foundations but is generated by people giving gifts to each other. Right now, a minimum of $15 is given to Río Grande Return’s restoration fund from each food package sold and up to $50 from book sales. It’s a paradigm that has proven itself in its first four years. People appreciate and understand it. It hasn’t yet generated a lot of money. I refer to it as slow money, so I’m very strategic and careful about what I’m using those moneys for, because it’s coming from the community.”


In scaling up the program, Hamilton hopes to find ways to offer fresh produce in addition to processed foods like jams and honey, but he will need partners and new relationships to develop significant funding. He says that he welcomes suggestions and ideas from the Green Fire Times community.


Are we aware enough of the crisis that our river faces to respond with great creativity and commitment? The human imagination is capable of great things when pushed by existential crises. Highly creative thinking is needed when we talk about restoring our relationship to the Río Grande.


We can learn to love and enjoy our old Río Grande again. But if we remain only takers from the river and don’t give back, we are diminished in direct proportion to the degree the river is diminished. Its condition is a mirror image of ours. When we say that river gives life, we don’t mean just the water required for plants and animals (including Homo sapiens) to physically survive. People working to rebuild and restore land and water resources of their community are people who are also healing themselves. What a gift this grand river is. We must learn to give back.


So go shopping – at Río Grande Return: www.riograndereturn.org



Alan Hamilton can be contacted at: alanatriograndereturn.org



Earl James is nonprofit fundraising consultant and the author of the award-winning eco-novel Bella Coola: The Rainforest Brought Them Home. Read excerpts at www.earldjames.com and contact him at earldjames@gmail.com




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