Tucked in between industrial factories and residential homes, the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, restored seasonal wetlands, is a hidden gem of the South Valley. I had never known much about the South Valley because I grew up on the opposite side of Albuquerque. Sandia Pueblo was my front- and back yard for climbing cottonwood trees and going on long walks to the Río Grande. So when I became an AmeriCorps intern at the refuge, Valle de Oro extended my backyard and outdoor classroom.
The refuge sits on about 570 acres of managed alfalfa and hay fields. Residents of the Mountain View community can remember when the refuge was Price’s Dairy Farm. Valley Gold was the name of the milk delivered. While development options were being considered, the neighborhood supported the idea that the land be used for conservation, and in 2012 the property was finally purchased and converted into the first urban refuge in the Southwest. Since then, it has grown into something unique, not only for the South Valley but for Albuquerque and beyond. Visitors from in- and out-of-state all recognize the undeveloped landscape’s beauty.
Currently the refuge is only farm fields. But it’s a perfect nesting, feeding and resting place for migratory birds. Thousands of snow geese, Canada geese and hundreds of sandhill cranes find refuge at Valle de Oro. People connect with nature there through photography, wildlife observation and environmental education. As it grows, the refuge will add additional cultural significance when the historic El Camino Real is marked throughout the property.
The gates to Valle de Oro are open to the public Monday through Sunday from 8 am to 5 pm. Boundary signs are posted and dirt roads weave through the property, allowing access to birding hotspots. Boy Scouts have built benches and an outdoor classroom as sitting areas to enjoy and observe wildlife. Environmental education opportunities are available to any educators who may want to introduce their classes to their new open space.
My drive to the refuge is about 40 to 45 minutes, depending on traffic. When I arrive, the sun is rising over the Sandias. When I leave, it makes the landscape gleam like gold. It always takes my breath away.
Julia Bernal is Valle de Oro’s AmeriCorps intern through a BIA-funded program called the Native American Water Corps. Through that program she was certified as a water resource technician. She heads the water-themed environmental education programs at the refuge. Julia is from Sandia Pueblo and hopes to get accepted into a UNM Masters Program in Water Resources Policy Management.