Ernest Gonzales adored the section of the Rio Grande that passes through what used to be his 46-acre piece of property in Socorro County, New Mexico. Located on the east side of the Rio Grande floodplain just outside of San Antonio, New Mexico, this land provided him with a weekend sanctuary where he found refuge in the sights and sounds of bald eagles, northern flickers, songbirds, Rio Grande turkeys, and the occasional mule deer moving through the towering cottonwood-willow forest.
Over the course of his life, Ernest watched the bosque transformed by the infiltration of salt cedar (Tamarisk) and Russian olive, two highly invasive species in the middle Rio Grande valley of New Mexico. Gradually, the vegetation overtook the open understory of the forest, resulting in a dense, impassable jungle of alien plant species. As he aged, he dreamt of restoring this section of the river to its prior state: a land characterized by native plants like Goodding’s willow, coyote willow and cottonwood and shrubs and grasses like alkali sacaton, blue gramma, four-wing saltbrush, wolfberry and New Mexico olive.
In 1998, Ernest passed away at the age of 73, leaving behind his land and the dreams he had for it to his wife Gertrude and their five children, Christina, Eva, Henry, Salomon and Tommy. When I met with Salomon and Christina in early 2017 — two of Ernest and Gertrude’s now-grown children — they talked about how visiting the land provides a spiritual connection to their father and his legacy. “We remember coming down here when we were little and watching how much our dad loved spending time on this land. Once we all had families, some of us stayed in the area and some of us moved away. Really, we all stopped coming down as much. After our father died, we realized that coming out to this land provided a spiritual connection to our father. We also realized we wanted to carry forward his legacy and his dreams of conserving the Rio Grande bosque.”
The siblings began organizing family workdays with their children, nieces and nephews, and in-laws in 2007. “When we first started coming out here, the salt cedar was so dense you basically had to crawl through it. We hardly recognized the property. At first, we had a goal of simply cutting a narrow path all the way down to the river along the fenceline. We’d call everybody down here for a weekend, tell them to meet us in the morning, and then we’d work 8, 9, sometimes 10 hours a day chopping down those trees one by one. For a while, it felt like we were not getting anywhere,” they recall. In spite of feeling like they were hardly making progress, the family persisted and gradually fell into a collaborative, efficient rhythm. One person would chop down a Tamarisk tree, another person would spray the herbicide that prevents the trees from re-sprouting, and the young nieces and nephews would scurry through the brush, playing hide and seek as their parents methodically moved west towards the river.
During this time, Christina and Salomon learned about how the landowners of the adjacent property, Matthew and Stephanie Mitchell, had been able to conserve their portion of the Rio Grande bosque with support from the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust (RGALT) and the Save Our Bosque Task Force (SOBTF). The Gonzales’ knew of the Save Our Bosque Task Force, an organization that could help them with wildlife habitat restoration, through Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a partner agency in the area. The Mitchell’s introduced the Gonzales’ to the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust (RGALT), an organization that could work with them to protect their property from future development. The family met with the two organizations and shortly thereafter, RGALT acquired grant funding through the North America Wetland Conservations Act (NAWCA) to help protect the Gonzales’ 46-acre piece of property. Additional funding for habitat enhancement was received through the State of New Mexico’s Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 2008, RGALT helped the Gonzales’ establish a conservation easement on the land, which protects the property in perpetuity from the risk of development and/or the loss of water rights. Afterwards, restoration work continued with funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This collaboration between RGALT, SOBTF, and the Gonzales family preserved habitat for migratory bird species, fostered the regrowth of grassland habitat and native trees, mitigated the fire risk associated with dense patches of salt cedar, and added one more section of critically important habitat connectivity to the Rio Grande corridor.
While Salomon and Christina, their brothers, sisters, and in-laws do not visit the property as often as their father once did, they are proud of the progress they have made since their father’s death in 1998. The Gonzales’ continue to monitor the property and take proactive actions to ensure that prior restoration efforts remain resilient to threats like drought, wildfire, and the reestablishment of invasive vegetation. Salomon regularly travels from his home in El Paso to San Antonio, New Mexico in order to monitor vegetation on the land. The family occasionally gathers for picnics under the bosque canopy and from time to time, family members can also be found pitching a tent for an overnight stay alongside the river, reveling in the same quietude that Ernest cherished while he was still alive.
Today, their upland habitat adjacent to Bosquecito Road is beginning to be covered with native saltbrush and alkali sacaton, wonderful quail habitat. Mature cottonwoods tower throughout the bosque, and plantings of coyote willow, Goodding’s willow, New Mexico olive and other shrubs are thriving with new room to breathe after the removal of salt cedar and Russian olive. Meanwhile, spring overbank flows of the Rio Grande are evident this year in the muddy walkways under the cottonwood canopy, a promising sign that the Gonzales’ efforts to restore the bosque will have the long-term positive benefits like the reestablishment of native vegetation, the health of wildlife, and floral and faunal biodiversity. The Gonzales’ experiences tell us that conservation in the Middle Rio Grande wears many hats. It is not just about protecting the land, it is also about maintaining a spiritual connection with a loved one.