Conservation easements, land trusts, restoration projects—these tools of land and natural resource protection can seem a bit abstract and complex. However, once you meet the people behind them, the value of these tools paired with the passion and amazing synergy among all these land advocates it becomes clear. So who are these people working behind the scenes to make land conservation happen?
At a recent intimate gathering, RGALT team members spent time with a number of RGALT’s partners and landowners—all fierce protectors of the Middle Rio Grande landscape.
“Land conservation work is work from the heart; it takes a community of passionate and committed people working together to protect land, water, and natural habitat, “ Cecilia began. As a new team member with RGALT, the reality of how meaningful RGALT’s conservation work is, didn’t quite hit me until I listened to the partners presentations, heard the catch in their voices as they spoke about the work they so love – protecting the land, habitat, communities and creatures of the Middle Rio Grande.
At the core of RGALT’s work are the private landowners. The middle Rio Grande has a number of “pearls”, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Sevilleta NWR, Valle del Oro NWR, NM’s La Joya State Game Refuge, the Ladd Gordon Waterbird Complex to name a few. But it is the landowners’ private farm and riparian lands that create the “string of pearls”, the private lands provide the connectivity between the state and federal refuges. Protecting these private lands is critical for a connective corridor.
Landowner Hank Taliaferro – farmer, birder, and hunter—with a hopeful gleam in his eyes–spoke about how he changed his and his family’s life completely to pursue a dream and purchase what is now the 350 acre La Joya Farms. He and his family have protected their farmland through conservation easements (CEs) with RGALT, three CEs to date and currently working on their 4th CE with RGALT. They are working with RGALT and partners to enhance special areas on their farm for wildlife. “It was awesome meeting Cecilia, not only were we able to protect our land, but she has introduced us to so many people who are helping us improve our wildlife habitat on the farm!”
Executive director, Cecilia Rosacker said this at the event, “Landowners pursue conservation easements because they love their land. Their land and land stewardship is their legacy. It is what they want to leave behind for their heirs and the community at large.”
As each CE landowner was recognized for their key role in conservation, they beamed with pride – their love and commitment to their land and community shown through.
According to Cecilia, “Their charitable donation through conservation easement creates a ripple effect that gives RGALT and other partners the resources to leverage federal funds to accomplish otherwise insurmountable goals like the purchase of Valle del Oro. Without the landowners, none of these efforts could succeed.” Clearly, though each stakeholder is linked in this strand of pearls, but without the landowners, the strand wouldn’t even exist.
During the course of presentations, RGALT team member -Gina Dello Russo, a Socorro native, shared her story of growing up along the river and how, even in retirement from Bosque Del Apache NWR, she is devoted to protecting the Rio Grande corridor. This is evident through her ecology consulting work with RGALT, Socorro County, the Tamarisk Coalition, Audubon and serving as a board member of the Save Our Bosque Task Force and chairing a committee of the Rio Grande Trail Commission. I can see why Cecilia refers to her as the “Queen of the River,” Gina is key in bringing together the groups she serves, making her an excellent example of how critical each and every link can be in connecting all the necessary stakeholders.
RGALT partner and advisor, Alan Hamilton conveyed how important people like Gina are, as well as the landowners’ incredible contributions and the way the partners rally to leverage resources that earn federal grant awards for beneficial river, land and wildlife projects. Alan, himself, is the former conservation director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation; he founded the non-profit Rio Grande Return (RGR) and is working on river restoration. His is also the NM Wetlands Coordinator leading the partnership with RGALT and others for ongoing landscape conservation efforts, pulling together partners to pool resources, as well as bring their projects together to gain federal funding for conservation, largely through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act Standard $1M grant program.
John Barney the Bernalillo County Parks & Recreation Planning Section Manager, presented on the counties 2014 conservation initiatives, a mill levy for conservation funding. Barney spoke of RGALT’s role in the initiative and role in working with the county to create a conservation easement program. The overriding goal of the initiative is to ensure a healthy community. Barney’s presentation connected the dots on how land preservation is connected to the health of our communities – protecting farmland provides access to fresh, healthy local food; protecting open space and natural habitat provides an the opportunity for the community to connect with nature. Valle del Oro Urban Refuge is a perfect example of a win-win providing open space, agriculture, and natural wildlife habitat for locals to experience.
Of course, there is the RGALT board members dedicating their time towards ensuring RGALT is a sustainable organization and the work is of the highest standards. RGALT’s recent Land Trust Alliance accreditation is a testimony to their commitment.
RGALT executive director, Cecilia Rosacker, is the face of RGALT, she works closely with the landowners, partners and community leaders to develop, strategize and implement on the ground conservation in the Middle Rio Grande. Working with expert consultants that cover areas such as riparian ecology, conservation law, wetland restoration, together they implement not only land protection, but also enhancement and restoration.
Over the years much of the work has occurred at Cecilia’s kitchen table. It so happened Ducks Unlimited partners were in town and joined us at the recent event. They were in the region touring RGALT projects and working with partners to design restoration projects on those conserved lands. They reminisced about their previous visit to NM – a long day touring projects and potential projects, ending the day at Cecilia’s kitchen table. Over appetizers prepared fresh from Cecilia’s farm garden, along with Gina and Alan – they spread out maps, discussed and prioritized projects to be included in the most recent North Americans Wetland Conservation Act grant proposal submitted this July.
It was evident this conservation work is not a 9-5 job; it takes passionate and committed people whose conservation accomplishments are the legacy they will leave behind – benefiting all NM’s citizens. They are the links connecting the “pearls”.
Please join RGALT and fellow land protection advocates to sustain and conserve the Middle Rio Grande for future generations. Connect with us to find out how: www.rgalt.org | email@example.com | 505-270-4421.