How to Build a Park, Community Style!

December 7, 2018, Feature, by Jim O’Donnell

2018 December Feature How to Build a Park Community Style 410

In late 2015, the Taos Land Trust nonprofit purchased the 20-acre Amos F. Romo family farm not far from the tourist-filled Taos Plaza. Rumors swirled that a high-end condominium complex was destined for the farm, which had been abandoned for nearly 40 years.

“The threat of an additional 150 or more additional condo units was real,” says Taos Land Trust Executive Director Kristina Ortez. “It raised some big questions for us. When we first walked this land, we realized that it had incredible value. Protecting water resources, wildlife habitat and agricultural lands is key to our organizational mission,” she explains.

Nurtured by a portion of the looping Rio Fernando, a narrow stream sheltered by 100-foot-tall cottonwood trees and jungle-like thickets of willow and cattail, Rio Fernando Park encompasses an array of ecosystems, including several barren and depleted acres once thick with corn and alfalfa, but now dominated by groves of invasive trees, such as the Siberian elm.

After consulting with local partners, the Land Trust embarked on a year-long community-focused process to develop a master plan for the land, to create a public park and restore the river and wetlands. “We put ourselves squarely in the realm of community conservation. For us, that means listening to our community and letting those needs inform what we do,” says Ortez.

And, by community, the Land Trust meant the entire community, particularly groups who tend not to have a voice in community planning: the Native American population, the legacy Hispano community, and recent Central American and Mexican immigrants.

“Equity,” emphasizes Ortez. “Building a park has to be about equity.”

The Rio Fernando

The Rio Fernando is one of the most impaired rivers in north-central New Mexico. It begins as a bubbling spring in the wide, gently sloping La Jara meadows of the Carson National Forest. From irresponsible grazing practices and poorly conceived roads, to overuse, erosion, homes built on its fragile banks and a persistent E. coli ailment from poorly managed septic systems, the Rio Fernando faces a gauntlet of challenges on its run to join the Rio Pueblo de Taos and eventually the Rio Grande just south of Taos.

When the Land Trust purchased the Romo farm, the land was imperiled. It took a visionary to see its potential. Luckily, the Land Trust is blessed with several visionaries. “There was a lot of trash out here,” says Ortez. Miles of barbed wire and fencing cut the land, a homeless encampment had grown in the forest, and tires and trash laced the creek.

“But, we were struck by its awesome wildness,” Ortez relates. “I could visualize children playing in the trees. I could visualize fish in the stream. I knew we had work ahead of us, but I was blown away by the potential.”

The organization had just come out of several very challenging years, and, according to Ortez, turning toward community conservation forced it to dig deep. “Why were we doing this? What would this mean for us and for the community? We made sure we were going into this with eyes wide open,” she says.

Supported by grants from NRPA, the LOR Foundation, Taos Ski Valley Foundation and the Coca Cola Company and with lots of local support, the Land Trust chose to engage in a master planning process to identify the needs of the community and how the newly christened Rio Fernando Park might fulfill some of those needs. “From the outset, we knew we needed to create a place that would be welcoming to all segments of our community,” Ortez points out. “We knew we didn’t have all the answers. We had to bring the community onto the land. This could have been a quicker process if we did it internally, but we realized that this was about opening ourselves up to all the possibilities. So, we had a party.”

Community Planning

It was a chilly October evening in 2017 when dozens of Taoseños crowded around a fire under yellowing cottonwoods behind the old farmhouse that had been transformed into the Taos Land Trust offices. They ate pork-filled tacos, the dripping meat scraped fresh from a locally raised pig that had been cooked underground overnight. The Land Trust kicked off its community planning endeavor with a traditional New Mexico Matanza — a feast centered around a pig roasted in the ground.

“We wanted this to be fun,” says landscape architect Amy Bell of Groundwork Studio, who the Trust contracted with to lead the planning process. “By making it fun, we accessed a broader and more diverse portion of the community. That, in turn, resulted in valuable partnerships for the future programming of the park.”

Over the next 12 months, the Land Trust hosted BBQs, tours, bird-watching walks, meetings with educators and artists, writing workshops, medicinal plant tours, pop-up playgrounds and landscape art building projects — all with the goal of gaining a wide range of input from the diverse Taos community and getting feedback as the plan took shape. The Land Trust also went on a social media blitz to keep the community informed and to gain feedback. Staff spent months going door to door talking with potential partners and getting to know the park’s neighbors. Now, they too were enjoying the feast.

The Land Trust learned that the community had a deep desire for outdoor places for celebration — spots for birthdays, weddings, picnics. Most importantly, it learned that Taoseños desired a place in town, close to schools and houses, that could help fill their need for nature.

“The Rio Fernando Park process was unique,” says Bell. “There was a clear and consistent commitment to community and partner involvement. The process went beyond just ‘engagement’ — it encouraged community building — strengthening partnerships and community interaction beyond the master plan.”

Changing the Ecology

Once upon a time the Rio Fernando was thick with beaver, otter, trout and countless birds — from flycatchers, to waterfowl, hawks and eagles. Today, many of those species only exist in the precious few sections of the river that are in some way protected. One of those protected sections runs through Fred Baca Park, owned by the Town of Taos and located adjacent to Rio Fernando Park. There, among the willows and cattails, a family of beaver have set up shop, constructing an impressive dam and excavating a lodge under the river bank where children play.

On a bitter January day, Restoration Ecologist Steve Vrooman and New Mexico’s white-bearded watershed restoration guru Bill Zeedyk pushed through thick, snow-dusted forest along the Land Trust section of the Rio Fernando. Almost immediately, they came across a fat Russian Olive tree, tilting precipitously over the icy river. Before long, they’d encountered four more Russian Olives in various states of beaver cut and even a nascent dam of mud and sticks strategically placed where the river bottlenecked for a short stretch.

Beavers are moving up from Fred Baca Park into Rio Fernando Park. Or, they want to. The problem is a lack of food. Beavers prefer willow, cottonwood and cattails. While these native species are present in this section of the Rio Fernando, large sections of the riparian forest are overgrown with the non-native Russian Olives, which shade out the species the beaver prefer. An adult beaver requires around three pounds of bark a day to survive. “If you want your beavers to move in permanently and help you with your restoration work,” says Zeedyk, “You’ll need to change the ecology of the park.”

Listening to the Land

Months later, on a muggy summer morning, members of the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) crew, led by Ben Wright, education and land management coordinator at the Taos Land Trust, filed into the wetlands along the Rio Fernando hunting for teasel, burdock, perennial pepperweed and Canada thistle, unwelcomed plants that dominate the landscape, pushing out native plants and natural diversity. The crew got to work and quickly accumulated a pile of grayed teasel stalks and more than 100 plastic trash bags full of clipped seed heads.

“Alongside the planning process, we started to work on improving the wetland and river and bringing water back to the abandoned acequia so it could quench the acres of dried farmland and revive the soil. We also had to tackle more than a dozen species of noxious weeds,” says Juniper Manley, associate director of the Land Trust.

The Land Trust wanted to ensure the land itself had a voice. Working with New Mexico permaculturists, the Rio Fernando master planning committee spent the passing seasons learning the land: invasive species mapping, existing trees, soil quality and water quality. They approached the layout of the park in permaculture-based “zones.” This design technique looks at land in terms of form, function and use, allowing the strengths of the land to lead the planning. Areas are divided into those that see less use and more protections, like the river corridor; those that will receive moderate use, such as the proposed food forest; and those that see intensive use, such as community gardens and walking areas. “Zoning allowed us to envision what would go where in the park while taking into account the ecosystems and functions that already exist,” says Manley. “It allowed us to listen to the land.”

In April, when the nights warm in the towering peaks the Ute people call the Shining Mountains and the Hispanic settlers later named the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, winter snowfall begins to melt. That water, sliding along the shadowed bends of rocky mountain creeks, eventually makes its way down into the acequia system imported to the region by Hispanic settlers in the 1700s.

An acequia is an irrigation ditch. It is also a political system, a farming technique and a vital part of the culture of New Mexico. The Romo family fed its gardens and fields with acequia water pulled from the Rio Fernando. The system was last used in the 1960s.

The slow, steady decay of the centuries-old agricultural lifestyle impacts the entire Taos Valley. As farmland was abandoned, unused acequias dried up, altering the water system throughout the valley. Thousands of acres have gone fallow. Prairie dogs and thorny nonnative vegetation moved in, taking over dusty stretches of deserted land.

“I’d like to see this land being used for growing crops,” says Brandon Trujillo, the YCC crew chief. “Small sustainable work in our own town by our own people will create a larger impact on the people, as well as the land.” 

Through the summer of 2018, Ben Wright and the YCC crew painstakingly shoveled out the old acequia ditches in Rio Fernando Park and got the system ready to take on the snowmelt. There was just one problem. “There’s no water,” says Wright.

2018 was not just yet another year in a 20-year-old drought — it was one of the driest in recorded history. The drought has changed much of the New Mexico landscape. Climate change forecasts indicate that decreasing winter snowpack and summer precipitation will become the norm across the southwest in the coming years.

“By restoring this landscape and creating the park, we aim to build resiliency intoour community in terms of water, wildlife and recreation,” says Wright. “But, water is key to everything. Without it, we are in trouble.”

The lack of water forced the Land Trust to more deeply consider how to move forward with the park. The restoration of the wetland area took on added importance. “With a healthy river system, we can store more water. Basically, we want to turn these acres back into a giant sponge,” says Wright. “We also want to be a model for other restoration projects in the area.”

Part of the restoration work in Rio Fernando Park will be a series of demonstration gardens intended to find ways to grow traditional foods in the face of a changing regional climate.

A Community of Contrasts

Regarding the beauty of northern New Mexico, author Willa Cather once wrote: “Elsewhere the land has the sky for its ceiling, but here the sky has the land for its floor.” Exquisite but harsh, Taos is economically challenging. Income disparity is large, affordable housing is hard to come by and the economic drivers are few.

It is a community of contrasts: one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation. At the same time, Taos brims with artists inspired by the light and landscape. Taos also enjoys and suffers from a profound history. The people of Taos and Picuris Pueblos arrived at least 1,000 years ago. Hispano families settled here in the 1700s and then the Americans came, violently, in 1848.

“There are constant threats to the way of life here,” says Ortez. “The lack of connection to land is one of them. That can contribute to a sense of loss. Connecting to nature, having your hands in the dirt, creates a sense of place. Place is vital to building community. Community is vital to building resiliency. This park is community. It is connection. It is resiliency.”

Getting It Done

The children call it the “fairy forest,” a woodland of Siberian elms spread over a grassy shelf at the rim of the Rio Fernando. On a breezy evening in early October 2018, more than 100 Taoseños gathered under twinkling lights strung from tree to tree. They came to pray, eat and enjoy classic New Mexico music together. The Second Annual Taos Land Trust Matanza was a thank you to the community for leading the way through the park planning process.

By the fire, surrounded by the community members who had spent the year helping to develop the Rio Fernando master plan, Manley takes a deep breath. “When you involve the community, you need to be prepared for all that brings,” she says. “The innovation, the creativity, but also the naysaying, the uncomfortable conversations. We threw ourselves into this. It’s the only way we could get this done.”

Kristina Ortez nods. “In this desert landscape, a tree represents hope. It touches something deep inside of us. We have a need in our society to bring nature closer. People feel that need,” she adds. “Our job is to fulfill that need.”

Jim O’Donnell is the Communication Coordinator for the Taos Land Trust.