Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust: Conserving Land for People and Birds

An aqueous ribbon through the desert, the Middle Rio Grande (MRG) of New Mexico is an irreplaceable corridor for migratory birds. In fact, most of the Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes (an IWJV focal species) winter here. This river and its floodplain of riparian areas and agricultural lands face drought, a growing population, wildfire, and fragmentation. The loss of water and the competition for this vital resource is causing the disappearance of species-rich and limited riparian habitats in the arid desert, directly impacting birds and other wildlife.

The Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust (RGALT) works to conserve the natural resources and rural quality of life in this extraordinary place. A grassroots organization, RGALT was founded by local farmers and conservationists in an effort to address farmland loss in the MRG. The founding goals were to provide private landowners a voluntary option to protect their lands in perpetuity through the use of conservation easements. Agricultural return flows are an important source of water for Rio Grande wetland complexes and flood irrigation can provide important spring and fall foraging habitat for migratory birds. RGALT’s goals were later modified to include the riparian floodplain of the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

Above photo: Chuck Muncy’s two miles of Rio Grande river frontage on his 300-acre ranch property is part of a NAWCA Phase II proposal. In this photo he is discussing a conservation easement with Santiago Misquez, a Natural Resources Conservation Service biologist. Chuck has since passed on and RGALT will continue working with his heirs on the riverfront easement. Photo by Cecilia Rosacker McCord.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservation Easement Program established by RGALT coordinates national, regional and local agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners to conserve open space, farms, and wildlife habitat. As an example of this partnership, RGALT has worked closely with the Intermountain West Joint Venture-supported MRG private lands biologist (IWJV, 2011-2014), hired to promote and implement state and federal wildlife habitat improvement programs. The land trust facilitated and further enhanced the goals of the partnership by securing conservation easements on some of these private lands.

Sandhill cranes forage in the flooded fields and wetlands of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.

The projects made possible by the North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant program are perhaps the most impactful conservation ventures for migratory birds in the MRG. In two recent NAWCA proposals, RGALT and over 30 partners teamed up to achieve wetland and associated upland conservation. The combined success of these projects will result in partial purchase of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (the first urban refuge) and, through RGALT‘s landowner outreach efforts, protection of 1,236 acres of privately owned riparian floodplain. Groundwork on this new refuge by agencies, non-profits, and tribes improved and/or restored 5,500 acres of riparian wildlife habitat. A two-phased approach of land protection and follow-up wildlife habitat restoration and enhancement has been very successful to date, and there are many more projects in the queue.

Flooding and wildfire are also serious issues on these riparian properties. One effort to address these threats was a NAWCA grant RGALT partnered in that funded a block of conservation easements on 546 deeded and accreted acres belonging to four landowners. Most of these acres are in the active Rio Grande floodplains and include palustrine emergent wetland, forest, and upland habitats in various degraded states subject to periodic wildfires. The landowners have worked with the Socorro Soil and Water Conservation District to control invasive plants and plant natives ($200,000 in state and federal dollars invested). The conservation easement protects the land from development, securing the public’s investment. While the next phase of work will continue to control invasive plants and restore native wetland and riparian plants through various methods including promoting periodic overbank river flows.

Chuck Muncy’s two miles of Rio Grande river frontage.

“This land trust was formed to save farmland and now it stacks up as one of the most important vehicles for migratory bird conservation in the Middle Rio Grande,” said Dave Smith, IWJV Coordinator.

Through the Middle Rio Grande Conservation Easement Program and supporting NAWCA grants, RGALT continues to broaden and strengthen public-private partnerships for bird habitat conservation with landowners. Working together partners across New Mexico can protect and enhance conservation values of their land and a shared vision for the protection and stewardship of the ecological health of the Rio Grande.


Read more articles from the Fall 2014 e-Newsletter:

Partners Step Up to Conserve Wetlands in the Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington By Terry Mansfield, IWJV Washington State Conservation Partnership Coordinator

Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust: Conserving Land for People and Birds By Cecilia Rosacker, Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust

Putting Funding for Habitat Work in a National Context for Smarter Results By Ali Duvall, IWJV Staff

Our Ranch, Our Kids and Our Conservation Mission By Sharon O’Toole, Ladder Livestock Company

Mountain Plover: An Inconspicuous Shorebird That Breeds, Nests and Winters Across Some of the Toughest Places in the Intermountain West By Victoria Dreitz, Avian Science Center Director

New Partner Biologists Boosts Conservation Delivery Capabilities in Southern Oregon By Jim Stutzman, IWJV Staff