Christian Trout, 16 of Santa Fe, waits to water the cottonwood tree he just planted. (Joe D. Moore Photo)
On a sunny Friday afternoon, New Mexicoâ€™s Youth ChalleNGe cadets and the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge engaged in a symbiotic relationship.
In the sandy soils along the banks of the Pecos River, refuge staff led motivated cadets in restoring native vegetation.
Sgt. 1st Class James Ward, the groupâ€™s leader, introduced the tree planting to the cadets as an exercise â€œfor their future.â€
The 12 young men, outfitted with boots, camouflage pants, tan shirts, canteens, wide-brim hats and a heavy coating of mosquito repellant, responded vigorously.
After partaking in a halftree planting practice, halfbiology lesson with Jef f Sanchez, refuge biologist, each cadet quickly covered the 100 yards back to the truck, swung up one of 40 cottonwood trees, and gal-back to a waiting hole.
Roger Baeza, 16 and a native of Las Cruces, let a young rat snake slide through his hands after planting a cottonwood.
Of the work, he expressed pride in planting native vegetation that, he thought, wouldnâ€™t be as ugly as the salt cedars he dislikes seeing near his hometown, the same plant the refuge recently removed from the plot.
Clearly reveling in the outdoors, he added, â€œIâ€™ve always been into the environment.â€ Thatâ€™s likely music to the ears of the two men who organized the event: refuge manager Joe Saenz and Jeff Sanchez.
Saenz explained that the native cottonwoods, just six or seven feet tall now, will climb to heights of 20 feet and provide habitat for numerous migratory songbirds, including nesting Wilsonâ€™s warblers and roosting painted buntings.
The tree planting was part of the refugeâ€™s ongoing Pecos River restoration efforts, and it also coincided with the Rio Grande International Study Centerâ€™s DÃa del RÃo. DÃa organizers intended the event, being celebrated throughout three U.S. states and two countries, to build awareness about the Rio Grande watershed, which ranges from southern Colorado to west Texas to Mexico (where the river is known as the Rio Bravo), according to its website.
The watershed includes the waters from the Pecos River, a Rio Grande tributary, along with most of central New Mexico.
Why increase Rio Grande watershed awareness? The Rio Grande was included on the World Wide Fundâ€™s 2007 â€œWorldâ€™s top 10 rivers at riskâ€ report.
Last week, as an early component of the dÃa, six Sidney Gutierrez Middle School students and their science teacher, Jessic McGuire, spent time helping refuge staff collect and analyze refuge water samples. After preliminary testing, Saenz reports that there were no apparent problems with the water.
And, likewise, after benefiting from the spunk and discipline of Youth ChalleNGe, accomplishing a task in an hour that ordinarily requires a full day, there were, again, only good things to say. Saenz sees the cadets, students and other volunteers as integral parts of the refugeâ€™s work.
â€œWe have limited amounts of employees and funding,â€ he admits. â€œVolunteers let us do things we want to do but canâ€™t.â€
Meanwhile, on the banks of the Pecos, young cadets, with faint smiles peaking through typically stoic faces, conceded that the work wasnâ€™t just fun; it was easier than their usual workload. Symbiosis, indeed.