ChalleNGe cadets clear, plant at Bitter Lake

October 17, 2010 • Local News

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 Mexico’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 group’s leader, introduced the tree planting to the cadets as an exercise “for their future.”

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 [auth] 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, wouldn’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, “I’ve always been into the environment.” That’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 Wilson’s warblers and roosting painted buntings.

The tree planting was part of the refuge’s ongoing Pecos River restoration efforts, and it also coincided with the Rio Grande International Study Center’s Día del Río. Día 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 Fund’s 2007 “World’s top 10 rivers at risk” report.

Last week, as an early component of the día, 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 refuge’s work.

“We have limited amounts of employees and funding,” he admits. “Volunteers let us do things we want to do but can’t.”

Meanwhile, on the banks of the Pecos, young cadets, with faint smiles peaking through typically stoic faces, conceded that the work wasn’t just fun; it was easier than their usual workload. Symbiosis, indeed.

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