Ten years ago, the educational center at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area opened its doors to the public.

The center, which serves as the welcome center to the 97 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat owned and maintained by the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, sits just off the highway, at 2424 N.M. 47, a mile north of the Belen river bridge.

The land was donated to the district in 2003, and had been a dairy in a previous life. The property was put into a permanent conservation easement with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services Wetlands Reserve Program for restoration and protection of the area.

Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area manager Ted Hodaba and education manager Allison Martin stand in the cactus garden adjacent to the educational center at the wildlife area. It is just one of many features established at the property in the last decade.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Even before the center was opened, volunteers from around the community worked to plant trees, remove non-native, invasive species and restore and establish migratory bird habitat and food sources.

To celebrate the anniversary of the educational center, Whitfield staff and volunteers are holding a free birthday party at the center from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14.

Whitfield manager Ted Hodoba and education manager Allison Martin will be hosting a presentation on 10 years at Whitfield, covering the project’s history from the ground breaking to the animals and birds drawn to the site now.

In addition to the traditional cake and ice cream, there will be a drawing for three handmade, hand-painted Leopold benches, Hodoba said, as well as a hike with a Master Naturalist around the property.

Visitors can also meet members of the VSWCD board of supervisors and the Friends of Whitfield board that day.

Hodoba said the property has held the interest of various groups, birders in particular, as well as people who have a love of the outdoors.

“We’ve had people here from all over the world, from every continent except Antarctica. We haven’t seen any penguins yet,” Hodoba said with a laugh. “There’s not a lot of nice places you can just go for a walk. Whitfield is one of the few places locally you can do that.”

Another key draw to Whitfield is educational opportunities, he said.

“We’ve been bringing students here from all over Valencia County and beyond,” he said. “but our primary goal is wildlife. People are secondary in a way.

“We are a stop over for wintering and summering birds. We’ve lost a lot of habitat in the valley and by bringing it back, we provide access to nature to the public.”

The district hired Allison Martin, who has a masters degree in education, last year to guide the educational programs.

“I’ve been able to increase the outreach into schools and have been really active in bringing in kids from Belen and Los Lunas schools and others,” Martin said. “What I’m doing aligns with the new science standards. I do in-class lessons, then the students come to Whitfield and finally, I do follow up with the teachers.”

Since Whitfield began offering educational programs they have been provided at no cost to the schools.

What started as 97 acres at Whitfield has grown into a complex which includes the Stacey Unit of about 43 acres to the north of Whitfield, and the Rio Abajo Conservation Area, 100 acres south of the city of Rio Communities.

By rehabilitating and preserving these areas of open space and wetlands, Hodoba said the hope is to take back migratory bird habitat in the valley.

“Us, Bosque del Apache, Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge — these are just patches of habitat where at one time that habitat stretched from Colorado to Texas,” he said. “It’s been lost to urbanization. Agriculture preserves it some, but we are losing agriculture as well.”

Whitfield can offer visitors a glimpse at migratory birds as well as year-round, residential birds, he said.

“There’s also the vegetation that has matured. Some people just like plants. We have people who are very into phenology — the study of plants and animals and their changes through the seasons,” Hodoba said. “There are several apps for it now. I’m personally tracking a specific lizard at the property.”

In addition to the annual birthday party, other events at Whitfield include the Science Fiesta, Desert Willow Festival and the Night Under the Stars. For more information, visit valenciaswcd.org, or call 864-8914.

The center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Fridays and Saturdays, the center is also staffed by volunteers from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The grounds are open during the center hours and whenever the gates are open. The center is closed for federal holidays.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.