If you’ve ever wanted to own a unique piece of work by a local artist and support environmental education, now is your chance. 

The Friends of Whitfield are holding a silent auction of six hand-painted Aldo Leopold benches during the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District’s Earth Day Fiesta, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, April 20, at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, 2424 N.M. 47. Bidding for the benches begins at 10 a.m. 

“The money (from the bench auction) supports the mission of the Friends, which is to support Whitfield’s mission of restoration, education and conservation,” said Rob Raucci, Friends of Whitfield board of director’s president. 

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Friends of Whitfield board of directors president Rob Raucci and Friends member Tom VerEecke stand with one of six hand-painted Leopold benches the organization is auctioning off this Saturday at the Earth Day Fiesta at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.

When the members of the Friends began auctioning the benches about five years ago, the group wanted to give them a tie to the community and asked a handful of local artists if they would paint the benches with scenes of desert flora and fauna. The project has become popular among Valencia County artists, said Raucci, with artists vying to paint a bench. 

The bench artists this year are Judith Turner, Peg Aguilar, Marsden Moran, Jo’l Moore and Sophia Jaramillo, Cece Aragon and H2 Academic Solutions artists Noelle Chavez, Lucas Dimas, Bianca Chavez, Ruby Estrada, Sydney Dukeminier and Jenna Rael. 

Tom VerEecke, member of the Friends of Whitfield since 2008, said the benches are a very simple, clean design, and after several years of building them, the process has become easier thanks to Los Lunas woodworker Chris Gorbach. 

“After we buy the materials and prepare the wood, we take it over to Chris’ woodshop, where he cuts it and we assemble it,” VerEecke said. “He does things like round cuts on the edges to give them a nice, finished look. He’s also made guides for where to drill for the bolts so we don’t have to measure each one. He’s really made is easier to reproduce the benches every year.” 

Made famous by conservationist Aldo Leopold — who created his original benches from found materials along the Wisconsin River — the sleek benches are made from a half dozen pieces of lumber. According to a blog post on The Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s first land trust, the bench has a practical function many don’t realize.  

“By sitting backward, with legs through the opening, the backrest now provides sturdy support for the elbows while using binoculars or cameras to observe nature,” wrote Jeanne Farrell, The Ridges director of marketing, last fall. 

Whitfield is the home and resting place of 200-plus species of birds, Raucci said, making it a unique place in Valencia County. 

VerEecke and his wife, Robin, were recruited to the Friends organization by Molly Madden, a long time Valencia County educator and one of the founders of the Friends of Whitfield. 

“My wife was a teacher, and we are always amazed by the students who come here but have never been in the bosque. It’s the largest cottonwood forest in New Mexico, if not the world,” he said. “Some had never done outdoor things and it was great to see students enjoy the experience so much. 

“One of the biggest parts of (the Friends’) mission is working with students and children. They are the future stewards of the environment.”

Earth Day Fiesta featured guests and speakers: 

  • 10:30 a.m.: Nature walk on the Kandy Cordova Trail, led by her daughter, Pam Cordova
  • 11:30 a.m.: Birds and reptiles presentation by Jerry Tuttle, an animal specialist with Birds of a Feather Parrot Rescue in Albuquerque
  • 1 p.m.: Presentation on the GLOBE app by VSWCD Master Naturalist intern Monica Arguello
  • 2 p.m.: Presentation of New Mexico Raptors featuring live birds of prey with Laura McCann, raptor specialist and VSWCD environmental education program manager
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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.