(Editor’s note: The district’s public listening session to envision the transition of its southern Whitfield unit, Rio Abajo Conservation Area (RACA), has been rescheduled for May 21. This column has been edited to reflect the new date.)
Five New Mexico wildfires made national news last week, including our local Big Hole Fire that consumed some 900 acres, a home and 80 percent of the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.
The Big Hole Fire was the second fire in three years to affect this conservation land that the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District owns and manages for you and with you.
After firefighters from near and far valiantly fought to save threatened structures from the fire, I visited Whitfield with local resident Charlie Sanchez Jr., a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and former district chairman whose vision charted the course of Whitfield’s journey from closed dairy farm to flourishing conservation area, over an 18-year period.
Mr. Sanchez garnered support from our local, state, and federal representatives — Democratic and Republican alike — federal and state agencies, and most importantly, from you to make the dream of Whitfield a cherished reality.
Thousands of students from our district and beyond have visited Whitfield yearly to experience hands-on, outdoor science learning. I could see that the Big Hole blaze had left a big hole in Mr. Sanchez’s heart as we cast our gazes over Whitfield and he reported, “It’s an ecological disaster.”
Shortly thereafter, I spoke with two visitors, who each had come to Whitfield to say goodbye. “I’m a teacher in Tomé,” said one. “Your staff comes to my classroom every year, and then we bring the children to learn at Whitfield. We love Whitfield. I guess this is the end, right?”
Another Whitfield neighbor couldn’t stop her tears as she feared never being able to watch the conservation area’s birds again.
Just like you, the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District board members and staff are mourning the devastation wrought by the Big Hole blaze. We will provide an opportunity for our communities to mourn, to acknowledge and learn from the power of nature and the might of fire, and, most importantly, to celebrate this great Earth.
That is why our district will go ahead with our planned Earth Day-Science Fiesta this coming Friday and Saturday, April 22 and April 23! Individuals can join guided tours of part of the eastern half of the lower grounds of Whitfield, including around the pond. The remainder of the conservation area is closed, because of safety concerns. We will have many hands-on demonstrations, a visit from the Smoky Bear Balloon, and a site where individuals can share their reactions to the fire and their hopes for the future of Whitfield.
On Saturday, May 21, we will host a district public listening session to envision the transition of our southern Whitfield unit, Rio Abajo Conservation Area (RACA) to being an actively-managed conservation area. After the Big Hole Fire, the open RACA canvas also invites mitigation efforts, especially as the conditions that led to the Whitfield blaze — low relative humidity, gusting winds, persistent drought and an overly dense bosque that is largely unmanaged — are likely to continue. This event will invite your input and request your assistance, in a myriad of volunteer projects. For further details, please call us at 505-864-8914 or visit our website, valenciaswcd.org.
We are determined to look toward the future with confidence, and that is the true purpose of hope. Our hope is grounded in the reality of our common past — that thousands of volunteers and enthusiasts among you helped us build Whitfield. We cannot sink to a state of despair, which would mean we lose all hope, because despair literally is the absence of hope, from the Latin de (without) and sperare (to hope).
The reality of our future is hopeful — that we will come together, again, to restore Whitfield. It is not wishful thinking to believe that, with your help, Whitfield will rise from the ashes.
As I left Whitfield last week, I delighted in seeing a flock of common finches alight on a bit of brush that the fire had spared. The setting sun seemed to cast a reddish light upon one. I couldn’t help but think that maybe I had seen a rare Purple Finch, or just maybe a phoenix.
(Teresa Smith de Cherif, is vice chairwoman of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District Board.)