Editor’s Note: This is the text from the interview that appeared on pages194-196 of the September 2013 issue of ALBUQUERQUE THE MAGAZINE.
THE SPANISH CALLED THE NARROW GREEN RIBBON of trees lining the banks of the Rio Grande the “bosque,”—or woodlands. And U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Ecologist Ondrea Hummel simply calls it her oasis.
Caring for the forest’s unique eco-system has been Hummel’s primary mission for the past 17 years, first with the city’s Open Space Division and now with the Corps. Hummel has spent thousands of hours researching how to balance the delicate habitat while providing visitors to the 4,300- acre state park and forest with plenty of public access. She’s also focused on mitigating the impact of fires and drought in the bosque and helped supervise millions of dollars in restoration projects.
Originally from Cuba, N.Y., Hummel, worked toward her Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico after studying biology in New York and Florida, where her career began with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When she’s not knee deep in mud, Hummel says she finds the trails along the Rio Grande Valley State Park the perfect place to train for 10K runs.
ATM: In your view as an ecologist, what shape are the bosque and Rio Grande State Park in this year?
Hummel: They’re both in flux. There has been a fair amount of disturbances in the forest. Some of them have been caused by visitors and some of it has been environmental. The fires in 2003 burned about 300 acres, which changed the ecosystem for both wildlife and humans. Since then, we’ve have a few fires each year. They’ve burned between 10 and 100 acres at a time. While that doesn’t sound like much compared to large forest fires, there aren’t many trees and vegetation along the banks of the Rio Grande to begin with, so every acre counts.
ATM: Has drought had a big impact on the forest?
Hummel: It’s been a hard few years for the bosque and other forested areas in New Mexico—and it will continue to be. While there’s still surface water in the parts of the river here the majority of the time many reaches of the Rio Grande go dry every year. That makes it difficult for wildlife, especially for fish species.
ATM: What about the impact on vegetation like the cottonwood trees?
Hummel: Vegetation can survive for a while because it’s also tied to groundwater. But as the river drops or dries, the groundwater drops as well, making it harder for vegetation to survive. We’re starting to see cottonwoods die off due to the persistent drought. I am always hopeful that the bosque will make it through the current dry patch. It will take more than one wet year for it to thrive again. Only time will tell.
ATM: Do you believe that drastic measures may be needed?
Hummel: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies have been investigating ways to make what water we do have go further and for longer. All of the management agencies are doing the best we can in the current situation. Drastic measures have been and will continue to be discussed.
ATM: Have restoration projects improved conditions overall?
Hummel: They’ve definitely helped, but they’re not a total fix. My personal goal has been to manage it so native trees like the cottonwood and willow are the dominant vegetation rather than the other way around. The non-native vegetation is here to stay, but it can be managed in a way that it doesn’t outcompete the native vegetation or cause an increased fire risk, which some of the more drought tolerant species such as salt cedar can do.
ATM: How can visitors help keep the eco-system healthy?
Hummel: By paying attention to their footprint when they are in the bosque. Staying on paved trails that are clearly marked is the best way. Stay out of areas that don’t have trails and avoid thicker habitats where animals are living. Also, if you have food or other items, take it back home with you.
ATM: Speaking of visitors, what kind of wildlife is in our forest?
Hummel: The bosque is home to hundreds of migratory birds, many of which nest in Albuquerque during the summer. There are also lots of small mammals such as coyotes, beavers, muskrats, mice, and the elusive weasel that make the bosque their home. There are also lots of amphibians, reptiles, and arthropods—bugs!
ATM: Are the critters threatened by the drought and by humans?
Hummel: The animals in the bosque are threatened in the same way as critters anywhere. The threat occurs when their habitat being disturbed or taken away through human disturbance, drought, fire, or other means.
ATM: Is that why we see more coyotes in roaming city neighborhoods?
Hummel: Yes. They’ve lost the cover that they once had in the bosque. They need thicker areas where they can build dens, but that type of habitat poses a fire danger and many of those areas have been thinned (if they haven’t already been burned).
ATM: Are there other specifies threatened?
Hummel: There are several that are listed as endangered, including the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.
ATM: What’s on your bosque bucket list?
Hummel: I’m not asking for much—just lots of money, people and water to help it thrive! Really, the water would take care of most of it if we had enough. That’s how the river and bosque used to take care of itself.
ATM: How did that work?
Hummel: The high water flows would move through the bosque and flush away debris and regenerate native species such as the cottonwood trees. In lieu of those flows, we need people and money to serve that function.
ATM: What other resources do you think are needed to manage the bosque?
Hummel: People and equipment are needed to manage non-native vegetation so that native vegetation is dominant. We’re getting there, but it’s a slow process, and there will always have to be some level of management to help the bosque along the way. The more areas we can reconnect to the floodplain with the restoration projects the better. The river will do the work— when there is enough water.
ATM: Beyond the eco-systems and science, what have you learned about the bosque’s unique cultural history?
Hummel: It’s definitely part of New Mexico history and life. Water has always been the main draw for living near rivers and there’s a lot of cultural history along the banks of the Rio Grande. Numerous pueblo villages were established here. The river has also been tied to farming, for centuries, with historic acequias and ditches being used for irrigation. Some of those are still used today.
—PETER ST. CYR
Hummel’s Bosque Tips and Faves:
Favorite nature trail in the bosque: “Paseo to La Orilla on the Westside.”
Favorite river access area: “The Alameda/ Rio Grande Open Space parking lot (southeast corner of Alameda and the river).”
Favorite picnic spot: “On a raft on the river— which doesn’t happen as often as I would like.”
Best place to take wildlife pictures in the Bosque: “The Oxbow, but I’m not going to tell you where that is!”
Favorite bosque animal: “Dragonflies.”
Favorite bosque bird: “Great Horned Owl.”