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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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The Middle Rio Grande Bosque, the water jewel of Albuquerque, offers a multitude of options for the city’s urban dwellers to leave the concrete and cars behind—even if only for a few hours. The Bosque’s cottonwood forest, which borders the Rio Grande, creates an oasis of valuable resources for humans, animals and plants. It is a habitat that is both unique and diminishing at the same time.  

The 16-mile Paseo del Bosque Trail running through the riparian forest offers a multitude of options to sink into Mother Nature for bicyclists, walkers, runners, people with wheelchairs, in-line skaters, equestrians and families with strollers. It also gives access to those foraging for medicinal and edible plants in the Bosque.

The Albuquerque Bosque was swampland covered with trees prior to being constrained by levees, irrigation drawls and droughts combined with overgrazing, clear-cutting, fire suppression and intensive hunting. The river has a history of flooding and had created a meandering course across the entire valley. In 1739 a flood moved the course of the river two miles to the west, and in 1884 the Rio Grande overflowed its banks, flooding the Bosque area over the tops of the cottonwood trees. While environmental problems still persist for the river, restoration and corrective programs have improved the bosque’s ecosystems.

The Albuquerque Yerba Mansa Project, started in 2014, offers community members an opportunity to help restore the bosque’s habitat and the native plants that underlie the cultural food and medicine traditions of the Land of Enchantment. The project was designed to be an all-inclusive multigenerational and multicultural venture for the community, offering events that have co-sponsoring organizations in the community to help make them free, so everyone can participate. Dara Saville, founder and executive director of the project told the Paper., “We are well supported by our community, and it’s really nice to know that everyone values what we’re doing and wants to be a part of it and help us make more things happen.”

The project offers several ways for the community to get involved and help restore the bosque. Individuals and groups can volunteer at the project’s Bosque Restoration Field Day on September 18, offered in partnership with the City of Albuquerque’s Open Space. They invite the entire community of all ages, from babies to elders, to come into the bosque. “It’s an opportunity for our community to give back and help us be honorable, respectful land stewards of our riparian floodplain, which gives so much loving tender care to the land, the plants and the animals who live there,” Saville said.

“During the Restoration Field Day, we remove nonnative invasive Ravenna bunch grass that takes over prime habitats for native plants, replant native edible and medicinal species and also some that are just designed for improving the quality of the habitat,” Saville explained. “We’re replanting our native plant traditions and keeping them alive, literally, through the restoration work. We do a lot of work with kids and give them a prominent role in the project so that we can help to foster a continuance of this land stewardship and a continuance of our edible and medicinal plant plants and their traditions,” she said.

“People are expressing a lot of ecological and climate anxiety and feel so overtaken by the environmental news and despair. What we’re offering is an opportunity for people to actually start taking meaningful actions, so that they can see that they are improving their local habitats. Families participate with little kids that are expressing a sincere and heartfelt connection to the land, that will at least make them a nature lover. And we hope it will make them effective policy advocates or at least informed voters,” Saville explained.

The Yerba Mansa Project also offers field programs that are focused on getting kids out of the classroom and into wild spaces and being on the land and around plants. They also work with classrooms and youth groups that want to contribute to their Field Guide Project. Those participating in the Field Guide Project can request a field trip in the bosque with the project’s educators and, if needed, apply for a transportation grant to help them get there.

“We prioritize schools where the teacher shows us that our field programs would fit into and support an existing curriculum that they have,” Saville explained. “We adapt our programs to the subject matter, but we want to see that our programs and our expertise will support what the school is already doing. If we could get more funding, we would do more of this with schools,” she said.

For those who want to forage plants from the bosque, Saville contends that the idea when foraging is to pick a little and keep moving, so that you’re not browsing too heavily in one area—especially if you’re harvesting native plants. “Make sure the environment is clean and has not been sprayed with herbicides or contaminated in other ways. I avoid harvesting things near the water’s edge in the early spring when I know the agricultural runoff levels are much higher and to try to minimize your exposure to those things,” Saville advised.

“I support wild harvesting of plants, but done so with knowledge and respect. I encourage people to harvest a plethora of nonnative and invasive species which are very medicinal and very nutritious edibles.” Her list of edibles in the bosque includes mulberries eaten right off the tree, Siberian elm trees, which produce delicious sweet seeds in the springtime, tumbleweed (when it’s still small and tender), wild spinach and lamb’s quarters.

Saville is the founder of Albuquerque Herbalism Program, a bioregional herbal studies program that brings students into relationships with the medicinal plants of the Southwest through classroom discussion, hands-on remedy making, field trips and native medicinal plant restoration. She is also an instructor in UNM’s Holistic Health Program and the author of The Ecology of Herbal Medicine: A Guide to Plants and Living Landscapes of the American Southwest available through the University of New Mexico Press. The Yerba Mansa Project can be reached at yerbamansaproject.org.

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