County Judge, Veronica Escobar

  • Nature provides peaceful respite at bosque
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  • By Ramón Rentería / El Paso Times
  • John Sproul loves getting lost in El Paso's Rio Bosque Wetlands Park.

  • Not lost as in not finding his sense of direction, but becoming absorbed in absolute tranquility in the 372-acre natural paradise hugging the Rio Grande on the edge of El Paso.
  • Sproul, a University of Texas at El Paso biologist, manages the park, an increasingly important habitat for hawks, owls, the occasional coyote or gray fox, migrating ducks and other waterfowl, and even a beaver that often munches on unprotected cottonwood trees.
  • "We kind of give people a chance to take a little walk back in time when they come through here," Sproul said as he recently navigated a network of trails through the wetlands park and wildlife refuge.

  • Still evolving after 10 years of progress, the Lower Valley park between El Paso and Socorro is emerging as a reputable natural classroom and laboratory, one of the city's best spots to study or celebrate nature.

  • Sometimes overlooked as a place worth exploring and almost unknown to many El Pasoans, Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is also the perfect quick getaway this holiday season.

  • Sproul had been monitoring bird populations in that corner of El Paso for 18 years before construction of the wetlands project started in 1997. The city-owned park is managed by the University of Texas at El Paso's

    Center for Environmental Resource Management.
  • At Rio Bosque, a diverse partnership of government and private interests is working to restore unique ecosystems once found in the El Paso-Juárez river valley.

  • Those once-thriving wetlands, riverside forests and other native habitats bordering the Rio Grande mostly disappeared after the water and landscape were diverted or converted for industrial, agricultural and residential uses.

  • "We were a real important part of the natural heritage of this region, so we're trying to bring a little bit of that back here," Sproul said. "Today, it is virtually gone. This river valley is a completely different place than it was, say, 100 years ago.

  • So far, the long-term effort seems to be working, not only attracting more birds and wildlife but also bringing back more native vegetation such as screwbean mesquite or tornillo.

  • In 10 years, Sproul and others associated with the park have identified 221 species of birds, 75 of those water birds. Before water was diverted into the park from a nearby water treatment plant, 107 different bird species had been found at the park, including 21 water birds.

  • "We're making steady progress," Sproul said. "The landscape out here has just changed tremendously now that we're 10 years into the project."

  • Julianne Hammink, a teacher at Montana Vista Elementary School, recently took 100 third-grade students to the park to help them understand what they were studying in the classroom, habitats and how they change.

  • "I wanted to connect the environment that we have here with the curriculum the state gives us," Hammink said.

  • "The place just fascinates me."

  • Miguel Muñoz, 23, a junior education major at UTEP, is an environmental specialist at Rio Bosque. He is helping to develop lesson plans that educators can use to integrate the park into their curriculum.

  • "It gives teachers an insight as to what potential the land here has if it's managed properly," Muñoz said, adding that the experience is also helping him establish professional relationships with teachers already in the field.

  • Several other UTEP students often conduct research at Rio Bosque, frequently described as El Paso's last true woodland.

  • Virginia Galarza, a water conservation technician and president of Friends of Rio Bosque, wishes more residents and outsiders would learn and experience native river valley flora and fauna in the exact spot where the Rio Grande used to meander long before it was encased in concrete and straightened.

  • "This is an outdoor classroom and laboratory to teach hands-on biology, desert ecology and the management of natural resources," Galarza said.

  • No one embraces that philosophy more passionately than Sal Quintanilla, a Texas master naturalist who volunteers 200 to 300 hours a year at Rio Bosque. He routinely teaches schoolchildren to respect nature, which plants are edible or medicinal and the difference between a poisonous and non-poisonous spider, among other topics.

  • Quintanilla also talks about the snakes, gray foxes, badgers, beavers, tarantulas, burrowing owls and the sometimes thousands of water birds that use the bosque as a habitat. He emphasizes that the park is all about conserving natural resources.

  • "This park is a little island in the middle of the city, a very valuable half square mile," Quintanilla said. "The only problem with this park is that most people don't know about it. They have no idea what we have."

  • For John Sproul, half the fun of managing this wildlife refuge and its wetlands is being out there, often alone, fixing stuff, monitoring birds, cleaning out waterways or simply enjoying the solitude and the tranquil embrace of nature so close to the urban rat race.

  • "If people in the city feel they're in a completely different world even though we're still in the city, that's perfect," he said.

  • Ramón Rentería may be reached at rrenteria@elpasotimes.com; 546-6146.

  • Photos by Rudy Gutierrez:

  • County Judge
    Veronica Escobar