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Aldo Leopold: Albuquerque’s First Environmental Planner

February 18, 2021 by admin

Human sensitivity to the natural world characterizes the work of forester, writer, environmentalist, and hands-on policy maker Aldo Leopold. Best known for spearheading the establishment in 1923 of what would become the first wilderness area in the country, the Gila in southwestern New Mexico, and for the environmental classic “Sand County Almanac,” published in 1949, his influence on the land ethic began early. As a young man of many skills and talents, he came to the WPR region in 1909 to work for then-new US Forest Service in New Mexico and Arizona.

Leopold arrived in Albuquerque in1914 and gained a reputation as a master gardener for his backyard garden on 14th Street, just south of Central Avenue (later US Highway 66). When America’s entry into World War I in 1917 necessitated home gardens (later called “victory gardens”) he was called on to advise the public on planting and irrigation plans.1 The next year, the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce recognized his talent for public relations and offered him a position as secretary, with a substantial salary raise from his Forest Service position. He used his skills in organizing and communicating to bring labor groups into the process and to encourage builders to feature indigenous Spanish architecture in new construction projects. His biographer Curt Meine points out that Leopold’s forestry background “proved valuable when he supervised the removal of cotton-bearing female cottonwoods in the city and led an effort to secure parkland along the Rio Grande.”1


Leopold urged the city to employ, through the chamber in 1918, a professional city planner, asking “How is Albuquerque going to grow up? Are we going to ‘just happen’ like Topsy, or are we going to look ahead and make every new house, new street, or new public building count toward the attainment of [a] definite end?”2. He estimated that Albuquerque would double in population to 50,000 between 1918 and 1925 and opined that “Planless cities tear themselves down at least once for each doubling of population, and when they have doubled, they have to tear themselves down again in order to grow some more.” To Leopold, such cities “are expensive, uncomfortable, unnecessary, and behind the times” and he thought the city ought to get out of the planless class at the earliest possible moment.

The Rio Grande Valley State Park was the fulfillment of Aldo Leopold’s vision for a riparian reserve in Albuquerque, Downtown Albuquerque is in the background (photo by Brad Stebleton)

The Rio Grande Valley State Park was the fulfillment of Aldo Leopold’s vision for a riparian reserve in Albuquerque, Downtown Albuquerque is in the background (photo by Brad Stebleton)

Leopold specified that the “city plan will provide for the gradual acquisition of a Civic Center or Plaza, on which all future public buildings, such as a new court house, a new library, a Y.M.C.A. and a Community building will be erected.”2 He encouraged the chamber to go beyond promoting local business interests and to establish a community center, a “common center – the clearing house…of all public spirited effort in Albuquerque.” He predicted that the cost of developing a civic center would cost less than “to scatter its various features all around town in a hit or miss fashion.” Leopold’s also suggested that a comprehensive plan be developed for the then small city of Albuquerque.


Stretching from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande then as now was a defining feature of Albuquerque’s landscape.  Leopold envisioned an Albuquerque city plan that would provide for the gradual acquisition of a system of open space and parks to be within easy walking distance of every home in town. “Of this system the Rio Grande Park will be an important part”2. He further specified, “All future additions will be laid out by the City Planner far in advance of their actual use. The proper proportion of parks and the convenient extension of streets will all be prescribed.”

Leopold did not do anything without a measure of intensity.  An ardent promoter of ideas, he gained a reputation for his speaking abilities at an early age. When the statewide convention of Game Protective Associations met in Albuquerque, Leopold was invited to address a crowd of 100 people on January 11, 1917 (his 30th birthday), including the State Game and Fish Warden3.  He extolled a new concept, a river park for the common person, for the young, for the virtues of nature, and for the future: “The average Albuquerquean man, woman or child, is in need of a place within walking distance of the city where he can enjoy a breath of fresh air and a sight of a few trees, a few birds, and a little water,” he told the audience that evening.  “The parks within the city itself, while decidedly necessary, do not fill this need.  It is significant that one seldom sees many boys playing in these parks.  Where do the boys go?” He drove the point home: “To those fond parents who attempt to keep a watchful eye on their half-grown offspring the answer is simple.  The boys go to the river.” 3

There was a deeply-rooted element of economic justice built into his idea for the river park.  “This park should be primarily for the man without a car.  The man with a car does not need it.  Accordingly, there should be no road.  Just a good trail along the bank and clean woods and waters.”3  Then in a statement sure to have caught the hunters in the crowd off guard, he proclaimed, “All shooting should be prohibited.  There are herons, beaver, muskrats, song birds and killdeer there now, and with proper protection there would soon be ducks, snipe and other wild life.”  He had come a long way since the days of his hunting journals when he tallied the number of ducks shot on the Rio Grande.

Leopold worked on the river park plan throughout 1917 while still employed by the Forest Service1.  He promoted a boys’ chapter of the Game Association and gave frequent talks.  He presented the plan several times, and by November, the key elements had been laid out.  It was to be an area 600 feet wide, in a natural condition, for pedestrians first with secondary consideration for cars, and with a small lake for ducks and other wildfowl.  His selection as paid secretary of the newly reorganized Chamber of Commerce was dependent on resignation from the Forest Service at the beginning of 1918.  Once hired, the Chamber put Leopold on several committees, especially civic projects1.  He launched immediately into another round of lobbying and fighting for common causes that would improve his new hometown, but Rio Grande Park remained his prime goal.

By February 1918, the Chamber had convinced the City Commission to issue a $3,000 bond for the park’s improvements.  By the end of March, headlines in the Albuquerque Journal proclaimed “Rio Grande Park Virtually Certain to be Established.”4  In May, the papers reported that the park was “staked out and ready for work” following completion of surveys and plats.  Then came the land acquisition struggle.  In June, active attempts to secure the park land began with an information meeting for property owners in nearby Barelas.  The residents of this working-class neighborhood were some of the average people Leopold had talked about.  In an apparently conscious strategy, each successful parcel donation was publicized in the papers.

Sandia Crest as seen from the Rio Grande’s protected riparian bosque. (photo by Matt Schmader)

Sandia Crest as seen from the Rio Grande’s protected riparian bosque. (photo by Matt Schmader)

The Leopold Trail within the bosque in Rio Grande Valley State Park. (photo by Matt Schmader)

The Leopold Trail within the bosque in Rio Grande Valley State Park. (photo by Matt Schmader)

In July 1918, Leopold wrote that the best workers refused to live in cities with no parks. He spelled out the three elements that “enter into the makings of a real city” – contentment, public health, and hometown pride5.  All of these depended on good public recreation, and as Leopold saw it, Albuquerque was lacking. His answer lay in the center of town; the river park.

The next month saw the first issue of Forward Albuquerque, the Chamber’s quarterly newsletter for which Aldo was responsible as the organization’s secretary.  On the back page was an updated plat map entitled The Rio Grande Park2. Emblazoned across the top was a quote from the Bible in Leopold’s own writing: “Where there is no vision the people perish.”  The map notes that “13 tracts have been donated.  Only 5 more tracts lacking to complete the largest city playground between Denver and the coast” and exhorts readers to “help fill in the gaps.”

Leopold had some formidable opponents. He was not dealing just with everyday citizens but rather those who could afford a car (a relative luxury at this time).  Some of the holdouts argued that a 200 foot wide donated strip would be conservative but 600 feet was excessive6.  Much of the real estate argument revolved around the value that would be added to the remaining private lands to compensate for the donated lands.  In the chamber’s quarterly bulletin, Leopold wrote that “every landowner should remember that the City, in asking for the donation of the necessary lands is not asking charity of its citizens. It is offering a business proposition which every thoughtful man knows to be for the mutual benefit of all concerned.”2  He added that “It will be the largest city park between Denver and the coast. It offers the finest scenery and views to be found in the valley.”  A setback to the proposed park came in 1924 when Leopold accepted a position in Wisconsin. Such projects need champions, and one stepped up to speak for Leopold’s vision, Clyde Tingley.

Tingley’s rise to political ascendancy happened at precisely the same time Leopold was actively promoting Rio Grande Park.  As a newly elected alderman he challenged the last of Albuquerque’s mayors, Henry Westerfield, before the city went to a commission-style form of government.  Tingley became the power broker of the city commission, was called its informal “mayor” for over a decade, and was one of the most powerful politicians in New Mexico in the first half of the 20th century.  There is little doubt that Leopold and Tingley moved in some of the same circles and were able to discuss and mesh numerous plans.  The Rio Grande Park was built, but on a reduced scale, and in 1927 the zoo was moved west from the downtown area to take up much of the parkland8.

Leopold was in many ways a man ahead of his time.  His ideas of conservation, open space preservation, ecology, and comprehensive planning were radical concepts in the intermountain west of the early 20th century.  The rapid growth that Leopold predicted for Albuquerque came later than he forecast, but when it arrived, it did so with a vengeance.  The town that Leopold knew transformed as it grew in population nearly sevenfold from 1940 to 1970 and is now one of the largest cities in our region.  Albuquerque’s first professional planner did not arrive until after World War Two and its first real Comprehensive Plan was adopted in the 1970’s.  The city did not implement park dedication requirements until 1955 and the civic plaza that Leopold envisioned for the downtown area was finally built in 1974.  However, the crown jewel of Leopold’s legacy was the establishment in 1983 of the Rio Grande Valley State Park, a linear park spanning 20 miles of the river as it passes through the city.  This has resulted in one of the best-preserved riparian areas in the west and an important area for wildlife and recreation alike.  It is also a vegetative buffer zone for an urban environment and one of the largest intact cottonwood forests in the southwest, and includes several “good trails” as Leopold recommended so many years ago.  His Rio Grande Park has become the Albuquerque Biological Park/Rio Grande Zoo, a facility that is enjoyed by many thousands of New Mexicans every year.  Aldo Leopold would be proud.

During his year and half tenure with the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Leopold articulated his view that urbanization and the protection of wildlife need not be conflicting concepts.11 He lamented the fact that many people still assumed that “the abundance of game must bear an inverse ratio to degree of settlement,” which he felt encouraged “an incalculable mischievous influence against the progress of the movement for wildlife conservation.”12 From his strong belief in the health of the land and its benefit to people, Leopold was able to generate a new land ethic. Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the nation owe a great debt to his far-sighted words and deeds.

The beautiful riparian habitat in the Rio Grande Valley State Park. (photo by Matt Schmader)

The beautiful riparian habitat in the Rio Grande Valley State Park. (photo by Matt Schmader)

by Bill Fleming and Mike Schmader, with Brad Stebleton updating. This article was first published in the Western Planner in July 2010.

2021 UPDATE BY BRAD STEBLETON:  As with many such movements, the effort to protect the Rio Grande in the Albuquerque area did not end with the creation of Rio Grande Valley State Park in 1983.  In many ways it was just the beginning.  My parents settled in Los Ranchos, near the edge of the Park, shortly after its creation.  At that time the park area was filled with trash and overgrown with the exotic and invasive plants that many of our readers know well, such as Tamarisk, Trees of Heaven, and Siberian Elms.  It took a great deal of effort, community support, and countless hours of labor to make this Park the beautifully restored recreational magnet that it is today.  I moved to Los Ranchos, the community where I started my planning career, in order to be close to my elderly father after we lost my mother in 2014.  When the enforced isolation and attendant craziness of the COVID pandemic hit last year, I gained a renewed appreciation for Leopold’s vision and all of effort that went into making it a reality.  Having easy access to the river park during this time has been a godsend and has been of inestimable benefit to mine and my family’s physical and mental health.

References Cited

1 Meine, C. 1988. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

2 Leopold, A. 1918. Forward Albuquerque, quarterly bulletin of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, No. 1, August 1918.

3 Albuquerque Journal, January 11, 1917.

4 Albuquerque Journal, March 30, 1918.

5  Albuquerque Journal, July 9, 1918.

6  Albuquerque Journal, September 18, 1918

7   Price, Vincent B. 2003. A City at the End of the World. UNM Press.

8 Saiers, J. 1996. City parks. In Albuquerque’s Environmental Story. City of Albuquerque, Albuquerque Public Schools, and the Albuquerque Conservation Assoc.

9 Huser, V., J. Foslien and S. Bouchonville. 2002. An evolving history of the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. Unpublished manuscript.

10 Leopold, A. 1919. City tree planting. American Forestry 25:308.

11 Newton, J.L. 2006. Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey. Island Press, 438p.

12 Leopold, A. 1918. The popular wilderness fallacy: an idea that is fast exploding. Outer’s Book Recreation 58(1):43-46.

Bill Fleming is a Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning and is affiliated with the University’s Latin American & Iberian Institute.

Matt Schmader was the Superintendent of Albuquerque’s Open Space program for many years until his retirement in 2016 and writes extensively about conservation issues in New Mexico.

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