In Defense of the Rio Bosque Wetlands

by Vanessa Johnson

The Chihuahua Desert is an ecological treasure; it is the largest and most biodiverse desert in the Northern Hemisphere. The Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is a 372-acre City of El Paso park that is managed by UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management. Our Camino Real corridor (along the Rio Grande) is also a corridor for migrating birds, which stop for water and rest on their north-south journey.

The Rio Bosque Wetlands park is facing an existential threat because of a proposed freeway project.

Rio Bosque is a prime example of successful rewilding efforts, with careful management that allows nature to take its course and heal itself. Community volunteers pull invasive species during monthly workdays, and reintroduce native flora and fauna. Burrowing owl nesting sites were added a few years ago, and the management also provides birding and introductory tours for the public. I had emailed manager John Sproul in 2009, when I was about to move back to El Paso, to ask him about access, and I’ve been hiking it ever since, reveling in the bio-abundance of this particular urban oasis.

Each year over these past 15 years, I have noticed new growth, new animals, and new treasures. Each season is a distinct experience – the summer being the buggiest and least comfortable, but the sunflowers and vegetation being the thickest and most magical.

On the southeast side of the park, the border wall orients; the birds sometimes perch atop it, but mostly ignore this delineation. It’s a reminder of all we have lost from the river’s canalization and destruction of our former riparian habitat, not to mention the human and environmental tragedy that the border wall brings. If we were truly visionary, we’d extend this type of oasis along our entire river border up to New Mexico, not just next to roads and freeways but back to the natural course of the river, with Juarez as our partner.

The park is now threatened by the expanse of a freeway (up to six lanes) over the park.

Nets that are proposed to be part of the TxDOT project would likely trap migratory birds and smaller insects as some extraneous and macabre solution to a different problem of cars hitting birds. Jon Resendez in his piece is right to call this an existential threat, primarily to all the species that rely on the bosque for water. He lists many action steps we can take to halt this destruction, including upcoming TxDOT meetings and contacts for our political representatives.

The fact of the matter is that El Paso needs fifty Rio Bosques. A hundred. Regenerative natural spaces that may have been used for drainage areas or buffer zones between developments. With careful stewardship and partnerships between local neighborhood associations, environmental advocates, property owners, UTEP students, and others, these spaces can reap huge ecological benefits. More birds, cooler temperatures, cleaner air.

Urban sprawl (as well as off-road vehicle activity) represents the biggest threat to fragile desert environments. This type of development has unfortunately been the driving economic force behind El Paso politics for many years. You don’t need to read El Chuqueño (although you should), but instead just scan the campaign contributions to politicians over the past 40 years. We need to recognize the shortsightedness of this approach (or values system, which it is), and with careful reinvestment in our core neighborhoods, we need to wean our city away from big freeway-centered sprawl. We need to think creatively about ways we can use our existing space to nurture our native flora and fauna, realizing that much of the benefit accrues to us along the way, and for a fraction of the cost of mega-projects.

El Paso is rich in other natural treasures – from the Franklin Mountains to Keystone Heritage Park (a great example of other land reuse) to the Billy Rogers Arroyo Park to the UTEP campus and its native gardens. The Frontera Land Alliance is a fantastic nonprofit working towards open space goals. The east side is underserved when it comes to parks, and people are more reliant on vehicles; yet building more roads and freeways only exacerbates the lack of access to open space.

And green space doesn’t need to be hundreds of acres to be viable; plenty of small acreage plots could be repurposed for rewilding, cleaning out trash that accumulates, and providing places for people to hike/bike/run/meditate. High density cities like New York and Chicago are creating walkable parks and urban gardens in areas that are narrow and with previous industrial use, bringing huge value and health benefits to the surrounding communities.

A few years ago I took my parents and children on a New Year’s Day hike at Rio Bosque, along with family friends who were visiting from Ireland. It was a beautiful crisp morning, as we enjoyed our morning coffee, along with some pomegranates and nuts. Large migratory birds startled us along the way. Were they herons? Egrets? Terns? My ignorance of wildlife biology is proof that you don’t need specialized knowledge to appreciate that this is a special place, and is deserving of our protection.

We can preserve the Rio Bosque Wetlands, if we raise our voices. Contact your Texas State House Representative Cesar Blanco, and tell him so.


  1. Thank you Vanessa Johnson (I love the shadow photo of the family, including the tall one with a cowboy hat!!). Beautifully written–I will spread around Facebook.

  2. Time-wise – of even greater importance – is the May 7 city council meeting where they will vote whether to rezone the area across the canal from Rio Bosque as industrial vs its current farm & ranchland zoning. Jobe already has one facility there – if this vote passes, it will no doubt be a domino effect – plant after plant after plant. The EP water facility next to RB is already so loud and running 24/7. The Jobe plant is close to a neighborhood – houses between the open space and Socorro Road. Last week and yesterday showed just how poor our air quality already is – we have an F w the American Lung Assn – more industry vs more open space will only make it worse. Please – share this info and show up to the May 7 city council meeting (or write to them all) to say NO to rezoning. And thanks for a great piece about Rio Bosque!

  3. Also coming up is the TCEQ permit renewal for the refinery on May 14th, so May is an important month for environment in El Paso. Just this morning I had a medical appointment on the east side and so took the opportunity to drive over to the Bosque to photograph the Jobe concrete plant next door to it and on land zoned farm & ranch, not industrial. This will come to Council on May 7th.

    Community First Coalition is working to hold a public forum May 11th on the Bosque endangerment and the Marathon permit renewal as soon as we can work out some logistical issues. Stay tuned.

  4. If only more El Pasoans realized the huge benefit from this kind of wildlife refugee, both for residents who’d like to get out in a pleasant setting, and for visitors…tourists…who will find this to be part of the attractions El Paso has to offer. Can we say TOURIST BUCKS??? Is there ANYTHING that TxDoT won’t wreck in order to lay down some more lanes???

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