ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - When the bulldozer smacked a 40-foot-tall cottonwood tree, the tree first wavered and wobbled. Then, a loud crack rang out, and the tree toppled, its bright green leaves crushed as they glistened in the sunlight.
This scene was repeated more than a
dozen times in mid-October, as the Albuquerque city government
started work on the Montano Bridge over the Rio Grande River.
Tree-cutting on the river's west side climaxed a 30-year civil war,
one of the longest-running environmental controversies in the
It pitted the city government against
environmentalists and various neighborhood groups over whether the
city should send 20,000 cars a day into a peaceful, semi-rural area
in the name of smooth traffic flow.
about two years hence, the $30 million, two-lane bridge will take
traffic from Albuquerque's booming West Side into the North Valley,
an Oz-like land of horse farms, alfalfa fields and huge estates.
Still standing is the symbol of this fight, an 80- to 100-year-old
cottonwood on the river's east side that spreads from a six-foot
diameter base. Lying in the bridge's path, it is plastered with
signs and slogans such as "Bridge Over the River Why?" But it is
slated to fall soon.
For North Valley residents,
this tree symbolizes a unique bosque (wooded area), and a way of
life rare in most American cities. The valley lies 10 minutes by
car from downtown Albuquerque. But horses trot up and down its
fields, and residents water gardens from century-old acequias
"We don't want a 7-Eleven on each
corner. We like the smell of horses and fertilizer and the sounds
of chickens and roosters," says John O'Connor, mayor of Los
Ranchos, a town of 4,000 people near the bridge that has led the
opposition. "We do not want to cut down trees and replace them with
stone front yards. We do not want to replace bushes with walls, and
fields and bosques with pavement."
The bosque, a
cottonwood-willow forest straddling the river, is the Southwest's
second richest riparian area, after the San Pedro River in
southeast Arizona (HCN, 6/12/95), according to Robert Ohmart, an
Arizona State University zoologist who testified on behalf of
bridge opponents in court. He warns that building this bridge - the
seventh over the river in the Albuquerque metropolitan area - will
fragment the bosque and threaten the genetic diversity of the small
mammals and reptiles that live in it.
West Siders have a different priority - finding a smooth commuting
path. With much of Albuquerque surrounded by mountains and Indian
reservations, this is one place where growth can occur. With 22
residents on the West Side for every job there, most homeowners
must cross the river to work.
And with no bridges
for three miles on either side of the Montano site, West Siders
complain that the drive is inconvenient and wastes gasoline.
Existing river bridges are clogged with rush-hour drivers, making
half-hour waits to cross the river common.
public hearing last spring, West Siders called roads "ribbons of
freedom" and denounced valley residents as rich, elitist
"I believe in freedom of movement and I
think that is manifested in the automobile," said West Sider Pat
Chapman at the hearing. "I can go where I want and when I choose."
At times, frustrated West Siders would drive by
the big cottonwood tree and shout, "Cut it down!" This fall,
thousands of them drove down a main drag in Los Ranchos for three
straight mornings, to give valley residents a taste of their
traffic jams. When construction started, a handful of West Siders
cheered at the sight of trees falling. In late October, vandals
torched the big cottonwood tree with gasoline, although neighbors
quickly put it out.
The city council had
originally approved the bridge, then backed away from it, then
approved it for good last August, despite a lack of money to finish
it. Right now, the city has only $18 million of the approximately
$30 million it needs. That raises the possibility of a bridge to
nowhere if the city can't find money to build approach
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service have authorized the bridge because of
city plans to plant four baby cottonwoods to replace each large one
torn down. The state courts stopped the bridge for six years with
an injunction, but lifted it this fall.
5, opponents held a last-ditch rally at the big tree and wrapped
green ribbons around other, soon-to-be-demolished cottonwoods. They
carried signs saying, "It's not over "til it's over." They threw
eggs and cream pies at a cardboard likeness of Albuquerque Mayor
Martin Chavez, a West Side resident who led the charge for the
But while they're pressing last-minute
lawsuits after already having spent $1 million on attorneys' fees,
opponents admit that they need a miracle to
"This is a form of grief," said Tom Popejoy,
an attorney and valley resident, as he attended the rally. "You
mainly just face it, and, of course, you cry a little."
Tony Davis reports
frequently for High Country News from Albuquerque, New