Traffic flow 1, trees 0

  • Huge cottonwood still stands, for now

    Rosemary Kaul

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 country.

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.

When finished 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 (ditches).

"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.

Harried 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.

At a public hearing last spring, West Siders called roads "ribbons of freedom" and denounced valley residents as rich, elitist yuppies.

"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 roads.

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.

On Nov. 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 bridge.

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 win.

"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 Mexico.

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