COMMENTARY: When the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park (MVBSP) opened in 2006 as New Mexico’s first park in 30 years, people were excited. It was Las Cruces’ version of the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque. More importantly, it was the culmination of years of efforts by our community.
“We plan to make this new park our southern jewel along the Rio Grande bosque,” said then State Parks Director Dave Simon.
Barely a decade later, the future of this local treasure is in doubt. Current State Parks director Christy Tafoya says her agency can no longer afford to operate the facility and plans to turn management over to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF), which is anxious to save rent by moving out of its current Las Cruces office. The park would cease to exist as a state park.
Despite the fact that the Legislature appropriated nearly $3 million to establish the park, the agencies say they don’t need legislative approval to complete the transfer.
Whether the move is a good thing or not, the public deserves to know more about why it was proposed and what it will mean.
NMDGF says the park would remain open to the public but admission would be free.
That’s great, but it begs the question: why can’t State Parks offer free admission as well?
Tafoya says all state parks are required to charge admission fees. If that is a statutory requirement, then the Legislature should change the law (and Tafoya should be leading the charge to make it happen!). Parks like MVBSP, whose main purpose is conservation and education, should not be held to the same revenue generating standard as recreational giants like Elephant Butte State Park.
NMDGF says it will provide more staff to manage the park, but who will they be? Of its current 11-member staff in Las Cruces, only one person is an educator. Armed game wardens probably aren’t the people you want leading park tours. NMDGF says it does not plan to hire additional education staff.
As for its commitment to education, the renovations NMDGF has proposed are telling. It intends to convert the existing classroom at the park into offices, and the park’s exhibit hall into a 100-person meeting room where the Game Commission can hold meetings. When I asked what would happen to the park’s excellent interpretive displays, an agency spokesperson said they might be moved to Leasburg State Park.
Management of the park will inevitably shift because the agencies have different missions. State Parks is focused on protecting resources and providing recreational and education opportunities for the general public. NMDGF is mainly concerned with satisfying hunters and anglers, whom it refers to as its “customers,” and who provide the agency with the bulk of its revenues through purchases of licenses.
Can NMDGF be counted on to serve a wider public? Maybe, but change won’t come overnight.
A bill introduced in the 2017 legislature by Senator Jeff Steinborn would have expanded the agency’s mission to include management authority over all of New Mexico’s wildlife (instead of just a limited number of “game” species). NMDGF opposed it, saying it was an unfunded mandate.
The agency is decades behind majority public views on such issues as coyote killing contests (it supports them) and meaningful Mexican wolf recovery (opposes).
Apart from concerns about NMDGF, perhaps a more fundamental question is why State Parks feels it is appropriate to close parks in response to the predictable ebb and flow of funding. This seems a drastic response, and fairly or not, raises questions about other possible motives.
The community drove the effort to get the bosque park established. We deserve to be included in efforts to save it. The agencies should put the brakes on the proposed transfer and convene a genuine community dialogue about the park’s future.