Rhodes family creates conservation legacy

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When Virgil Rhodes was hospitalized in 2005, weakened by pneumonia, the retired state senator from Corrales was still fretting about the fate of his beloved ranch on the Rio Grande south of Socorro, his daughter Doris recalls.

“My dad agonized about what to do with the property,” she said.

Rhodes had bought the property east of the river and north of Highway 380 in 1979, and had lived there for awhile until a back injury forced him to move back to the Albuquerque area in 1984, she said.

Even though he wasn’t a conservationist per se, he had a rancher’s love of the land. He knew the salt cedars encroaching on the flood plain acreage were bad for the ecosystem, and before his injury, he had taken a backhoe and removed some of the invasive exotic trees himself. Then in 2003 he found out about the government-funded salt cedar eradication program, and agreed to have the trees sprayed with herbicides.

In the meantime, his efforts to find buyers who would agree to keep the ranch intact failed; the ranch just wasn’t productive enough — the Bureau of Land Management would allow only 26 cows to graze on the ranch’s 4,400 acres of desert upland.

New Mexico Fish and Game Department stepped in with an offer to buy the ranch as a hunting and fishing preserve. The Rhodes father and daughter were also discussing possible habitat restoration projects with Gina Dello Russo, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge biologist and technical adviser to the local Save Our Bosque Task Force, a non-profit corporation formed in 1994 to preserve the riparian habitat along the Rio Grande in Socorro County.

The family decided to begin restoring the bosque habitat.

Before his illness, the idea of putting a conservation easement on the 500 acres in the flood plain had also been mentioned by Dello Russo, but the Rhodes patriarch had not agreed to it.

That’s where things stood when he died suddenly in the hospital in 2005.

“Before he died, he told me ‘If something happens to me, sell the land to Game and Fish for the price I am asking,’” Doris said.

She hadn’t given the property much thought, but in February 2005, she went to inspect the ranch.

“It had rained, and geese had come in to rest in a pond,” she recalls. “The land spoke to me — it was an epiphany. I knew I couldn’t go through with a quick sale.”

Doris needed more time to think. Her father had wanted the ranch to stay in the family, but the land did not have the capacity to generate the income needed to maintain it in the way she knew her father would want.

Then in 2006, a wildfire burned the property.

Between 2008 and 2011, the SOBTS obtained grants from different federal agencies to fund restoration work on the property, Dello Russo said. Salt cedars were uprooted and ground up for mulch, and native plants such as cottonwoods, black willows and the endangered Pecos sunflowers were established.

Doris made up her mind, deciding to go forward with the easement instead of selling the property outright. Work began on the paperwork for a conservation easement to be placed on the property.

“The easement was perfect: we didn’t have to sell the land,” she said. “We could sell the easement which would generate some revenue, and still have the property and protect the land.”

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a land owner and a land preservation trust or governmental entity to restrict development or use on the land in order to protect its conservation value, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.

Conservation easements can be donated or they can be sold. The landowner maintains ownership of the land, and also benefits from tax advantages.

In 2012, the sale of the easement on 350 acres was finalized with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resource Conservation Service Wetland Reserve Program.

Doris reports the contract for a second easement has just been signed to protect an additional 170 acres south of the initial easement. About $288,000 in NRCS funding has been awarded for restoration of the second parcel. Work will begin in 2013.

“Now the land will be protected from development in perpetuity,” Dello Russo said. “Follow-up restoration will further improve native habitat. And keeping an open floodplain really protects all Socorro valley residents because, when the river floods, and even in times of drought there are floods, the river has a place to go without breaking a levee or flooding houses.”

The ranch provides a valuable asset that is in short supply along the Rio Grande — undeveloped wetland.

“The property is one of the last three wetlands in the entire San Acacia reach (San Acacia Diversion Dam to San Marcial Railroad Bridge),” Dello Russo said. “Because of the limited wetlands, and because of the benefit to wildlife of an large, open bosque habitat, the SOBTF ranked this property as a priority.”

Removal of the thick stands of salt cedar also protects adjacent homeowners and the native cottonwood forest from the risk of wildfire, Dello Russo said.

Doris said her family is very pleased with the results.

“The land now looks the way my father would want it to,” she said. “It’s been an extremely complicated process for me, but it has come together in a wonderful way. We’ve been able to get a some money from selling the easement, but more importantly we’ve protected a really critical property along the Rio Grande.

“We have a critical mass of people in the Socorro valley willing to restore their (flood plain) land, willing to create habitat, willing to create easements. I think that’s something very unique in our state, and I credit the SOBTF. Were it not for the task force, the restoration program at our ranch would never have gotten off the ground.”

Virgil Rhodes grew up on a cotton farm near Lubbock, Texas, and operated cotton farms in Texas until asthma forced him to quit. He moved his family to the Albuquerque area, where he worked as a contractor and real estate agent.

From 1992 to 1996, the Republican businessman served as state senator, representing Sandoval County and parts of the greater Albuquerque metro area.