EARLY HISTORY OF THE ARKANSAS VALLEY AUDUBON SOCIETY by Joan Wolther
In 1967 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held their first public hearing in Pueblo on their proposal to channelize the Arkansas River from Salida to the Kansas border they were surprised, to say the least, to find almost universal opposition to their plans. They did not know that the day after their initial visit Pueblo's municipal officers, an article in the local newspaper by Outdoor Column writer Bob Overton gave a clear picture of the ecological and economic disaster that would occur, in the name of flood control, to one of the last free-flowing rivers in the U.S. by converting the Arkansas River into a concrete drainage ditch.
After reading his article nine concerned citizens of Pueblo, including university professors, housewives and ranchers and hunters, met with the Corps representatives to state their opposition to the project. This did not make the Corps happy, and it was evident that they had no intention of giving up their project without a prolonged battle. The result was the formation of a citizen coalition under the name of the Arkansas Valley Conservation Council, an umbrella organization that could more efficiently focus the opposition that was now coming in from all sides.
For two years, while the Corps pressed their point with many meetings with citizen groups, Chambers of Commerce and officials from political entities up and down the Valley, the core members of the AVCC moved fast to present their opposition to the project. Our every public statement was based on the facts, both ecological and economic, and the sound arguments made by AVCC won public opinion. As a result the Corps admitted defeat and dropped their proposal.
With this vital lesson in citizen action under our belts, the AVCC decided to put their knowledge to good use by remaining in existence as a regional environmental watchdog. By this time it was obvious that joining up with a national organization would not only strengthen the position of AVCC but would give us access to more professional information on environmental issues. After studying the management techniques of various groups we decided to join the National Audubon Society, which works from the grassroots up to the national level, giving self-empowerment to local chapters while offering professional expertise to their chapters when necessary. With a growing membership, we were off and running.
We formed committees to divide the work, and although there was a serious intent to our general purpose, we took care of the fun with lots of birding and field trips and other get-togethers. One of the more enjoyable excursions was to the San Luis Valley to learn of the plan to introduce Whooping Cranes into the Bosque del Apache winter range. Everyone was hopeful this would be a viable means to guard against a disaster at the Whoopers' Aransas refuge.
During this time funds were raised to enable the chapter to send interested teachers from local schools to Audubon Ecology Camps. This is still an important program for AVAS today.
In the early 1970's a developer bought land in the Fountain River floodplain in Pueblo in order to build a major shopping mall and apartment complex. Because there had been a serious flood in 1965 and because of other environmental concerns, AVAS immediately went into action. By using the collective expertise of members who were retired engineers and hydrologists a task force wrote a position paper based on sound science opposing the development. The paper was presented to all entities involved and for the next two years members attended all meetings relative to the project. Although the developers succeeded in building their commercial enterprise, AVAS also succeeded by getting the original plan drastically altered. Also, the Pueblo City Council and the County Commissioners were persuaded by AVAS to restrict zoning of the riparian areas to recreation use only. Now the floodplain has reverted to natural areas with one of the best trail systems in the State.
During this time commercial interests were casting a "doom and gloom" image on active environmentalists. In order to counteract this image the AVAS Conservation Committee in 1974 developed and produced a 26-part TV series in conjunction with the local PBS station. Titled "Where Do We Go From Here?", each program addressed local and regional issues. Some of the participants were well-known in their field, including Dick Lamm, then a State Legis-lator, and John Gardner, Director of the EPA.
By 1977 AVAS was distributing educational materials developed by National Audubon for the schools. It was apparent that a Nature Center would be a useful teaching tool to augment the AVAS message. Meetings were held with the City Council, County Commissioners and various private groups, using the National Audubon video on the need for a community nature center. At this time, the city government had bought a 40-acre ranch on the north bank of the Arkansas River in order to develop a recreational trail along the river to the west to link up to one being developed at Lake Pueblo State Park. The City council asked the chapter if we would like to lease the property to establish a nature center.
It was a perfect outdoor museum, a small natural area lying within 15 miles of the center of the city. It lay hidden under classic Cretaceous Age cliffs with short grass prairie with a mile of riparian flora and fauna along the river. There was a small run-down ranch house that could be used for offices and a display area. On the bluff above the ranch house was a 20-acre property belonging to the State, now leased to the City. This was incorporated into the Nature Center boundary and provided us a building to house a raptor rehabilitation center and a small house for the director.
The Nature Center was organized according to guidelines from the NAS with a community-based Board of Directors and an Advisory Board who created a constitution and an agenda for development and activities. It was a time of great excitement and creativity. A professional director was hired and the Nature Center was off and running, to become a crucial environmental educational center for the community and one of the most popular places to visit in the region. As it grew, the Nature Center became an independent entity but is now a part of the University of Southern Colorado and its role has been enlarged into a higher professional status.
During all this activity the chapter continued its usual business, including birding and other field trips and attending both the State and National Audubon Society meetings. The membership has grown and activist members still testify when they are needed. The Arkansas Valley Audubon Society is an outstanding example of citizen action at its best, and is still a leader in community and environmental issues.
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