Local Insights

Published on September 30th, 2013 | by Stephanie J. Montoya

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Northern New Mexico College at El Rito

Sustaining Past, Present and Future

Located in the heart of the Carson National Forest, it makes sense that Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito Campus would want to preserve its surroundings.

The El Rito campus has been a mainstay of the community since 1909, when it was established as a Spanish Normal School, and is the oldest college campus in New Mexico. The school continues its educational mission through its Innovation Center, Heritage arts programs and research labs and is currently working towards becoming a green campus.

“We are really pushing sustainability on this campus,” director Melissa Velasquez said. “We want to sustain not only resources, but land and culture as well.”

Velasquez said that local features were taken into account when developing research, educational and community programs at El Rito. The surrounding Carson National Forest and local agriculture inspired the creation of the campus’ soil science and fire research laboratories.

Learning from Nature

Environmental science research at El Rito follows the patterns of nature itself. Cycles of natural fuel buildup, fire, flooding and forest reclamation drive the work done in the labs.

The fire science lab employs a SimTable, a simulation platform that displays real aerial views of the northern New Mexico landscape and allows for the study of factors like wind speed and direction, temperature, fire sources and fire mitigation measures.

“There are many challenges right now,” Agroecology and Biological Research Station Director James Biggs said. “We need to put fire back into the system, but the question is how?”

Student researchers can watch hypothetical fires play-out on macro-scale and test hypotheses, or analyze past fires and their effects. The table is also open to the local Forest Service and can be used to determine how to prevent fires and fight those that arise.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mario Montes-Helu is studying the potential benefits of biochar, a char-like product produced by an oxygen-free combustion process called pyrolosis. Biochar organically retains moisture and nutrients, provides a barrier against erosion and flooding, and can remain in the soil for hundreds of years. Montez and his students will continue research to find out the best textures and combustion temperatures for biochar production.

Preserving Both Past and Future

Northern’s Heritage and Spanish Colonial arts programs at El Rito preserve both culture and resources through the use of local, earth-based materials. True to traditional form, the Spanish Colonial woodworking and retablo and bulto artists recycle waste wood from the Carson National Forest into lasting art. All-natural pigments and dyes are also used in all painting and fiber arts.

The campus’ new E-efficient Kitchen and “Innovation Café” is seeking certification as an official green café by the Green Restaurant Association. The Café’s kitchen installed a water-reducing hand-washing station, energy-efficient lighting and Energy-Star-certified appliances. The Earthen Adobe Bar serving area and the café’s adobe walls provide natural sound and odor control, and will eventually return to the earth.

Most unique is the café’s most high-tech sustainability resource: e-Somat. The e-Somat system is a digester and dehydrator that converts all organic material into a compostable product, resulting in zero food waste. The resulting material can be applied to the soil to grow food organically. The café is also looking to use grey water for gardening and to eliminate all disposable dinnerware.

While the Innovation Center at El Rito works to meet its goal of becoming a self-sustaining green campus, it continues to act as a state-of-the-art research center, a place for cultural learning and most importantly, a necessary community resource. By integrating the notion of sustainability in nature, education, culture and life, Northern at El Rito will continue to preserve Northern New Mexico’s past, present and future.


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