Monday, March 9, 2009

Valles Caldera: A turning point

Halfway through its congressional timeline, some think the Valles Caldera experiment has failed, while others see progress

Joan Kavanau would love to see more of the green valleys and forests in the Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos.

The Santa Fe resident has driven along the edge of the 88,900-acre preserve in the Jemez Mountains on N.M. 4, but never through the ancient collapsed volcano.

Kavanau, 75, can't hike and there's no place to park a car and take a short walk or sit and have a picnic in the preserve's interior. Two years ago she joined a line of 1,500 cars trying to drive into the preserve on the first, and only, open access day. The line was so long she gave up.

"It would be nice if they could open access more," Kavanau said. "Even to be given the opportunity to call and make an appointment to go see it. Right now it's inaccessible really except under their terms."

Public access remains one of the biggest bones of contention between the Valles Caldera Trust that manages the preserve and the people who want to experience it. Congress bought the former ranch for $101 million in 2000 and established the preserve as an experiment in land management, with a 15-year initial timeline to meet a difficult set of goals: protect the natural resources, allow public access, maintain a working ranch and be financially self-sufficient.

The Trust's board, staff and lead scientist say great strides have been made in opening the former private ranch to public activities, given the challenges of starting from scratch. A new executive director says the groundwork is almost finished to finally provide more access. Gary Bratcher, the executive director since January, thinks the Trust can come close to meeting all the congressional goals, including financial self-sufficiency.

Others say the experiment has failed and it's time to rethink who manages the preserve. They say it's taken too long and cost too much money for the public to gain access to the land. "These guys tried as hard as they could. I don't think I or any of their critics could have done better," said Dave F. Menicucci, a fishing guide and Sandia National Laboratories research engineer. "It simply is a model that doesn't work."

Conflicting uses

Everything about managing the Valles Caldera National Preserve seems to stir deep passions and disagreements.

Some people want completely open and free access. Others, like Kavanau, understand the need for some fees and limits on how many people a day use the preserve in order to protect the resources. Some, like Los Alamos hiker and historian Dorothy Hoard, say the current system of guided van tours and fishing is cumbersome and too expensive for many New Mexicans.

Local ranchers want to allow to more grazing. Some don't want any cows on the preserve. Some just don't want cows sharing the limited stream stretches in the preserve where anglers are allowed to fish. "You have to be stealthy with these fish. So you are crawling on hands and knees and stick your hand in a fresh cow pie," said Menicucci, describing the unpleasant experience of several anglers.

Elk hunting remains the biggest revenue source for the preserve. The Trust wants to auction off a limited number of bull elk tags available for the preserve. The Legislature is considering a bill to allow the move, but some hunters oppose it.

Tom Ribe, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Caldera Action, thinks the Trust board lacks experience in federal public land management and dealing openly with the public. The Trust's board members are presidential appointees serving staggered terms. He said the private sector board is too tied to politics and doesn't work. "Imagine having seven bosses who are constantly changing and are politically appointed," Ribe said.

"There is nothing they have done to make things better," Ribe said. "People are frustrated and fed up with the focus on making money. We could run this place cheaper and far better with the traditional land management model."

Ernie Atencio, who chaired an earlier preserve advocacy group called the Valles Caldera Coalition, agrees there have been many problems with the Trust. Like others, he thinks removing the financial self-sufficiency mandate would help. "But I wouldn't abandon the experiment," said Atencio, now executive director of the Taos Land Trust. "Let it run its 15 years."

Opening access

Last year, about 15,000 people hiked, biked, rode horses, hunted, fished, snowshoed, skied or went on a van tour in the Valles Caldera.

Dennis Trujillo, longtime preserve manager, thinks that's a pretty good start to public access in the six years since the Trust took over management. Especially for a place that started with no job descriptions, office, vehicles or staff. "I think we've done a great job getting the public on there although not as much as people would like," said Trujillo, who used to work for the Forest Service. "Now we're open seven days a week once the roads are manageable, usually from mid-May to November."

When Congress bought the former Baca Ranch, then owned by a Texas ranch family, no one but invited guests, cowboys and poachers had visited the interior of the Valles Caldera.

The preserve was closed for the first two years and managed by the Forest Service while the Trust hired staff and set up policies. At the time, author and first Trust chairman William deBuys said, "This is not going to be like starting the Indy 500; there won't be a certain moment when all the programs are launched. Rather we expect an incremental and progressive opening of multiple programs over a considerable period of time."

In 2003, more than 5,000 people toured portions of the Valles Caldera through various recreation programs. The number has increased every year.

But to protect the resources while allowing public access is a difficult balance. "I still feel this is a jewel of the Southwest," Trujillo said. "To really continue to have it as a jewel and public land, there is going to have to be restricted access to preserve the resource. When you look at other areas of public lands where use is unrestricted, it wouldn't take long to degrade (the preserve)."

Ribe and others who worked to support federal purchase of the preserve for the public said too little has been accomplished for public access in eight years. The preserve was purchased with money from the Land and Conservation Fund, derived from off-shore oil revenue and dedicated to buying land for public recreation. "Now it's been nine years," Hoard said. "When I go to meetings I see there's been no advancement in allowing more public access."

Ribe and Hoard say the nearby Bandelier National Monument sees more than 200,000 visitors a year on only 33,000 acres. They say the National Park Service knows how to manage a lot of people while protecting resources, and would do a better job of managing the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

But Bandelier also has been a protected public park for more than nine decades, complete with a visitor center, paved roads, bathrooms and other infrastructure the Valles Caldera lacks. "To be successful, I think we have to have good roads and year-round access," said Bratcher, a retired agri-businessman who managed large plantations for United Fruit Co. and Del Monte all over Latin America and in the Philippines.

In addition, Bandelier is protected by something else the Valles Caldera Trust lacks — federal liability insurance. Federal lawyers decided the Trust didn't qualify and needed to find its own private insurance in case a visitor sued. The insurance cost more than $80,000 last year and wouldn't cover much if someone sued. U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall are looking at how to resolve the insurance dilemma. But until then, Bratcher said, "If something happened, we would have to close the gates and not let anyone in."

Laying the groundwork

Decisions about recreation, grazing and roads on the Valles Caldera National Preserve are supposed to be based on "adaptive management" — in other words, the actual impact of any activity based on scientific data. Atencio said that means making decisions not geared toward recreation or grazing or any particular use "but toward what is best for the land."

Bob Parmenter, the lead scientist at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, is excited about the new board and Bratcher. He believes the scientific groundwork is finally ready that will help the Trust make better management decisions.

Over the past eight years researchers from all over the country have collected data on wildlife species, water quality, archeological resources, soil, grasses, forests and more. Their work also brought in $1.6 million last year alone in research funds and grants. None of that was available until the Congress bought the preserve and scientists could begin field work.

Parmenter doesn't think it would have mattered who managed the preserve from the beginning, all the scientific data had to be gathered under federal law before more public access and recreation programs could be planned. And he doesn't think it would have happened any faster. "The flexibility of the Trust allowed interim programs and gave the public some access," Parmenter said. "It was less then what the public wants, but more than what would have happened under strict (federal environment) requirements if another federal agency managed it."

A public use and access plan should be ready for comment within the year. Parmenter believes the Trust is at a turning point. "It's been a learning process. Our past boards have been extremely cautious," he said. "We finally have a group of people on the board who are taking this to heart and moving it forward. We are going as fast as we can legally move."

The trick, Parmenter said, will be how to "make the preserve accessible to all economic strata of society. We cannot become an exclusive playground of the rich."

Taking stock

Steve Henry, a retired state Department of Game and Fish biologist and the Trust board's new chairman, agreed there have been problems. He said the board hasn't been as responsive to the public as it should and shied away from a stronger focus on recreational programs. "With any experiment you will have failures, starts and stops," Henry said. "There have been a lot of mistakes."

But he believes that is changing now with Bratcher, the appointment of new board members and the hiring of the first communications person in more than three years.

Bratcher is approaching the Valles Caldera from a business perspective. He thinks there are a lot of ways to bring more visitors into the Valles Caldera, give them a quality experience and raise revenues to make the preserve self-sufficient. Moreover, he thinks if the Valles Caldera experiment in land management works it will be an important model for Congress to buy other large ranches — currently getting subdivided into small ranchettes — and protect them as public land operated by self-generated revenues.

Several people think this is a good time to seek public input on how the preserve is managed. "Congressional hearings would be good as long as they are structured to have useful outcomes and aren't just complaint fests," deBuys said.

Caldera Action has drafted a bill to change the Valles Caldera mandate and turn management over to the National Park Service. The group hopes to convince New Mexico's congressmen to introduce the bill by the end of the year.

Kavanau still hopes one day to take that drive through the Valles Caldera. A retired marketing professional, she thinks there are many, simple ways the Trust can allow "the public to share in it with dignity and discretion."

Contact Staci Matlock at 470-9843 or


House Bill 11: Allows a portion of elk licenses established by the state Game and Fish Department for the Valles Caldera National Preserve to be auctioned or sold in a manner different from other state game licenses. Elk hunting is the largest money-maker for the preserve. Passed the House in early March. Now before the Senate Conservation Committee.

Senate Memorial 32: A memorial calling for congressional hearings on creating new management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve since "it has become clear that the experimental management system for the Valles Caldera preserve will never generate adequate funding without developing and destroying the preserve" and because "the current experimental management system has failed to provide adequate access to the public for responsible use and enjoyment". Passed the Senate 32-3 on March 3.

The next Valles Caldera Trust public meeting is Thursday in Albuquerque at the Hilton Garden Inn. For more information:

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