Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Valles Caldera: failed federal experiment?

Tom Holland was so taken with the beauty of the Valles Caldera on a visit to New Mexico years ago that he photographed it from the roadway and made the stunning landscape his computer screensaver.

When he passed by again on a recent trip and discovered he could drive in, the New Yorker was exultant.

"I'm in heaven," Holland shouted as he walked up to the makeshift visitor center on the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, a series of huge grassy bowls ringed by tree-covered mountains.

"People don't really understand back East what this is like," said Holland, who lives near Albany. "They just have no clue."

This collapsed volcano in the Jemez Mountains, which erupted more than a million years ago, is the site of a federal experiment in public lands management - a failed experiment, according to critics. Even its most ardent supporters acknowledge that it needs a fix.

The preserve isn't run by a federal agency, although the former private cattle ranch was bought with tax dollars.

Instead, it's governed by a nine-member board - with seven, by law, being appointed by the president of the United States. It has a mixed-message mandate: protect the land and cultural resources, provide recreation, run cattle, all while making the preserve financially self-sustaining by 2015.

"It's basically an unworkable system," said Tom Ribe, president of Caldera Action, a watchdog group.

On federal lands, only the Presidio in San Francisco, a historic, decommissioned U.S. Army base near the Golden Gate Bridge, has a similar governance setup and self-sufficiency requirement.

The Presidio, where many buildings are now leased for commercial and residential use, has been covering its operating costs since 2004 and is on track for full financial self-sufficiency by 2013, spokeswoman Dana Polk said.

Critics complain that nine years after the Valles Caldera purchase, public access to the preserve is much too limited. Visitors can drive in a couple of miles to a temporary visitor center and then take a 45-minute, $5 van tour or pay $5 for a hike on a nearby trail.

They can make reservations to fish or hike in the backcountry and sign up for special events such as star gazing or photography workshops.

But they can't just grab their hiking poles or mountain bikes, head out for a day of exploring, then pitch a tent and watch elk herds grazing at dusk.

A $440,000 study on just how the preserve should be used by the public, and what infrastructure would be needed, isn't scheduled for completion until next year.

Meanwhile, some people say the fees for the interim programs are too high: Fishing costs $35 a day.

Yet the preserve, which is closed by snow for much of the winter and logged 15,238 visitors last year, is nowhere near close to self-supporting. In the budget year ending Sept. 30, 2008, it took in about $776,000 from fees and other sources - about 21 percent of what it spent.

The federal government appropriated nearly $3.7 million to the preserve the same year.

Self-sufficiency is "a pretty huge mandate," said the trust's board chairman, Stephen Henry, and not one that can be met by traditional ranchland uses such as logging, hunting and grazing.

A recent study done for the trustees by ENTRIX, Inc., environmental and natural resource management consultants, identified a variety of ways to become self-sufficient. Among them: upscale and mid-level hotels, luxury camping, and campgrounds for RVs and tents.

"People looked at that and said, 'Wait a second, this is what we wanted to avoid by having it public property,'" said Dave Menicucci, a retired research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and fishing guide.

Henry suggests if the law were altered to remove the self-sufficiency language, the preserve could still charge fees to help pay its way but not have to pursue large development.

"The law is the law, and until they change the law we have to follow it," he said.

The unusual trust arrangement and self-sufficiency requirement was the only way to win the all-important support of former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to buy the Baca Ranch for $101 million in 2000.

"It was either this, or not be purchased," Ribe recalled.

The trust's executive director, Gary Bratcher, acknowledges that it has flaws.

The trust, for example, can't be federally insured and so must buy its own liability insurance. That has been hard to get and expensive - $100,000 a year - and the coverage is minimal: $2 million total annually, with a limit of $1 million per claim, Bratcher said.

"It affects your management decisions," he said, and that includes looking twice at such high-risk activities as horseback riding.

And even if trustees were ready to embark on a business venture such as a lodge, there's a big stumbling block.

The federal law that created the Valles Caldera Trust apparently doesn't authorize the trustees to conduct the sorts of business transactions - borrowing money, or entering into longrm leases with franchisees, for example - that such development would require, he said.

"Something has to change," Bratcher said.

New Mexico's U.S. senators, Democrats Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, have asked for an assment of whether the property could be included in the National Park Service system with the designation of national preserve, and that report could be ready by the end of October.

Critics say the preserve needs to be run by land-management officials, not political appointees.

"They're protecting it so much, they're keeping the people out," said Oscar Simpson of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

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