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"A deeply troubled idea from the start"

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Cally Carswell | Nov 09, 2009 04:29 PM

In 2000, when the federal government shelled out $101 million to buy what’s now the Valles Caldera National Preserve, it made one thing clear: The government wouldn’t be the preserve’s cash cow forever. But nine years later, the preserve isn't close to weaning itself off federal funding, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

Valles Caldera started as an experiment in public lands management. The 89,000-acre ranch was purchased for preservation, but would be managed as a working ranch by a for-profit government corporation called the Valles Caldera Trust. By 2015, the feds expected the trust to be able to support itself financially, a goal the GAO now says is out of reach:

[The Trust] is at least 5 years behind the schedule it set for itself in 2004. According to Trust officials, a number of factors—including high turnover among Board members and key staff and cultural and natural resources and infrastructure that were not as healthy or robust as originally believed—have delayed its progress.

... Specifically, the Trust lacked a strategic plan and annual performance plans, and it had not systematically monitored or reported on its progress ... The Trust’s financial management has also been weak. Consequently, it has been difficult for Congress and the public to understand the Trust’s goals and objectives, annual plans and performance, or progress.

... [B]ecoming financially self-sustaining, particularly by the end of fiscal year 2015 when federal appropriations are due to expire, is the Trust's biggest challenge.

 

Public enthusiasm for the Valles Caldera experiment was initially high, but has since tanked. Conservationists are calling for the trust to be dissolved, pushing for the preserve to be managed by the National Park Service instead. To these critics, the GAO's findings likely come as no surprise. "We worked hard in 2000 to get the Valles Caldera in public hands," Tom Ribe, of watchdog group Caldera Action, told Writers on the Range contributor Mike Castinado this fall. "But [the trust] was a deeply troubled idea from the start, and we gave up on it entirely sometime in 2007."

Even before that, management of the preserve had become controversial. As HCN reported in 2005, the public was feeling increasingly locked out of a management process that was once inclusive and transparent. Access to the land itself was no better: "[F]ive years after the preserve's creation, the public has unrestricted access to just two short hiking and ski trails. Hunting is tightly restricted, and even fishing access is determined by a lottery held three times a year." Now, reports Castinado, access isn't only controlled, it's expensive: "You have to pay to play in the preserve or be politically connected to get in."

Valles Caldera National Preserve
Marie Rodriguez
Marie Rodriguez
Nov 10, 2009 04:14 PM
I am the Natural Resource Coordinator for the Valles Caldera National Preserve. While I won't pretend that our experiment in public land management is perfect or meeting everyone's expectations I would like to share some lesser known facts about what has taken place on the Preserve since Federal Acquisition in 2000. Number 1 - "Adaptive Management" towards this lofty ideal, the trust has established 41 permenant ecological monitoring sites and a series of riparian and upland exclosures to systematically measure ecological condition. And we do (measure that is) - twice annually every site is measured under the direction of the Joranada Experimental Range Station. Trust staff, volunteeers and members of the Sierra Club actually perform the measurements. We have also established 600 permenant forest plots as part of a stratified inventory. One plot for every 100 acres of forest type stratified by biophysical setting to support the development of a preserve-wide plan for forest restoration. The surrounding National Park Service Land and National Forest Service Land does not have an area wide inventory of their landscapes and they have had over a century head start!

We have flumes established in every perennial reach of stream, we have water quality instrumentation measuring 24/7 during the frost free season. We are quantifying the hydrologic and carbon cycles as well as the changing climate of the preserve. We have radio collars on our elk, turkeys and coyotes. We have identified new insect species never before discovered. It seems our greatest sin is in establishing the neccessary foundation of knowledge about this unique landscape BEFORE we make long term decisions regarding how best to manage it.

It may also interest people to know we have restored over 1000 acres of wetlands just by addressing deferred maintenance needs of our roads, we have measurably improved the functioning condition of our streams in repeated inventories as well as vegetative cover, and diversity. We have reduced cattle numbers from 5000 under private ownership to an average 500 and graze in partnership with New Mexico State University and local tribes and in a break even program that provides research and support to local communities.

Access is restricted because we have no infrastructure such as a visitor center parking or trail heads which provide access while protecting our resources. We are open 7 days/ week during the summer, elk hunting is a premier experience for a 25 dollar lottery ticket (the lottery is managed by the Statge Game and Fish Deprtment). We are currently considering alternatives for a comprehensive program to expand access while proptecting and preserving resources - to get involved visit our website, www.vallescaldera.gov and select mailing list from the top-left corner.

Again we are more focused on developing the BEST strategy for stewardship rather than the quickest, we hope you join us!
Valles Caldera
Rich Winkler
Rich Winkler
Nov 16, 2009 02:16 PM
I was glad to fish in the Caldera without the mass of people a National Park would bring to the area. I was happy to put in by lottery so that the fishing experience would be one that I will remember without the commercial landscape of the Park service.
open access to VCNP
daniel barboa
daniel barboa
Dec 01, 2009 03:39 PM
I have had the fortune of spending time in the VCNP on several occaions. I am neither wealthy nor politically connected. The preserve offers such a unique opportunity for the public, the entire public, that to change the preserve drastically would be to everyone's detriment.

The preserve allows equal opportunity for anyone to apply for hunting, anyone to apply to fish, hike, ski, etc. The preserve has even made this easier for some activities.

I've seen many articles suggesting the preserve needs to have more access for the 'average' outdoors person. This is not an 'average' place, and anyone who's been there would understand why there are more restrictions and fees associated with enjoying the preserve.

I understand that the original intent for the preserve to be self-sufficient has not yet been realized. However, the idea of building restaurants, RV parks, and other public amenities (as suggested in an alarming article) is simply ridiculous. The local population cannot sustain this for the 10 months of the year that would not be peak tourism. These amenities are located in the nearest towns of Los Alamos, Jemez Springs, and La Cueva. I am sure that the residents of these towns welcome the income these facilities bring in.

Also, how would this sort of development impact the ecology of the preserve? Take a drive along the Pecos River, to the confluence with the Mora. During the summer, the RV park is full with campers. Although this is great in terms of the fees required to camp, it also introduces litter, noise, erosion, and general habitat degradation in and around the riparian system. All of these have already happened in the Jemez Mountains that surround the preserve, by 'average' citizens.

I always have been and will remain willing to spend a little extra money in order to spend time in the VCNP.

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