"A deeply troubled idea from the start"

 

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."