New Mexico's Valles Caldera Preserve will soon welcome hikers


In northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, hikers are finally getting access to some stunning lands that have long been off limits – the 89,000 acres of the Valles Caldera Preserve.

Starting Dec. 6, 2013, much of the preserve’s forests, meadows and streams will be opened* to unrestricted cross-country hiking for a $10 daily fee. “The intent of the motion that we passed is that people can actually go out there and walk around and enjoy the entire preserve. And enjoy it on your own terms,” board of trustees member Jason Lott, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. The board also voted to give kids free access if they’re with an adult, and cut fishing fees.

Valles Caldera has been a unique experiment in public lands management for more than a decade now. The federal government bought the Baca Ranch, home to the state’s largest elk herd and 17 rare species, in 2000 for $101 million, and Congress declared it a preserve, to be run as a nonprofit ranch overseen by a board of trustees.

Near the entrance to Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. Courtesy of Flickr user Ron Cogswell.


It hasn’t been easy for the public to enjoy, though – just four short hiking trails are available, van tours must be booked in advance, and to fish or hunt, you have to get lucky in a lottery drawing. In most of the preserve, there’s a $100 fine for trespassing (although cattle ranchers, who graze about 2,000 head there, are allowed to move around unhindered).

In 2005, we examined how well the experiment was working out in "Trouble on the Valles Caldera", and two years ago, we assessed it again:

… the government-owned Valles Caldera Trust mixed private and public administration to run the property as a working ranch. In return, Valles Caldera was supposed to wean itself off federal funding by 2015.

But the experiment failed.  As early as 2005, skeptics voiced doubt. By 2009, the trust was five years behind its funding schedule. Environmentalists said the goal of turning a profit was incompatible with managing for preservation. Recreationists said user fees were too high.

The U.S. Forest Service was slated under the original legislation to take over operations in 2020, if the Trust could not meet the self-funding mandate. But U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. and Tom Udall, D-N.M., reintroduced the Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act, S. 564, in March 2011. The bill would transfer jurisdiction of the preserve to the National Park Service within 90 days of enactment.

The bill didn’t pass then, or in 2012, and Sen. Udall introduced the bill again last spring.

A view across Valles Caldera National Preserve. Courtesy of Flickr user Jim Legans Jr.

If the preserve were to become a national park, the probable increase in visitation would bring economic benefits. A 2011 study found that National Park Service management of Valles Caldera would generate $11 million annually in economic activity and create 202 jobs in gateway communities like Los Alamos and Jemez Springs.

But state and tribal leaders have their own ideas of what should be done with the land. In August, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish presented its plan for transferring the preserve to state ownership and running it in a way that critics describe as a “free for all” for multiple use. The state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department has also reportedly discussed taking over management. The Los Alamos Monitor reports:

Despite the fact that the Valles Caldera Trust has only achieved 30 percent self-sufficiency after 12 years in operation, Game and Fish professes it can “transition the current federal fiscal burden of $2 to $3 million annually to positive state revenue of $500,000 to $1 million annually due to reduced employee numbers and management costs, cooperation with other state agencies and universities, enhanced use of volunteers and partnerships with private sector via concessionaires, the wood products industry, livestock producers, outdoor recreational businesses and hunting and fishing related corporate sponsors.

Meanwhile, Jemez Pueblo has long sought return of the preserve, which it claims as ancestral lands still used today for religious ceremonies and hunting. The Pueblo’s lawsuit was dismissed in late September, reports the Albuquerque Journal, on the grounds that a lands settlement had been made with the tribe in 1974, and couldn’t be revisited.

“We will continue to work closely with the Pueblo nonetheless to ensure the cultural history, spiritual significance and the landscape are preserved for generations to come. It is what we do as the Valles Caldera Trust and what we are committed to as friends and neighbors of the Pueblo of Jemez,” Valles Caldera Trust Board of Trustees Chairman Kent Salazar said.

Pueblo officials say they may appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

It's always worth bearing in mind, though, the basic truth that human squabbles are utterly inconsequential when considered on John McPhee's geologic time-scale, which he describes thus: "With your arms spread wide… to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins at the wrist, and the Permian extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history."

Eradication, at least in the Southwest, could even come from Valles Caldera itself. The 13-mile wide volcanic caldera for which the preserve is named is one of three “supervolcanoes” in the U.S. (the others are Yellowstone and Long Valley in California) capable of producing eruptions thousands of time bigger than typical eruptions. The last time Valles Caldera blew, 1.2 million years ago, it pushed out 150 cubic miles of lava and shot ash all the way to what’s now Iowa. Talk about a shutdown.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

* assuming, of course, that the federal government resumes operations in the near future and opens currently closed public lands

Jim Vance
Jim Vance
Oct 08, 2013 02:33 PM
Outstanding -- I've been entranced by the 'Valle Grande' ever since the 1980s when I did a lot of consulting work for LANL and always took the back road through the Jemez Mtns. on my way to the Albuquerque airport after finishing a trip to the Lab just to see it again. Ever since the Valles Caldera Preserve was created I have been wanting a chance to go in even just for some day-hiking, but the limitations imposed on number of visitors always precluded a last-minute opportunity whenever I've been to the region since. Hopefully, the potential opportunities for overnight camping for cross-country routes will become available under an advance backcountry permit system similar to what NPS uses in Grand Canyon and other high-demand parks might allow non-local hikers like me to schedule trips there in the future.
chuck dunn
chuck dunn
Oct 08, 2013 03:01 PM
Stewart Farley
Stewart Farley Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 05:09 PM
This is such a special place! Our senators did the right thing by placing it in the oversight of the National Park Service. This, together with the Rio Del Norte, gives NM some of the finest recreation areas in the Southwest. Much thanks to our congressional delegation!
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Oct 08, 2013 05:31 PM
The last thing this place needs is the National Park Service. I've never seen anything less wild, natural, awe-inspiring than a National Park. Might as well sell it to Walmart, might find more solitude.
Jeremy Apodaca
Jeremy Apodaca
Oct 08, 2013 08:02 PM
Mr Neff has it right. The last agency that ever should be considered to manage this place is the NPS. All that will bring is the crush of people drawn to the designation of an NPS area (as if it suddenly dropped in from outer space, nothing having been there previously), numerous more rules of dubious need, a mantle of restrictions on everything offending perverse NPS sensibilities and, of course, fees for everything.

This is in the middle of a national forest folks. It should go to the USFS and, barring that, the BLM. Those agencies don't make it impossible to have a real outdoor experience the way the NPS uniquely does.
Walt Foutz
Walt Foutz
Oct 09, 2013 09:11 AM
Why is cattle grazing on a national treasure such a sacred privilege? I say get rid of all the cows and let only muscle-powered recreationists and sportsmen explore this beautiful place, not the cattle who trample riparian habitat and pollute streams.
chuck dunn
chuck dunn
Oct 09, 2013 11:58 AM
Linda G Johnson
Linda G Johnson Subscriber
Oct 09, 2013 03:22 PM
Regarding Chuck Dunn's capitalized comments, the states can't all be trusted to run the national parks. My state, Utah, decided it wants to reclaim the Parks from the Federal Government (which happens to be you and me, baby, we own 'em)at the same time that it closed a number of its own parks because it didn't want to spend the money to keep them up. Also, Utah wants to have all federal lands in Utah turned over to itself, so as to drill, frack, and otherwise get rich quick. Don't forget that these lands belong to all Americans, not just ones resident in your own state.
Tom Ribe
Tom Ribe Subscriber
Oct 09, 2013 03:52 PM
The National Park Service is the best agency for our most valuable landscapes. The VCNP would greatly benefit from NPS management as would the economy of New Mexico which is rapidly shifting toward a visitor and research based economy. The USFS would allow the VCNP to be overrun with cattle, off road vehicles and trash. The lands around the VCNP managed by the USFS are in terrible conidtion, with roads everywhere, dirt bike tracks everywhere and cattle in the streams. The NPS would concentrate most visitors in a small area while the rest of the area would be available for quite recreation and high quality hunting and fishing. The state is out of the question as they have no funds or expertise for such a place.