Congress drags its feet on Baca Ranch deal

  • TOUR GUIDE: Denise McCaig talks up the 95,000-acre Baca Ranch

    Deborah Begel photo

If there is one property that ought to be bought and preserved as public land for all Americans, say Forest Service officials, it's the 95,000-acre Baca Ranch - most of the Valles Caldera - a place almost completely surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest. So this summer, Forest Service staffer Denise McCaig has been hosting tours of the area for the media, pointing out the 360-degree views that lack any power lines, as well as the presence of the headwaters of one river and two streams.

On one show-me tour, Katie McGinty, environmental advisor to President Clinton, called the land "a priceless treasure," while Dave Simon with the National Parks and Conservation Association said the chance to buy the ranch represented a "historic conservation opportunity."

But time is growing short. A down payment of $20 million is required by Oct. 1 to stop a sale of the land for residential development. Money to buy the ranch, however, has not been authorized for spending from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund was created by Congress in 1964 to buy choice pieces of land with tax money collected from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Republican leaders of both the House and Senate Interior Appropriations committees - Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio and Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington - have not released the money. Regula says he's waiting to see the results of an almost-completed appraisal. But Regula also says he doesn't think the fund should be used to buy land, so much as to maintain it.

That is not what Congress agreed to when it approved a balanced budget, says Elliot Diringer, who works with McGinty on the Council on Environmental Quality. Diringer said President Clinton's wish list of lands to make public featured the Baca and was compiled after a national review involving federal land managers.

Regula, however, says he's developed his own list based on 400 requests from members of Congress.

The writer works in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico.