VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE, N.M. - A fast glance at a bobcat makes Bill deBuys happy, animated. He leaves his pickup and searches the ground for scat. Then, he walks to the edge of a cliff and looks at the $101 million valley known as the Baca Ranch.

"If it were a completely open gate, free for all access, we would rapidly destroy the qualities that make this place as special as it is," the author and environmental activist reflects in his somber, scholarly way.

The Baca Ranch is a wildly popular, self-enclosed, publicly owned experiment officially called the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Congress bought the 89,000 acres of forest and high country meadows, which include the headwaters of the Jemez River, cultural and religious sites, and a dormant volcano, from a Texas oil family last year (HCN, 5/8/00: Baca Ranch buy-out has strings attached).

But in order to gain the support of New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, who opposed the acquisition of more public land in his state, the ranch won't be run by the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Department of Agriculture. Instead, the preserve will be controlled by a president-appointed board of nine trustees, including chairman deBuys, whose collective expertise spans livestock management, sustainable forestry, financial management, cultural and natural history, and other disciplines. The trustees have almost complete power over what happens in the preserve.

As the board finishes its first hectic year, federal land managers and environmentalists wonder whether it will be able to meet its ambitious goals and what the experiment might mean for other public lands.

"We share a sense of the enormity of our task," says board member Thomas Swetnam, a forest researcher from the University of Arizona. "And we have the chance to do something different."

Walking the line

The basic mission of the board is far-reaching: to "protect and preserve the scenic, geological, watershed, fish, wildlife, historic, cultural and recreational values of the preserve, and to provide for multiple use and sustained yield of renewable resources within the preserve." The Baca also must remain a working cattle ranch, and attempt to be financially self-sufficient by 2017.

The board will probably take over management of the ranch from the Forest Service later this year, says deBuys. And now that the trustees have hired an executive director, Gary Ziehe, a former legislative assistant to Sen. Domenici, they have two years to create a general management plan.

Already, the board has funded studies to gather baseline ecological information on species diversity and distribution in the preserve. The management decisions, says Swetnam, "start with the land - the physical and biological parts. It starts with, 'What can your resource sustain? What's there and what can it tolerate?' "

The board has approved a limited 2002 hunt plan in which hunters can obtain bull tags through auctions and raffles. Cow elk tags will be available through the Game Commission. The board also plans to allow limited grazing by 2002, but the timeline, says deBuys, is contingent upon completing "the necessary preparations," such as environmental analysis.

The board has already committed to small-scale timber thinning. The Walatowa Woodlands Initiative of the Jemez Pueblo has received federal funding under the Community Forest Restoration Act to thin a few hundred acres in high fire-hazard areas, says deBuys, though no specific sites have been designated yet.

The board must also consider the thousands of New Mexicans - hunters and New Age trekkers, tribal members and nuclear weapons engineers, archaeologists and public school teachers - who want to have a little fun here. The preserve is closed now, except for very limited public bus tours. Only the biologists, geologists and fence-builders have spent significant time there. And that's just fine with deBuys, whose philosophy about natural resource management is very cautious.

"I've been depressed with a lot of my experiences with overcrowded national parks," deBuys says.

The board recently set up a phone line for limited ranch tours, and 1,314 seats quickly filled. "We expected a huge response, but the continuous flood of calls we received - a telephone engineer estimated we were getting over 5,000 hits per hour - was overwhelming," deBuys wrote the public in an open letter.

And the preserve is in an all-too-convenient location. Most of the state's population, centered in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, can get to the ranch within two hours.

But deBuys promises there will be no reckless giveaways of natural resources. Nor will the preserve's hunting be "geared to just the wealthy elite." How much will the board charge the public to camp or just look at the crosses carved into trees by Spanish settlers? So far, deBuys won't say.

The plan will come together piece by piece, he says, rather than opening the preserve to all activities at once. And he's very concerned about its tenor. Says deBuys, "Setting this initial course for management will influence direction for a long time."

A management model?

The board's initial actions could also become a model for future public land management.

Holly Fretwell, a research associate with the Political Economy Research Center, a free-market environmental think tank in Montana, says an economically self-sustaining land trust is a "fabulous option" for land management, and it offers a way to fund environmental protection as federal financial priorities shift after the September terrorist attacks. If the model works, she says, it could be implemented in places like Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But some environmentalists fear pressure to make the preserve economically viable might compromise ecological protection.

"The long-term ecological well-being of the preserve would be better served by a narrower mandate," says John Horning of Forest Guardians, an environmental group based in Santa Fe.

Horning would like to see the preserve grasslands restored for elk, not cattle. He would like to reintroduce wolves and, possibly, black-footed ferrets. "But right now, those ecological pieces are playing second fiddle to all the local extractive interests," he says.

Chairman deBuys says the preserve is "ecologically in very good health," and he downplays the portion of the law that requires the preserve to be financially self-sufficient by 2017. If the board fails to meet that goal, he points out, it can request money from Congress.

"I am agnostic as to whether we will be financially self-sufficient," he says. He also bristles at "a lot of quickly drawn conclusions that we're going to squeeze the resources and beat it hard in order to balance the books. I don't think that this board would ever do that."

But New Mexico State Commissioner of Public Lands Ray Powell says that while this board seems dedicated and capable, such may not always be the case. A standard board term is four years. "If you get people who aren't paying attention, who have other agendas, it could be disastrous. There needs to be a continuity, a stability," says Powell.

Board turnover also concerns the Valles Caldera Coalition, a group of mostly environmental organizations that has lobbied for support for the preserve and continues to participate in management discussions with the board. Ernest Atencio, the coalition's coordinator, says the coalition plans to track recommendations for new board members as trustees' terms end.

Many federal land managers are supportive of the experiment. They say that the diversity of the board, and its flexibility, could produce novel solutions to common land-management problems.

"I think there are lessons in this grand experiment for the Forest Service," says Eleanor Towns, forest supervisor for New Mexico and Arizona.

But what exactly might those lessons be? And how far will their influence reach? No one knows yet. Says board member Leonard Atencio, forest supervisor for Santa Fe National Forest, "Ask me that question in five years.

 

Erika Trautman is an HCN intern. Andy Lenderman, a former HCN intern, reports for the Albuquerque Tribune.

 

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Gary Ziehe, executive director of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, 505/438-7891, gziehe@fs.fed.us (www.fs.fed.us/r3/sfe/valles/index.html);
  • Valles Caldera Coalition, 505/776-1882.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Andy Lenderman