ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — The Valles Caldera National Preserve is a sweeping landscape of grassy meadows and meandering streams that lies above its namesake — a collapsed volcanic crater — in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. Though the volcano has been at rest for a million or so years, recent rumblings may portend a new type of upheaval, one that could jeopardize the West’s most recent experiment in public-lands management.
Five years ago, the federal government paid $101 million for the privately owned Baca Ranch, home to one of the West’s largest elk populations, as well as to archaeological treasures and camera-ready vistas. When Congress passed legislation declaring the ranch a preserve, it made two things clear: The goal was preservation, but the 89,000-acre property was to be managed differently from other federal lands. It would remain a working ranch, run by a board of trustees appointed by the president.
In its early days, the board of the Valles Caldera Trust, appointed by President Clinton, worked cooperatively with the grassroots groups who had lobbied Congress for the preserve’s creation. Those groups, which came together as the Valles Caldera Coalition, included local conservationists, hunters, recreationists and ranchers. "Our approach was not to be confrontational, but to work collaboratively with the board of trustees," says Ernie Atencio, who coordinated the coalition from 2001 to 2003. "Though of course things weren’t perfect, by and large the coalition felt (the board members) were heading in the right direction."
In 2004, the board hired former New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell as the preserve’s new director. Powell wanted to welcome scientific researchers, educators and recreationists to the preserve, along with the local ranchers. Not only would they help the preserve’s managers better understand the ecosystem, he reasoned; they would also bring an infusion of money to the place.
But in August, after only 11 months at the job, Powell resigned, citing differences with the board, which was by then made up of Bush administration appointees and included four more people tied to the ranching industry than the original board. "I was looking at (the preserve) as a crown jewel that had a strong component of being a working ranch," he says. "But the board looked at it as a working ranch that had the component of being a crown jewel."
A split mandate
The conflict over the Valles Caldera stems from the compromise under which it was created. New Mexico’s senior senator, Pete Domenici, R, has long been hostile to the creation of any more public lands in his state, which is already 32 percent federal land. It was Domenici who insisted on running the preserve as a "wholly owned government corporation" — and that it become financially self-sufficient within 15 years.
From the beginning, this mandate has translated into pressure to lease the preserve for livestock grazing. In 2002, the board re-opened the preserve to grazing, despite a lack of environmental studies and public comment (HCN, 8/19/02: New Mexico ranchers push to graze preserve). This August, the board extended the grazing program, and although it is moving forward with a grazing study, it now says it lacks the resources for a comprehensive management plan, including promised research on wildlife, recreation, prescribed fire, roads and potential geothermal leases.
The current grazing program allows for up to 2,000 head of cattle on the preserve. That’s still far shy of the 5,000 head that roamed the ranch in the past. But it shows that the board is "putting the cow before the fish, elk, birds and streams," says Billy Stern, grazing program coordinator for Forest Guardians.
Not only that, says Stern, but because "running cattle costs more than it brings in," it’s likely to keep the preserve from ever becoming financially self-sustaining.
A just-released report from the Government Accountability Office says the preserve still needs to determine how it will become self-sustaining. Nevertheless, at its November meeting, the board unveiled plans for increasing livestock on the preserve, despite the fact that the new program would be unlikely to generate profit: "It’s a very expensive program," says Trust Chair Tracy Seidman Hephner. "We’re losing a significant amount of money with the cattle program.
The public feels locked out
The board is searching for a new director, but its members have avoided discussing the friction that led to Powell’s resignation. When asked about it at a September meeting in Albuquerque, Seidman Hephner said only that the board "has a responsibility to set policy." Trustee Jim Gosz added that a director who wants to create policy "was not what we wanted."
Powell, for his part, says he has nothing against grazing, but that the land has been left battered from previous grazing and logging operations. "People think this is a pristine place," he says. "In reality, it’s been working land for a hundred years, and it needs a lot of help to restore it back to health."
But what most disturbs members of the Valles Caldera Coalition is the feeling that the public, once enthusiastically included in the management process, is now being locked out. The preserve has been without a communications director for almost nine months. Board meetings are now announced only five days in advance — and only to those who have requested notification. Seidman Hephner announced at the September meeting that the board will no longer hire a court reporter to record public meetings; any comments for the record must now be submitted in writing.
And five 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.
Coalition chair Dave Henderson, who is also a state game commissioner and executive director of Audubon New Mexico, says that what began as a collaborative experiment is becoming confrontational. The coalition is even considering legal action against the trust, for failing to allow public input on its grazing plan.
"The board of trustees need to learn they work for the public, not vice versa," he says. "They need to learn to involve the public and not be threatened by them."
The author, HCN’s Southwest editor, lives in Albuquerque.
Valles Caldera National Preserve www.vallescaldera.gov 505-661-3333
Valles Caldera Coalition www.vallescalderacoalition.org