Ode to a public lands experiment

by Laura Paskus

This could have been just another coffee-table volume full of stunning vistas and images of elk grazing in misty valleys. But by refusing to be yet another pretty book, Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve better serves the preserve’s long history and complicated beauty.

The preserve’s abbreviated history goes something like this: About a million years ago, volcanoes created a giant collapsed caldera. In 1860, Congress granted the land to the Baca family, and family members and subsequent owners spent the next 140 years running cattle and cutting timber. In 2000, Congress bought the 89,000-acre ranch for $101 million. It was a public-lands experiment: The ranch would be run by a board of trustees as a for-profit corporation and a working ranch. Since then, management of the area has become increasingly complicated — and has often taken bitter turns — particularly since the original Clinton-appointed board has been largely replaced by appointees of President Bush.

The book is penned by William DeBuys — a founding, and now former, trust board member — and photographer Don Usner. DeBuys unravels the preserve’s history, adding up-to-date inside information that should appeal both to New Mexicans familiar with the preserve and to anyone interested in public-lands management — as well as to those who wonder about the daily deals made in Washington, D.C., and how they affect local communities.

Usner, a native northern New Mexican, writes of what it was like for the public to finally gain a stake in this land that had so long been private and out of reach. He writes: “In spite of — or perhaps because of — the dearth of printed images, the Valles Caldera loomed large in the imaginations of northern New Mexicans. We took pleasure in exploring around the edges of the Valles Grande, which is as far as most of us could get on foot, but we also felt cheated, denied firsthand knowledge of what was back in the other valles.”

Now, it’s Usner’s turn to tantalize us with the images he captured while exploring the preserve. The land still remains mostly off-limits to the public; his images leave us hungry to finally see it for ourselves.


Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve

William DeBuys and Don J. Usner

128 pages,

cloth: $34.95.

Museum of New Mexico Press, 2006.

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