At Valles Caldera, a new national park unit takes shape

A preserve was added to the park system, after an experiment in managing federal lands outside the traditional agencies.

 

Tom Ribe leans into the steering wheel of his green pickup, its dashboard a mosaic of souvenir pins from public lands. Just past the Valles Caldera National Preserve sign, in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, he brakes. The pine forests sandwiching Highway 4 have dropped away, replaced to the north by the Valle Grande, a stunningly expansive, treeless valley surrounded by gentle, forested domes.

The valley was created after the volcano, whose magma still boils a few miles underground, erupted and its crater collapsed inward from the rim. Cold air drains into the valley, forming an inverse treeline. The view — a sea of white in winter, a verdant grassland in summer — is singular in New Mexico.

But this January morning, Ribe focuses on something more pedestrian: the newest panel on the preserve’s timber-frame sign, a brown National Park Service arrowhead. “I love seeing that Park Service logo,” he remarks, turning right into the big valley.

The preserve was added to the national park system last fall, ending a 14-year experiment in semi-private public-land management, and prompting stakeholders to consider the lessons learned, both practical and philosophical. For many locals, these 89,000 acres remained mysterious and forbidden even after the federal government purchased them. Now, with the Park Service in charge, the public is assured open access to the valleys, streams and hot springs hidden behind the domes ringing the Valle Grande.

To Ribe and his wife, Monique Schoustra, longtime advocates for Park Service management, this seems a small miracle — especially since it required an act of Congress. Ribe, who often writes op-eds for this magazine, has strong opinions about public lands, but a calm and quiet demeanor. “I have this pessimism in me sometimes,” he confesses. “I really didn’t think it was going to happen.”

In the parking lot, Ribe and Schoustra run into two friends. They yuck it up about being able to get in for “free” with their national parks passes and take off in any direction — which we soon do on snowshoes, into a cold wind that bites at our temples and skims powder from crusty snow. The slender grasses poking through it shiver.   

 

Visitors cross-country ski around Cerro La Jara, a forested lava dome within the caldera of Valles Caldera National Preserve.
NPS/ Brittney Van Der Werff

The Valles Caldera became a private ranch in 1876. From Highway 4, passersby could admire the miles-wide sweep of the Valle Grande, but not the treasures beyond it. Access to the view alone wasn’t much, but it was enough to make New Mexicans feel they had a stake in the place.

In the late 1990s, recognizing public support for a purchase, New Mexico’s senior senator, Republican Pete Domenici, overcame his opposition to more federally owned land and struck a deal with President Bill Clinton. Instead of being run by the Forest Service or National Park Service, the Valles Caldera would be managed by a presidentially appointed citizens’ board. This “Trust” would continue to lease land for grazing, but also manage the preserve for ecological health, recreation, timber, hunting and fishing. And it had 15 years to make the whole thing financially self-sufficient. Domenici’s support was key to securing money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 2000, enjoying a rare budget surplus, the U.S. government purchased the property for $97 million.

“Even in Congress, people believed the nation could afford to buy itself a wonderful gift,” says author, conservationist and former chair of the Trust, William deBuys.

But the Trust had trouble living up to its many — sometimes conflicting — goals. Though it wasn’t a typical public agency, it still had to comply with federal administrative and environmental regulations. Compliance was labor-intensive and frequently “bewildering” for trustees, recalls deBuys.

On top of that, while other public lands are included in a federal insurance pool, the Trust had to buy its own coverage. It was costly and put the Trust perpetually “one lawsuit away from having to close their doors,” says University of New Mexico professor Melinda Harm Benson, who studies public lands.

To help cover costs, the preserve charged high fees. Grazing fees were around 10 times what they are on other federal lands. Hikers, bikers and skiers, who were restricted to a few trails, were charged $10 per person, per day, per activity, when most national park units charged $10 to $20 per vehicle for seven days and most national forests and BLM lands could be visited for free. Elk-hunting tags often went to hunters who could afford up to 20 lottery tickets to increase their odds in the draws.

The public balked, and the Trust still lacked financial self-sufficiency. “It was pricing everyday New Mexicans out of this public treasure,” says Joel Gay of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen’s group that supported National Park Service management.

Despite the Trust’s experimental charter, says Benson, people’s expectations remained rooted in the egalitarian values that helped create public lands. “There was early on a general concern that the Valles Caldera might become a playground for the few,” she says, which was evident in the debate around the lucrative hunting program.

In response to public concerns, in 2013 the Trust implemented a more equitable one hunter-one ticket lottery system. That impacted revenues, but the Trust viewed financial self-sufficiency as just one goal, not the primary one. Eventually, it even reinterpreted its mandate: It would aim only to recover the costs of programs like grazing and recreation, rather than to make the entire preserve self-sufficient. That, Benson says, highlights a key lesson of the experiment: “Making money isn’t what public lands do best.” 

 

Elk forage in Valles Caldera National Preserve, where between 2,500 and 3,000 elk live.
Larry Lamsa/CC Flickr

As we skirt one of the Valle Grande’s volcanic domes, busting through wind-swept snow sculpted like desert sandstone, I ask Ribe and Schoustra: Why the Park Service? New Mexico has few public lands that aren’t managed for multiple use, Ribe responds. Forest Service oversight, he says, would have come with the possibility of logging, off-road vehicles and a lot more cows — looser protections, in other words, heightening the risk of the place getting “trashed.”

“I thought it would be really great to have a place that was not an archaeological site in the Park Service, where you could have a large piece of land and say, ‘Here’s an alternative way of relating to this place,’ ” says Ribe. He and others wanted it protected not for its practical utility, but for its wildlife and its aesthetic, even spiritual, qualities.

The Park Service is still developing its management plan, a process likely to take a few years, so the scope of changes remains uncertain. For instance, it’s unclear how much of the preserve will be opened to overnight camping, which was previously restricted to one unimproved campground.

Daytime access has already increased substantially, though, and fees are consistent with other Park Service units. Visitors can get in with a national parks pass or a $20 weekly vehicle fee, and a new backcountry vehicle permit allows anyone to drive into the more remote northern valleys. “(It’s) created a release valve for that pent-up desire to explore,” says Jorge Silva-Bañuelos, the preserve’s new superintendent.

Grazing will continue to some extent, but only for research or historical interpretation. This is a significant change from the Trust’s original charter, Silva-Bañuelos says, but stocking rates had already been reduced from historic levels. When the Trust took over, researchers used a model to determine appropriate cattle numbers to leave enough plant cover for elk, birds and erosion control. They found there was typically enough to support 750 cows for four months annually; the private owners had run as many as 9,000 head for six months. Cattle were eventually kept out of riparian areas, and removed altogether during severe drought.

Remarkably, no lawsuits followed. In fact, the Trust, which supported a robust research and monitoring program run by ecologist Bob Parmenter, was never sued. That’s a testament, Benson says, to the success of transparent, science-based decision making, which is widely viewed as the Trust’s most important legacy. It’s an approach Silva-Bañuelos plans to continue.

 

As morning wanes, a storm approaches, whitewashing the sky. There are few sounds aside from the wind and our steps, and no one else in sight, until we crest a subtle rise and spot a lone skier.

Silva-Bañuelos told me earlier that he thinks of the Valles Caldera as “a national park in the raw.” There are no paved roads, and little has been done to the historic ranch buildings for decades. The visitor’s center is a doublewide with a woodstove. “It’s both a warning to the public,” he said — you won’t find much infrastructure here — and “an opportunity to see this national park at its origin.”

I ask Ribe and Schoustra if they worry that the new status might bring too many visitors. They don’t. In nearby Bandelier National Monument, they point out, the expansive backcountry is underused. It probably won’t be much different here.

Silva-Bañuelos agrees, saying most visitation will be concentrated in the Valle Grande, near the main entrance. That’s where the agency will likely develop interpretive sites covering forest ecology, climate change, volcanic geology, and the history of Native peoples in the region. But Silva-Bañuelos also hopes to develop additional trails for mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders. His staff will complete a feasibility study for an 80-mile trail circling the caldera’s rim, the longtime dream of local trails advocate Dorothy Hoard, who died before New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall convinced Congress to transfer the preserve.

To celebrate the transfer, Ribe and Schoustra went skiing just after the New Year. The snow was fresh, the weather mild, the preserve peaceful. They stopped in the visitors’ center, and another skier came in. “His cheeks were all flushed, he ran over and said, ‘That was exquisite!’ ” Schoustra says, flipping her poles in the air. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘That’s why.’ ”

Contributing editor Cally Carswell writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.