A public-lands experiment needs to re-engage the public

by Laura Paskus



Not long ago, a fat patch of private land lay isolated within the Jemez Mountains, surrounded mostly by Forest Service land. Though off-limits, many New Mexicans knew that this place, the Baca Ranch, supported an enormous elk herd and contained both geological and archaeological wonders.

Today, that 89,000-acre private ranch is better known as a "public lands experiment." Bought by the federal government in 2000, it's now the Valles Caldera National Preserve -- so named for the collapsed volcanic dome within its boundaries — and it's run by a board of trustees appointed by the president. These trustees are charged with setting policy based on advice from the public and staff scientists, who are studying everything from elk herds to stream water quality.

As its founding legislation states, the trust must protect the preserve's natural and historic resources, operate as a working ranch and become financially self-sustaining within 15 years. Those last two requirements came courtesy of New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, who opposes any new public lands in the state.

At its creation, giddy New Mexicans hoped that the land and its resources would be preserved and that feuding factions would come together in support of an experiment closely watched by the rest of the nation. Most of all, we hoped to finally set foot on the land to hunt, ski, fish, hike, graze cattle, bike, bird watch or just lollygag.

Six years into the experiment, once-feuding factions are working together. The Valles Caldera Coalition, formed to support the creation of the preserve, today consists of more than 40 conservation, recreation and ranching groups. But giddiness has been mostly replaced by disappointment and even bitterness, as public access has remained minimal. When trustees opened the preserve this summer for one day only, thousands of people showed up, jamming traffic and angering many who'd warned that preserve staff would be overwhelmed by the pent-up demand.

For its part, the coalition is increasingly frustrated by the trust and its lack of long-range planning on issues such as recreation, wildlife, transportation and fire management. But most of all, the coalition is worried about the trust's dismissive attitude toward the public. "Who is the trust accountable to?" asks coalition coordinator Marty Peale. "The public? Domenici and the congressional delegation? Mark Rey?" (the secretary of Agriculture) "Or the White House?"

Thus far, even though the trust has focused most of its planning efforts on grazing, relations with local ranchers that were nurtured by the Bill Clinton-era board have eroded under a new board appointed by President Bush. Last winter, the chair of the trust, a rancher herself, announced a new approach to grazing that would bring in more money, though still not enough money to generate a profit. The trust had allowed local ranchers such as those from Jemez and Pojoaque pueblos to graze small numbers of cattle on the caldera while they worked to restore their rangelands. The new arrangement ended that deal; instead, an out-of-state rancher would be invited to graze 1,200 steers on the preserve. This controversial plan fell apart, but not before causing bad feelings.

Apparently not learning anything from the dustup, the trust recently announced that any rancher can bid for grazing privileges next year, when 2,000 head of cattle will be allowed to graze the Valles Caldera from June through September. While it's true that the trust is under pressure to generate revenue for the preserve, running cattle is not the way to do it. A 2005 federal report showed that in 2004 alone, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management lost at least $115 million as a result of their livestock programs. Not only is it financially unwise, but bringing in large-scale cattle operations from non-local ranchers also jeopardizes the board's relationship with northern New Mexicans. And it betrays those who supported ranching as a way to forge alliances with local communities.

To be fair, the trust is faced with what seems an impossible task, thanks to Sen. Domenici's insistence on multiple use and financial sustainability. The preserve is nowhere close to bringing in more money than it spends. It also needs to welcome back the public by involving local people in planning what happens on the land. Bill DeBuys, a writer and former chairman of the trust, says he presided over the trust's last public meetings, which were held in 2001.

"In all our public meetings," he recalls, "people said to us, 'The place is great as it is, so don't screw it up.' " Five years later, that still seems like good advice.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance reporter in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

© High Country News