In northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, hikers are finally getting access to some stunning lands that have long been off limits – the 89,000 acres of the Valles Caldera Preserve.
Starting Dec. 6, 2013, much of the preserve’s forests, meadows and streams will be opened* to unrestricted cross-country hiking for a $10 daily fee. “The intent of the motion that we passed is that people can actually go out there and walk around and enjoy the entire preserve. And enjoy it on your own terms,” board of trustees member Jason Lott, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. The board also voted to give kids free access if they’re with an adult, and cut fishing fees.
Valles Caldera has been a unique experiment in public lands management for more than a decade now. The federal government bought the Baca Ranch, home to the state’s largest elk herd and 17 rare species, in 2000 for $101 million, and Congress declared it a preserve, to be run as a nonprofit ranch overseen by a board of trustees.
It hasn’t been easy for the public to enjoy, though – just four short hiking trails are available, van tours must be booked in advance, and to fish or hunt, you have to get lucky in a lottery drawing. In most of the preserve, there’s a $100 fine for trespassing (although cattle ranchers, who graze about 2,000 head there, are allowed to move around unhindered).
… the government-owned Valles Caldera Trust mixed private and public administration to run the property as a working ranch. In return, Valles Caldera was supposed to wean itself off federal funding by 2015.
But the experiment failed. As early as 2005, skeptics voiced doubt. By 2009, the trust was five years behind its funding schedule. Environmentalists said the goal of turning a profit was incompatible with managing for preservation. Recreationists said user fees were too high.
The U.S. Forest Service was slated under the original legislation to take over operations in 2020, if the Trust could not meet the self-funding mandate. But U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. and Tom Udall, D-N.M., reintroduced the Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act, S. 564, in March 2011. The bill would transfer jurisdiction of the preserve to the National Park Service within 90 days of enactment.
The bill didn’t pass then, or in 2012, and Sen. Udall introduced the bill again last spring.
If the preserve were to become a national park, the probable increase in visitation would bring economic benefits. A 2011 study found that National Park Service management of Valles Caldera would generate $11 million annually in economic activity and create 202 jobs in gateway communities like Los Alamos and Jemez Springs.
But state and tribal leaders have their own ideas of what should be done with the land. In August, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish presented its plan for transferring the preserve to state ownership and running it in a way that critics describe as a “free for all” for multiple use. The state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department has also reportedly discussed taking over management. The Los Alamos Monitor reports:
Despite the fact that the Valles Caldera Trust has only achieved 30 percent self-sufficiency after 12 years in operation, Game and Fish professes it can “transition the current federal fiscal burden of $2 to $3 million annually to positive state revenue of $500,000 to $1 million annually due to reduced employee numbers and management costs, cooperation with other state agencies and universities, enhanced use of volunteers and partnerships with private sector via concessionaires, the wood products industry, livestock producers, outdoor recreational businesses and hunting and fishing related corporate sponsors.
Meanwhile, Jemez Pueblo has long sought return of the preserve, which it claims as ancestral lands still used today for religious ceremonies and hunting. The Pueblo’s lawsuit was dismissed in late September, reports the Albuquerque Journal, on the grounds that a lands settlement had been made with the tribe in 1974, and couldn’t be revisited.
“We will continue to work closely with the Pueblo nonetheless to ensure the cultural history, spiritual significance and the landscape are preserved for generations to come. It is what we do as the Valles Caldera Trust and what we are committed to as friends and neighbors of the Pueblo of Jemez,” Valles Caldera Trust Board of Trustees Chairman Kent Salazar said.
Pueblo officials say they may appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
It's always worth bearing in mind, though, the basic truth that human squabbles are utterly inconsequential when considered on John McPhee's geologic time-scale, which he describes thus: "With your arms spread wide… to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins at the wrist, and the Permian extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history."
Eradication, at least in the Southwest, could even come from Valles Caldera itself. The 13-mile wide volcanic caldera for which the preserve is named is one of three “supervolcanoes” in the U.S. (the others are Yellowstone and Long Valley in California) capable of producing eruptions thousands of time bigger than typical eruptions. The last time Valles Caldera blew, 1.2 million years ago, it pushed out 150 cubic miles of lava and shot ash all the way to what’s now Iowa. Talk about a shutdown.
Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.
* assuming, of course, that the federal government resumes operations in the near future and opens currently closed public lands