Will Valles Caldera become a national park?


Around 3,000 elk, the second largest herd in New Mexico, spent the summer munching on Valles Caldera National Preserve grasslands before migrating to nearby Bandelier National Monument for the winter. A menagerie of other wildlife also stake claim to the collapsed volcano's mountain forests: black bear, mountain lion, bobcat and 60 species of birds.

Seasonal changes aren't the only ones in store for the preserve. To maintain its natural, cultural, ecological and recreational resources, Congressional representatives and environmental groups are hoping Valles Caldera gains a national park designation.

A recently released study highlighted benefits of National Park Service management of Valles Caldera, stating park control would likely bring more jobs and economic benefits to local economies than if the preserve was turned over to U.S. Forest Service management.

"Everything that we've seen in this study and in other research suggests that there's both a magnetic quality associated with the park service management and the park service identity," study author Michele Archie said. The Harbinger Consulting Group study, completed in June and released this October, showed National Park Service management of the preserve would support $11 million in economic activity, 202 jobs and $8 million in wages to gateway communities like Los Alamos, N.M. and Jemez Springs, N.M., compared with other management scenarios.

The life of the 88,900-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in northern New Mexico has been anything but ordinary. Congress created the national preserve in 2000 when the government paid $101 million for the previously private Baca Ranch. The preserve was a public lands management experiment, in which 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.

In a May 2011 Senate National Parks subcommittee hearing on the bill, the Trust's chairman admitted it would not meet that financial goal: "It has become clear that the capital improvement to make the preserve financially self-sufficient are either too costly or unacceptable to the major stakeholders in the region," Chairman Raymond Loretto said.

The Harbinger Consulting Group's economic study, which was commissioned by Caldera Action and other environmental groups, further bolstered support for that action. Among differences in National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service properties are visitation numbers --  parks tend to attract greater numbers of out-of-town visitors who spend more money in gateway communities, whereas national forests tend to be frequented by  locals and campers. In addition, the study found that affiliation with the national park system is likely to encourage continued visitation.

Several management differences between the two agencies led to the study's conclusion that  "The National Park Service is more likely than the U.S. Forest Service to maintain a high and consistent level of funding, staffing, visitor services, and resource protection."

It is unclear what adverse impacts may come from a national park designation -- the bill maintains current hunting and fishing opportunities, though some areas will be designated as off-limits. With the designation, the number of visitors could jump, leading to pressures on roads and recreational use. The preserve currently has low visitation numbers -- about 17,000 in 2008 -- compared with about 300,000 annual visitors to the 42,000-acre Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which the study used as a comparable area with similar characteristics.

The U.S. Forest Service has remained neutral on the decision. In the May hearing, U.S. Forest Service National Forest Systems deputy chief Joel Holtrop said many management options exist.

"It is important to note that restoration and resource management issues are already being managed by the Forest Service not only at Valles Caldera but also on approximately 895,000 acres on National Forest System land in the Jemez Mountains surrounding the preserve and on the preserve's southeast corner adjacent to Bandalier National Monument," Holtrop said.

Regardless of Congress' choice of management agency, coordination among those involved would be paramount, Holtrop acknowledged. With the study and hearing now complete, the legislation appears to have a clear path forward. But if May's hearing was any indication, the decision won't come without some opposition. Subcommittee ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., made the final comment -- he questioned diverting funds away from the enormous backlog of maintenance at national parks to put toward a new addition to the park system.

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr user Larry 1732.

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