Extinct volcano is up for grabs

  • Valles Caldera looks like a bear claw

    photo courtesy Santa Fe National Forest

From space, northern New Mexico’s Valles Caldera, also known as the Baca Ranch, looks vaguely like the cast of a bear paw print. Small lava-formed mountains rise like inverted claw marks in front of massive Redondo Peak, all nestled within the rim of the world’s largest extinct volcano. From the ground, what most impresses visitors are the high elevation grasslands that support 6,000 elk, prairie dog towns and raptors such as golden and bald eagles.

But because it is just an hour from booming Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the caldera could become a target for “ranchettes” occupied by fleeing urbanites, says the Forest Service’s Denise McCaig.

Now, the 15-mile-wide caldera is for sale, and the federal government has the first option to buy. Conservation groups want to see the area become a national park. New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman and the Clinton administration are ready to buy, but New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici may keep the caldera out of public hands.

The Valles Caldera, just west of Los Alamos, is hardly pristine. For decades it was heavily grazed, and logging roads crisscross the mountain sides. Even so, in 1961, when the land last came up for sale, National Park Service officials thought its unique geology merited adding it to the park system. The Forest Service also was interested and a dispute over which agency would manage the property may have caused the federal government to miss the chance to buy it altogether.

Instead, the Dunigan family of Texas bought it. The family cut back on logging and cows, and almost four decades later, the land supports several threatened, endangered and sensitive species. Now the Dunigans want to sell, preferably to a conservation-minded owner, and they have given the federal government two years to come up with the money.

Sen. Bingaman has introduced legislation to appraise the property and authorize the government to make the purchase, with the question of management to be decided later. The Clinton administration’s budget includes $20 million for a down payment from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Pam Eaton, the Wilderness Society’s regional director for the Four Corners states, believes the entire property deserves protection as a national park. “It’s important ecologically,” she says. She supports Bingaman’s bill, but worries that if the land goes to the Forest Service, it may again be overgrazed.

“There are a lot of people who are looking at it as a grass bank,” she says. “I think it’s a key question for the nation. What values do we want this area to provide over the long term?”

Domenici, a strong supporter of the livestock industry, is not convinced the land belongs in government hands. Before the federal government buys the Valles Caldera, he says, it should consider purchasing inholdings in the Petroglyph National Monument and mineral rights underlying the Jemez National Recreation Area.

Domenici’s opposition has put the Valles purchase on hold; without full support from New Mexico’s congressional delegation, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will not mark up Bingaman’s bill. Domenici also chairs the Senate Budget Committee, which decides how much money goes to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He has suggested that to fund the Valles purchase, the federal government could sell off millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management land. Critics say Domenici is holding the Baca Ranch hostage to push through his public-lands agenda.

“I think it’s a rare opportunity for us, and maybe the last good opportunity we have to see this property brought into public ownership and made available for the public to use,” says Sen. Bingaman. “I think we’ll kick ourselves in the future if we let this opportunity pass.”

Michael J. Robinson writes from Piños Altos, New Mexico.

        You can contact ...
        Pam Eaton with the Wilderness Society in Denver at 303/650-5818;
        Denise McCaig with the Santa Fe National Forest at 505/438-7807;
        Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s office at 202/224-5521;
         Sen. Pete Domenici’s office at 202/224-6621.
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