Baca Ranch buy-out has strings attached

Bill could put millions of acres of public land on the auction block

 

The Valles Caldera in northern New Mexico, also known as the Baca Ranch, is one of a kind. It's the world's largest extinct volcano and a geologic wonderland of peaks, valleys and hot springs. One of the West's largest elk herds lives there, and the area contains Native American religious and cultural sites.

It's also for sale. If the federal government doesn't act quickly, the 95,000-acre ranch could fall into the hands of developers.

In the past, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman pushed Congress to buy the land, but without the support of New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, his efforts failed (HCN, 8/3/98: Congress drags its feet on Baca Ranch deal).

The senators are now co-sponsoring a bill that authorizes the federal government to buy the crater. While many conservationists are ready to breathe a sigh of relief, others are troubled by the deals made to gain Domenici's support.

The first provision involves the way the land would be managed. Domenici, who opposes handing the land over to the Forest Service, wants a public trust to manage the land. Its board, appointed by the president, would include representatives from the Forest Service, Park Service, the livestock and timber industries, wildlife management, a conservation group and an expert in cultural and natural history. The trust would operate the ranch in such a way as to provide revenue to cover the costs of maintaining the property.

"It does not say that they have to make enough money to pay for the operation and maintenance," Domenici told a Senate subcommittee in March. "It says that they should try, and it should be a goal, and if it doesn't work, that's all right."

Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians says the senator's bill is a bad idea. "The policy is an open door for corporate control," says Hitt. "Logging and grazing will continue instead of resting and restoring the land."

Hitt points to the Presidio, a military base turned national park in the heart of San Francisco, as an example of a trust preoccupied with making money. The Presidio Trust has decided to lease land to George Lucas for a special-effects studio.

"The pre-eminent purpose should be conservation, not the bottom line," agrees Dave Simon of the National Parks and Conservation Association. Although he's not sold on the idea of a public trust, he says it's essential that the legislation pass. "I don't think we'll get this chance again," says Simon.

A deal with the devil?

Another concession to Domenici is a measure tagged to the bill that would encourage the Bureau of Land Management to sell millions of acres of Western land. The land is currently on the agency's disposal list, and includes small and scattered parcels that are difficult to manage, or land deemed to have low economic value (HCN, 3/29/99: Wheeling and dealing).

"There are significant tracts in and around many towns and cities the BLM may want to dispose of because they are of little value from the standpoint of resource protection, and may be more suitable for planned development," says Domenici's press secretary Chris Gallegos.

Presently, land on the disposal list is rarely sold because money from any sale goes straight to the federal treasury and not to the BLM. More often than not, it's used to barter for other land. If the bill passes, state BLM offices would be able to use the money to purchase inholdings and land next to other federal areas.

New Mexico's commissioner of public lands, Ray Powell, who is in charge of earning revenue for education from state trust land, is concerned that this could affect his capacity to negotiate land exchanges. "This could compromise our trading stock and our ability to trade for valuable land," he says.

"Basically, this gets to the issue of should we have public lands," says Powell. He says he supports preserving the Baca Ranch, but the current bill "is not a good compromise."

But without the measure, the Baca bill would not have Domenici's support, says Gallegos. "Sen. Domenici has always said support for the Baca bill would only come with a measure of land-management reform."

Says Hitt, "My environmental colleagues have made a deal with the devil, and we'll pay for it in the long run,"

The bill recently passed the Senate and is expected to be taken up by the House this month. President Clinton has pledged his support.

Robyn Morrison is an HCN intern.

This story is funded through a grant from the New Mexico Community Foundation.

YOU CAN CONTACT...

  • Dave Simon with the National Parks and Conservation Association Southwest Regional Office in Albuquerque at 505/247-1221;
  • Sam Hitt with Forest Guardians at 505/988-9126 in Santa Fe;
  • Sen. Jeff Bingaman's office at 202/224-5521;
  • Sen. Pete Domenici's office at 202/224-6621.
High Country News Classifieds
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...