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.
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