When people try to describe the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico, they sometimes compare it to Yellowstone National Park. Both offer stunning landscapes born of volcanic activity, and both are filled with wildlife. Though only 89,000 acres, Valles Caldera contains thousands of elk, vast grasslands, streams and mountains, all within the sunken remnant of a collapsed volcano. It’s safe to say that everyone who appreciated this area supported its coming into the public domain in 2000.
But unlike Yellowstone, which is managed by the National Park Service, the preserve has a radically different management structure. It is not managed by any federal agency; instead, it is run by a federal corporation known as the Valles Caldera Trust and its board of politically appointed trusties. Congress passed the Valles Caldera Preservation Act to establish the preserve and trust, and also gave it the unusual mandate that it must be operated as a working ranch and become financially self-sustaining.
Anyone who read the Preservation Act couldn’t fail to see its conflicting goals: preservation of the land, the former Baca Ranch, along with exploitation of the land in order to make a profit and sustain the trust. Many New Mexico residents like myself wondered how both goals could be achieved, but we were jubilant when at last the formerly private land became a public resource.
Nine years later, we’re a lot less jubilant. Public access is severely limited and also expensive, with $40 van tours, $35 to go fishing, $10 to hike on designated trails, and off-putting rules like no hiking midweek and fees tacked on to other activities. You have to pay to play in the preserve or be politically connected to get in. What’s more, public board meetings seem more like a sham, with directors recounting what has already been decided somewhere else, far away from public scrutiny. Executive directors also come and go with disturbing frequency -- four in the last nine years.
Most of the nine board members are businesspeople with no public-land management experience. Almost without exception, all have fulltime endeavors to attend to besides the preserve. At best, a part-time board runs this national treasure.
Tom Ribe of the Valles Caldera Action organization, a watchdog group, is one of the disappointed conservationists who formerly supported the preserve. "We worked hard in 2000 to get the Valles Caldera in public hands," he said, “but it was a deeply troubled idea from the start, and we gave up on it entirely sometime in 2007." Now, he says, “the trust model has no constituency and offers no advantage and many drawbacks over traditional land management."
Jeremy Vesbach, director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said one of the worst things about the trust’s management is the way it kowtows to the rich. "The efforts that have been made to charge $10,000 or more for a person to access our own public lands for elk hunting have a lot of people outraged. Sportsmen would like to see a natural resource agency manage Valles Caldera. It would make more sense economically for all the people who would like to responsibly access and enjoy it."
This March, the trust announced that it had found a solution for its financial problems: Commercial development of the preserve. Opponents reacted quickly, saying that developing the land was exactly what the purchase of the Valles Caldera was supposed to prevent.
The trust has hired the Entrix Corp. to come up with several scenarios for making money. According to Terry McDermott, the trust’s communication manager, the final version has not been determined. He says plans will be based on the options from Entrix as well as from other sources, and they will be shared with the public.
Critics say the whole emphasis on commercial exploitation is misplaced. Since the trust only generates about 20 percent of the money it needs to run the preserve, it needs 80 percent to come from some new enterprises -- a huge amount. Meanwhile, it has been receiving $3.5 million a year from the federal government -- public money, to be exact -- to meet its annual budget of $4.4 million. I don’t think anyone is getting their money’s worth.
The wheels in Washington turn slowly, but there is hope for change. Both New Mexico Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall say they want the National Park Service to study brin ging the preserve under federal management. That indicates there’s still hope we can do something right for this wonderful land.
Mike Castinado is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an outdoorsman and native New Mexican who lives in Albuquerque.