ANALYSIS: Engaged public proposes Caldera solutions

-A A +A
By Dave Menucucci

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on problems and solutions at the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The first was in Sunday’s Monitor.

There are few places that can engender public passions as does the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Tom Ribe, head of the watchdog group, Caldera Action, sees it almost as a personal issue. “A group of us fought for years to bring the Baca Ranch into the public fold and now that we have it, we are not going to let it fail,” he said.

Under Ribe’s leadership, Caldera Action is developing proposals for a new approach to managing the preserve.

Ribe explained that they are seeking to “completely restructure the preserve, eliminate the board of trustees, and put the operation under another government agency, one that can aptly manage it with regular annual appropriations from the government.”

One possibility, said Ribe, is the National Park Service, which operates many national preserves in the U.S. These preserves allow fee-based hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities, many of which currently occur on the Valles Caldera. “It is a proven, successful management concept,” Ribe said.

However, the one stumbling block may be grazing. It is unclear whether the Park Service National Preserves can allow sustained grazing, and no Park Service Preserve currently operates as a designated “working ranch,” a stipulation in the Caldera’s founding legislation and a desirable feature for some people.

Virgil Trujillo, a Northern NM cattle rancher and a newly appointed Valles Caldera Trustee, stated firmly “that there can be no final resolution at the preserve without some accommodation for grazing,” especially involving the families in surrounding areas.

“All the ranchers want is some grazing access on the preserve. We are only talking about perhaps a couple of thousand head,” he explained.

The preserve has tried to satisfy this need. According to the preserve’s manager, Dennis Trujillo, in 2005 the preserve ran a two-year Conservation Stewardship Program to help local ranchers “to rest their lands.”

The program was not extended and no formal written report was published.

However, this stewardship program followed the general theme of a “grass bank.”

A grass bank is an area of public land that is lightly grazed. Ranchers with leased public properties that have been stressed by drought or other natural events are allowed to temporarily graze the grass bank lands, thus allowing their stressed properties to recover naturally.

It is uncertain whether such a concept would be applicable to a Park Service National Preserve.

William B. Keleher, an Albuquerque attorney who has recently stepped down as Valles Caldera Trust chair, believes radical solutions are not needed.

“The critical problem is the self-sufficiency mandate. It drives many of the preserve’s actions and creates the need to carefully control access in order to collect fees. If that part of the preserve’s operational structure can be eliminated with regular congressional funding, I think that the current management model will work,” he said.

Some people are skeptical of such a simplified solution. Dorothy Hoard, a resident of Los Alamos who has worked on Jemez district issues for many decades, believes that a change of management – especially one that puts the Valles Caldera under clear federal control – is essential to assure true public accountability.

“Under the current structure, the board of trustees is accountable to nobody except the Secretary of Agriculture, who is beyond the influence of the public,” Hoard said. “With a federal management system, such as the one at Bandelier, these managers are directly accountable to the people. The public can seek redress to grievances through their congressional delegates. Congress is the funding source, so the agencies pay heed.”

Many people believe that the preserve’s scientific work is a notable success and should not be disturbed, and perhaps even enhanced. Bob Parmenter, the preserve’s chief scientist, has demonstrated steady advancement toward the creation of self-sustaining science programs.

“We have made incredible progress in the past year in attracting world-class institutions to do research on the preserve,” he said. “These researchers not only contribute to the body of scientific knowledge in archeology, biology, geology and other areas, their contributions assist our operations because they share new findings with us. Best of all, they generally pay their own way, as their scientific grant objectives overlap with preserve management needs.”

But some have voiced cautions. Carlos Salazar, a life-long Rio Arriba rancher with multi-generational ranching heritage, explained.

“We support good science, but there are times where more practical solutions might be better than the scientific ones. For example, in some parts of the Valles Caldera cattle might more efficiently remove excess grass rather than burning, as some are proposing. It would provide economic benefits, too.”

Hunters and fishers are also suggesting new approaches to sporting activities on the preserve. Oscar Simpson, of the N.M. Wildlife Federation, believes that the preserve’s self sufficiency mandate is distorting management decisions regarding game management.

“There is continued pressure to make money, so they look for ways to sell expensive hunts. But this is public property, not a private ranch. The public has a right to use it. Valle Vidal is a better model for game management on a preserve,” he said emphatically. Valle Vidal is similar in size to the preserve and is located in Northeast N.M.

 It is overseen by the Carson National Forest as a multi-use, public area.

Dick Brackett, a local fisherman and investment counselor, offers some simple advice to improve the fishing program. “Stop chauffeuring people to the Rio San Antonio. Fishermen can drive their own vehicles and it would provide them nearby shelter in case of lightning.

“This kind of excessive, government bureaucracy adds no value to the fishing experience and can be easily eliminated. And it would immediately benefit the bottom line,” he said.

Keleher counsels that “balance is the key to a long-term and stable solution.”

He believes that before any final action, the needs of the various constituents need to be weighed carefully. His desires may soon come to fruition as many people, including some in the N.M. Legislature, are urging Congress to convene hearings in Northern New Mexico concerning the future of the Valles Caldera.