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Analysis: Frustrations with Valles Caldera erupt into public debate

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By Dave Menucucci

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two parts. It is about perceived problems at the Valles Caldera National Preserve and the second part will consider  some possible solutions.

Dorothy Hoard, a long-time resident of Los Alamos, has charted the fate of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.  In 2000 she saw trouble.  

“As soon as I read the founding legislation, I knew it would fail,” she said recently.  “And now it is happening.  They will never be financially self-sufficient – a critical requirement – because you can’t profit from publicly-owned natural-resource assets.”

The Valles Caldera is at a crossroads.  In recent months an intense public debate has erupted over the preserve’s management and direction.

Aflurry of articles, guest columns and editorials has appeared in the Monitor and the Albuquerque Journal.  In a recent Monitor report, Valles Caldera officials admitted the current path to self-sustainability may be not viable.  A Journal editorial suggested that a new management approach is needed.

Defining the problem is the initial step to a solution.  William B. Keleher has recently stepped down as Valles Caldera Trust Chair, a post he held for two years.  “Access was the number one complaint and the board worked diligently to address it,” he said.  He suggested that the National Environmental Policy Act “created restrictions that slowed progress, sometimes to a halt.”

Tom Ribe, an ecologist and head of Caldera Action, a watchdog group, disagrees.  

“Access cannot be held hostage to NEPA.  All national parks comply with NEPA, and they host millions of visitors a year,” he said.

In fact, the nearby Bandelier National Monument, operating on a budget of around $2.5 million, hosts nearly 250,000 visitors per year.  In contrast, in 2008 the preserve hosted around 15,000 visitors and operated on about a $3.75 million budget.  The preserve’s property is about three times the size of Bandelier’s.

But Keleher countered with an example.  “I wanted to do the Rim Trail project,” he said, “but complex NEPA requirements and possible over-interpretation of the regulations created obstacles.  It frustrated me.”

The Rim Trail is an idea that Hoard has promoted for over 20 years.  She explained that it would “stitch together some existing trails and roads along with new ones, thus making up a contiguous, 80 mile hiking trail along the Caldera rim.”  

Since the trail’s proposed route would traverse various public lands, including the National Forest and Bandelier, there would be numerous issues to be addressed. Hoard and her associates produced hundreds of pages in detailed reports about the trail and gave the preserve a summary report as the foundation for the project.  

“We were always told that it was a good idea but that the preserve didn't have their management documents in place,” she said. “They are no closer now than they were in 2001.  That is what is so frustrating.”

Cattle ranching is perhaps the preserve’s most contentious issue and access rights are at the center of the controversy.  On one side are the cattle ranchers, many of whom live adjacent to the preserve’s northern perimeter and lease forest allotments for their cattle.  Cattle ranching plays a prominent role in the culture and traditions of the area and many residents resent not having reasonable access to the lush grasses of the preserve’s northern valleys.

On the other side are groups such as the WildEarth Guardians, an environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore wildlife and wild places.  Their official position is that grazing should be eliminated from the preserve and public access should be expanded.

In the middle are the local Indian tribes, such as Jemez, that claim a thousand-year-old cultural and religious connection to the land.  Along with an opportunity for livestock grazing, these people simply ask for respect and controlled access to ancestral hunting and religious areas.

According to Paul Tosa, an ex-Jemez-Pueblo governor, requests for access used to be granted.

Last year about 2000 steers were grazed on the preserve by a single rancher selected in a competitive bid process.  

Carlos Salazar, a life-long Rio Arriba rancher with multi-generational ranching heritage, speaks fervently on this subject.  

“We run small family ranches.  There are probably not 2000 head among all the grazing allotments in this area, so we could not bid.  The Valles Caldera has not been a good neighbor because they have not met with us to understand our legitimate right to parts of the Valles Caldera based on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.”  

The Treaty, signed by the US and Mexican Governments in 1848, agreed to the succession of ownership rights of Mexican citizens who lived in the land areas ceded to the US at the cessation of the Mexican-American war.

The value and costs of grazing are at issue.  John Horning, director of the WildEarth Guardian’s N.M. office, said that they “have not seen conclusive evidence of the value of cattle grazing and there are many studies documenting problems.”

Tony Valdez, of the Abiquiu County Extension Service, disagrees and suggested that “properly managed cattle grazing can stimulate new grass shoots that are favored by elk.”

Much of the disagreement about grazing stems from the preserve’s founding legislation that requires it to be a “working ranch” but does not clearly define the term.  

To Virgil Trujillo a long-time cattle rancher in Northern N.M. and a newly appointed Valles Caldera Trustee, it means “cattle ranching.”  To Ribe, it’s a “science and education ranch.”

The frustrations regarding access are as old as the preserve.  Joan and Gary Salzman, a White Rock couple who published a popular N.M. hiking book, said that they abandoned the preserve many years ago.  

“It’s nice,” Joan, said “but it is not so nice as to justify the restrictions and costs to hike there.”  

Bill Stamm, of the N.M. Mountain Club, a large 55-year old hiking and climbing organization, said that after the preserve’s creation the club offered its volunteer services to implement recreational programs.

 “We were rebuffed,” he said sadly, “and we never went back.”

Hunting and fishing programs generate a large portion of the earned revenue on the preserve and have produced repeat customers.  But as the allure has waned, critics have emerged.  

Oscar Simpson, of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, challenges some operational practices.  

“It is a failed experiment.  You can’t privatize wildlife on a public property.  And you can’t succeed in the long run by babysitting hunters.  They don’t like it and it is wasteful.”

Dick Brackett, a local fly fisherman and investment consultant, sees excessive overhead in the Rio San Antonio fishing program.  

“Chauffeuring fishers from the staging area to the stream is outrageously expensive and unnecessary.  The fishing is good, but not good enough to justify the cumbersome operation.”

In December, 2008, the Government Accountability Office began conducting an audit of the preserve.  Although the auditors have not revealed their sources, many people were interviewed.  

Their report is anxiously awaited by a battery of critics who are forming plans to redirect the Valles Caldera.

NEXT: Part two will explore some ideas for solving the problems of the preserve.