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WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall recently introduced legislation to transfer the management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the National Park Service.
The bill follows on a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) mandated by the Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000 and a feasibility study from the National Park Service requested by the two senators.
The GAO reports that the Preserve is at least five years behind schedule in the development of an effective management control system and that the requirement to achieve financial self-sustainability by 2015 is the Trust’s biggest challenge and will be difficult to achieve. It also notes that the revenue enhancement study commissioned by the Trust estimated the need for at least $21 million for infrastructure improvements to support greater public access.
The National Park Service study, which was requested by Bingaman and Udall, determines the Valles Caldera meets the high criteria for inclusion in the National Park System as a National Preserve. In particular, the report highlighted the nationally significant geologic resources found in the area.
The Senators’ bill directs the Park Service to take over management in a way that protects the Preserve’s natural and cultural resources. Hunting, fishing, and cattle grazing would be permitted under the bill. Additionally, the measure strengthens protections for tribal cultural and religious sites and ensures access by pueblos to the area.
“The Valles Caldera is not only one of the most stunning places in New Mexico, it’s one of the most beautiful places in our country. That is why I worked so hard to bring it into public ownership,” Bingaman said. “I believe it is the perfect candidate for the National Park System.”
“For centuries the Valles Caldera has stood out as the icon of the Jemez Mountains,” said Udall. “As one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world, the vast grass-filled valleys, forested hillsides, and numerous volcanic peaks make the Valles Caldera a treasure to New Mexico, and a landscape of national significance millions of years in the making. It is clearly worthy of National Park Service status.”
The first calls to bring the Valles Caldera into the National Park System were in 1899.
In four separate studies throughout the next century the Park Service found that the area was suitable for protective status under its management. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Bingaman, former Senator Pete Domenici and then-Representative Udall were successful in acquiring the property for $100 million.
The law also established an experimental management framework where a Board of Trustees would manage the Preserve as a working ranch with public access, with the goal of becoming financially self-sustaining by 2015.
“Although the Valles Caldera Trust has done its best to fulfill the original legislative directives, time has shown in my opinion that this management framework is not the best suited for the long-term management of the Preserve,” Bingaman said. “I believe that the desire for increased public access balanced with the need to protect and interpret the Preserve’s unique cultural and natural resources would be best served by the National Park Service.”
“As Senator Bingaman and I take steps today to begin a transition of the Valles Caldera into the National Park System, I want to applaud the decade of work that the Board of Trustees, the Valles Caldera Trust and the preserve employees have invested in this unmatched natural resource,” Udall said.
“As we look to the future, we do so with respect to the longstanding grazing, educational, and once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunities that are cherished and valued by so many New Mexicans. By utilizing the resources and skills within the National Park Service, the Valles Caldera National Preserve will continue to prosper as a natural wonder full of significant geology, ecology, history and culture.”
The measure will be sent to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Bingaman chairs. A hearing could be scheduled as soon as next month.