Bratcher named preserve director

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By Roger Snodgrass

The governing board of the Valles Caldera Preserve held its last meeting of the year Thursday and most likely the final meeting for several trustees whose terms are ending early next year.

Valles Caldera Trust Chair William Kelleher of Albuquerque announced that Gary Bratcher had been hired to fill the vacant post of executive director. Bratcher, an Artesia native, served as economic development secretary under former Gov. Gary Johnson from 1995-1998 and then was appointed to a vacancy on the New Mexico Lottery Authority.

Kelleher said Bratcher has a strong business background. He accepted the offer Tuesday and will be arriving to begin work Jan. 5.

Bratcher will be the fourth executive director since the Trust began in 2001. His predecessor Jeff Cross resigned in May after two years on the job, expressing frustration with the churn of board members and staff.

That has continued even as a key communication and marketing position remains unfilled for another year.

Retired Forest Service administrator Lucia Sandoval Turner has served as acting executive director since June and Kelleher said she would stay on to assist Bratcher with the complex federal rules and regulations the preserve must obey.

Kelleher said it was likely he and three other members of the board would not be reappointed, but there had been no information about who or when the new appointments would be made.

Along with Kelleher, terms will also expire for Tracy Hephner, the former chair who has served for six years, veterinarian Robert Loretto of San Ysidro and Jim Gosz, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico.

They are four of seven appointed members. Two others, Brad Traver, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument and Dan Jiron, forest supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest are ex-officio members by virtue of their federal positions.

“The lack of continuity has been a problem,” Kelleher said, noting that he had spoken to the Congressional delegation about this.

Officials of the Government Accountability Office sat in on the meeting, as they begin their second and final mandated report on how the preserve is progressing as an independent federal experiment in public land management.  

The preserve is an 89,000-acre federal property located 20 miles West of Los Alamos in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico.

David Bixler said GAO’s audit team would be returning during the first quarter next year, following up on previous recommendations and continuing to look at how the preserve was meeting its challenges under its founding legislation. The report would be released by September 2009.

Toward the end of the meeting, Preserve Manager Dennis Trujillo summarized some of the positive accomplishments for the year, including reaching the goal of zero safety incidents.

Trying to increase revenue by 15 percent, Trujillo said revenues had in fact rose by 14 percent for the year and revenues covered 71 percent of the cost of the recreational program. Striving as well for a 15 percent increase in visitors, he was able to report the numbers had grown by 38 percent.

One set of numbers drew comment from the board and the audience, which was that the summer recreation program, costing more than $431,000, returned only about $46,000 in revenue. On the other hand, the summer recreation program brought in over 11,000 of the 17,000 visitors for the year.

The grazing program, involving 1,960 steers during the summer months provided part of that revenue gain, bringing in about $60,000, in strong contrast to past years when it has operated at a loss.

There remained some questions about how much the grazing operation actually cost, because the budget update did not reflect expenses on the programmatic level.  

There were also a few negative impacts reported, some related to range conditions, but particularly from anglers who complained anecdotally on comment cards to the trust and more formally through the New Mexico Trout representative Ron Lowman at the meeting.

Lowman reported “a large amount of feedback” from the Los Pinos Flyshop in Albuquerque.

“We are strongly opposed to cows.” He said Trout New Mexico’s board had resolved. “They stomp down the banks of the streams, and a lot of members said they would never fish in the Valles Caldera again.”

Trustee Ed Tinsley of Ruidoso said he thought some of the problems could be addressed through infrastructure improvements, namely fences, and by providing alternative watering arrangements enabling a different grazing scheme.

Gary Morton of Las Vegas, who won the contract to graze his steers on the preserve, also won high marks from preserve officials for his efforts to accommodate the fishing contingent and to keep the steers out of the streams.  

A well-known Western artist, with a painting in the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, Morton has donated proceeds from his painting of the Bond House, where he and his wife lived during the grazing season this year, to the Los Amigos support group for the preserve to support restoration efforts on the historic structure.

Almost by accident the audience learned that the current board, which has made money-making a high priority, had terminated a contract with Entrix Inc., the company that had been hired to develop a business plan, along with the kind of environmental studies that would be needed to implement them.

A dispute over deliverables was blamed. Kelleher said negotiations were going on to make sure the trust got what it paid for.