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Jorge Silva-Bañuelos is glad to be coming home.
On his father’s side, the new executive director of the Valles Caldera National Preserve has family roots in Santa Fe that go back several generations. His mother is first generation from Mexico. Although he grew up in Albuquerque, he left at 18 to attend the University of San Diego and pursue a career.
That does not mean Silva-Bañuelos has lost his ties to New Mexico.
“Anywhere you go outside New Mexico, you maintain that cultural connection to New Mexico and ultimately–it’s somewhat cliché, but the green chile is what binds us all together,” Silva-Bañuelos said, reminiscing about his family packing an extra piece of luggage with the state vegetable when they came to visit.
Silva-Bañuelos says he learned more about his home state after he left than he did growing up. Ironically, he did not know the Valles Caldera existed, despite recreating frequently in the Jemez Mountains.
Silva-Bañuelos spent the last 10 years in Washington, D.C., working for Sen., Jeff Bingaman and as a staff member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and more recently as a policy advisor for the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior.
During that period, Silva-Bañuelos spent considerable time in New Mexico, working on public lands issues for Bingaman, including those connected with the Valles Caldera.
“So I never really lost connection with New Mexico and the natural resource issues that pervade the state and are of such interest and concern to so many New Mexicans,” Silva-Bañuelos said. “And I’ve been focused on watching the preserve and it’s management for a decade now.”
Silva-Bañuelos drafted Senate Bill 285, the legislation Bingaman introduced to place the preserve under the auspices of the National Park service.
“That gave me an opportunity to really do a lot of outreach and inquiries with stakeholders who are concerned about the Valles Caldera, meeting with the Pueblos of Jemez, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Zia,” Silva-Bañuelos said. He also met with the board of trustees, preserve staff, with conservation organizations and others, adjusting the legislation to address stakeholder concerns.
Despite his close connection to SB 285, Silva-Bañuelos hastened to say that the legislation is outside his purview as executive director.
“That’s a decision that congress has to make, and that’s going to be a decision that the board of trustees has to make about what it recommends to congress,” Silva-Bañuelos said.
However, according to Silva-Bañuelos, the two “underlying goals” of SB 285 are the same goals everyone at the preserve are striving for, and goals he will work to achieve as executive director.
“One is to stabilize its funding and make sure that it has a stable funding source going forward, and, number two, to get a handle on reconciling the correct level of public access with the requirements and mission to protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources that are found within the Valles Caldera.”
According to Silva-Bañuelos, increasing public access within those parameters is the key to the preserve’s longevity.
“It creates a constituency of advocates for the place. And if you don’t have a constituency of advocates in the local community, the risk of losing this place as a protected area grows substantially. And that’s where you have to be able to get people inside to experience it, to fall in love with it, as so many of us have, and then they’ll protect it.”
Silva-Bañuelos is looking forward to renewing relationships he has developed through the years, including with Gov. Joshua Madalena from Jemez Pueblo, whom he consulted with regarding SB 285, and with Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria, whom he worked with on flooding and forestry issues after the Las Conchas fire.
“So that’s been very exciting to know that I’ll have some familiar faces to work with and some friends to work with from the Pueblo standpoint.”
Silva-Bañuelos’ ability to work with a wide range of stakeholders was key in crafting legislation that created the Río Grande del Norte and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments, two other projects he developed for Bingaman.
“I set out to try to meet every stakeholder that I could out there, and I tried to focus more of my efforts on meeting with people who aren’t natural allies of some of these conservation initiatives,” Silva-Bañuelos said.
He met individually with every rancher within the scope of the projects, with land grant communities, acequia association leaders and hunters and sportsman’s groups. He worked with the border patrol in Doña Ana County.
“It was a multi-faceted process of listening on the front end, trying to identify areas of common ground and listening for where there were substantive concerns, trying to address those substantive concerns and going back to the community and saying, here’s what I heard from you, here’s how we tried to address it. Are there other things that we could do or we haven’t considered?
After two years of that, Silva-Bañuelos drafted language that ultimately became the monument legislations.
For the Rio Grande del Norte, Silva-Bañuelos (and those he worked with), were able to convert significant opposition within one community to almost unanimous support. He estimates he achieved 70 percent support for Organ Mountain.
“I think the last 30, ultimately it was folks who I feel confident that we addressed their substantive concerns, but there were ideological or philosophical differences about the nature of conservation that we couldn’t overcome.
“It’s a lesson that I learned, that moving forward on controversial matters does not require 100 percent unanimity. It’s hard to get that. But it does take consensus and trying to reach as close a consensus as you can. But where you can’t find support because of philosophical or ideological differences, you at least try to do your best to address the substantive concerns that you find.”
That approach has reaped benefits beyond passing the legislation.
“I’ve over time developed very strong relationships with the conservation community, with sportsmen, even many ranchers.
“And that’s how I hope to approach this job as executive director, to do a lot of outreach, do a lot of listening, but then we need to start making decisions that address those substantive concerns, but we move forward, nonetheless.”
Silva-Bañuelos will attend the July 11 board of trustees meeting and take up the reins on July 14.