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Caldera expanded access delayed

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By Arin McKenna

 

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The Valles Caldera National Preserve Board of Trustees created a sensation when they voted on Sept. 25, 2013, to expand access to the preserve. 

That motion was to grant visitors the “right to unstructured foot traffic through all areas of the preserve to allow for wandering and exploration, and that this be optimally facilitated by the Valles Caldera staff.”

The motion authorized an access fee of no more than $10 per day per person, and allowed for lawful closures of sensitive areas, to be managed by staff with the approval of the chair and notification of the entire board.

But at the trust’s December meeting, staff reported that implementation of that policy would be delayed in order to meet National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements to gain tribal consent and assess impacts on endangered species, cultural resources and wildlife habitat.

Strong debate ensued at the board’s April 24 meeting over continuing delays. Staff reports indicated that there is no clear timeline for implementation of an open access hiking program and that none would be operational by the end of FY2014. 

According to Marie Rodriguez, program director of the Stewardship Division, the open-access hiking proposal requires additional funding and time for planning, and funds are not available for another environmental assessment at this time. 

Several board members asked staff to provide them with more information about what resources are needed that the board might facilitate and a timeline for implementation. 

According to Chair Kent Salazar, board members Jason Lott, superintendent at Bandelier National Monument and Maria Garcia, forest supervisor for Santa Fe National Forest, questioned the depth of NEPA study staff insists must be conducted before granting greater access. 

“Forest Service and the Park Service feel that not this depth of NEPA is warranted for this, because this land was open before, it’s been a cattle ranch, it’s been through several different owners,” Salazar said. “They felt that even the forest around it and the park (Bandelier) around it have not had the depth of the NEPA process we’re going through.”

Staff is in the process of finalizing a 10-year plan and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but Rodriguez said the current EIS does not address public access and use. 

According to Rodriguez, the Public Access and Use Plan will require a project-level EIS to construct and build a visitors center, for infrastructure development for parking lots and trailheads and to guide planning for future recreation programs. The VCNP must also consider the National Historic Preservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, feasibility, safety, insurance/liability, and capacity.

According to Salazar, the most pressing concern for expanding access is the need for tribal consultation. 

“We have had an initial meeting with the Jemez tribe, but we’ve not moved forward with the rest of the consultation, because we have to develop a specific plan that we would submit to them for their comments back to us on that plan.”

The third element delaying the development of an expanded access plan is the need to complete a NEPA study and necessary applications by Aug. 1 in order for Los Amigos de Valles Caldera, the trust’s friends group, to utilize a $75,000 grant from the New Mexico Environment Department for restoration of the Jaramillo Creek area. 

“So I urged the staff to have it completed so they would not lose their grant and put us in a bad situation with the Environment Department,” Salazar said. 

The board also heard an update on the search to fill the executive director position. The trust received 24 applications. Four interviews have been scheduled starting Monday. The board hopes to have a new executive director in place by the first or second week of July. 

The trust also recognized Jim Matison of WildEarth Guardians for spearheading an effort to remove obsolete barbed wire fence. In less than five years, 22-miles of fence were pulled, improving the wildlife habitat.

Watershed Program Manager Scott Compton reported that restoration efforts on the San Antonio River have resulted in a 3-degree decrease in temperature. 

Recreational staff have also implemented new programming and improved other recreational opportunities.

Most notable is the new “Family Fun & Games” Interpretive Campfire Program, offered once a month during the summer. The free programs include “stories, games and activities sure to entertain children of all ages.”

Evening fishing along the East Fork of the Jemez River or Jaramillo Creek will be offered on those evenings as well. Slots are limited, so reservations are encouraged. Call 866-382-5537. Any unclaimed slots will be open to walk-ins. Valid New Mexico fishing licenses are required and fees are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors 62+ years and free for youth 16 years of age or younger accompanied by a parent / guardian. 

The first campfire program is May 17. 

Staff has also increased the frequency and the number of vehicles allowed on the Ranch Road Rambles, a program for touring the Valles in your personal vehicle. 

The backcountry shuttle for hikers and bicyclists has also been expanded to offer 15 hikes covering  80 miles of trails.

The next board meeting is scheduled for July 11, followed by the pivotal September 24 meeting. It is at that meeting, six days prior to the end of the 14th fiscal year of the Trust, that the board will make known its decision on whether congress should continue funding the VCNP in its current form.

The enabling legislation required the trust to be financially self-sufficient by the end of its 14th fiscal year or be converted to National Forest land. The board may request a five-year extension from Congress. 

There is also a concerted effort from a number of entities, including New Mexico’s congressional delegation and the Los Alamos County Council, to convert the Valles to a national preserve under the auspices of the National Park Service.