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Caldera faces staff cuts

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Department of Agriculture cut the Valles Caldera National Preserve out of its Forest Service budget request to Congress this week, and New Mexico senators are puzzled and dismayed about it.As the preserve’s executive director and key trustees visited in Washington Wednesday, staff members said the senators would be working to regain the funds for next fiscal year, which starts in October.A spokesperson from the office of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the senator had not received any information from the Office of Management and Budget or the Forest Service to explain the Valles Caldera funding recommendation.In response to a query, his office replied, “Without federal funding, the Trust would face difficulties operating, including laying off most staff.”Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., was also surprised and very concerned.“The Bush Administration has been requesting too little every year, but Congress has been bumping up the number (to about $3.7 million this year). But we’d never expected the funding to be zeroed out,” Bingaman’s communication director Jude McCartin wrote in an e-mail, “When something is eliminated altogether, it makes it a bigger uphill battle to secure funding.”The Valles Caldera National Preserve, located just west of Los Alamos, is an 89,000-acre property purchased by the federal government in 2000 to serve as a new model for public land management.The preserve moved its administrative offices in May 2006 from Los Alamos to Jemez Springs.According to a report to Congress for last year by the preserve’s governing board, the Valles Caldera Trust, operations appeared to be progressing normally.The trust received total appropriated funds of $3,500,000 in FY2007 and spent $3,378,865. A variety of revenue generating programs brought in an additional $750,000 last year, still far short of the trust’s long-term goal to become self-supporting.The trust reported an ending balance for the period of $269,287.Among its current projects are the completion of a financial audit for the FY2004-2007 period, development of a business plan for self-sufficiency and a long-term plan for public access and use.The Associated Press reported recently that a long-standing legal dispute, involving mineral rights that were not transferred in the federal purchase, is supposed to go to court this summer.The administration has typically requested just under $1 million in the last 4 years, and Domenici’s communication director Chris Gallegos noted that Congress has consistently boosted that to between $3 and $4 million.He also pointed out that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the FY2009 Forest Service budget on Wednesday. Both senators will have an opportunity to press the issue at that time.