Caldera NPS bill gains support

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By Arin McKenna

Second in a series

With the dissolution of the current management model for the Valles Caldera National Preserve looming, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has passed a bill that would recreate VCNP as a preserve managed by the National Park Service.

The bill mandates that the Secretary of the Interior “shall permit hunting and fishing” within the preserve. That language has won the support of groups such as the New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF), Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) and Trout Unlimited.

“We’re very supportive of this legislation,” said NMWF Executive Director Jeremy Vesbach. “We’ve looked at the other models. The NPS preserve model has been proven. They’ve upheld hunting and fishing on other preserves.”

A joint press release issued by those groups reads, “The National Preserve model was created specifically for places like Valles Caldera that have outstanding natural and cultural resource values, extremely high visitor demand and where hunting and fishing must be allowed.”

The legislation which created the Valles Caldera requires it to be financially self-supporting by 2015, with a possible extension to 2020. If the trust fails to achieve that goal, the preserve would automatically transfer to management under the National Forest Service.

The VCNP Board of Trustees and staff have labored to reach that goal, but there is mounting evidence that the model is a failure. And the mandate to achieve self-sufficiency is problematic.

“This belongs to everybody, and while we are charged with protecting and preserving the land, we’re also charged with providing access to the public,” said VCNP Board Chair Kent Salazar “By having to charge exorbitant fees for hunting and fishing and different activities, it limits those who can participate in those activities.”

New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who introduced the bill, believe the NPS preserve model addresses those concerns, but New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Director Jim Lane, the Game and Fish Commission and national sportsmen’s organizations have raised fears about this approach.

A statement issued by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) and signed by 25 national organizations states that “the language gives the Administration too much discretion that could easily result in the drastic reduction or elimination of hunting on the VCNP. This concern is coupled to the fact that NPS policy and procedures generally try to minimize or eliminate hunting on lands they manage.”

Heinrich, Udall and many New Mexico organizations believe the preserve model will actually provide better access. Language protecting hunting and fishing access has been strengthened since the legislation was first introduced in 2010.

“As an avid hunter, expanding hunting opportunities for the public is one of the primary reasons I’m supporting this proposal,” Heinrich said. “The preserve model ensures that hunting and fishing remain central activities for the public to enjoy, and NPS management will help balance expanded public access with conserving the natural and cultural resources found in the area.”

Udall issued a similar statement through spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm.

“The Valles Caldera has some of the best hunting and fishing in the West, and it’s critical that we ensure sportsmen can continue to have access to this spectacular resource. That’s why we’ve welcomed and received input from sportsmen’s groups and New Mexico Game and Fish over several years on this proposal, which increases access for everyone. “

The Los Alamos County Council, the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, the Village of Jemez Springs and a wide range of sportsmen’s groups around New Mexico also championed the legislation.

“I have worked over the last several years since the legislation was introduced,” said Oscar Simpson, state chair for BHA. “I went to various gun shows and got the sportsmen to sign letters and petitions. So there’s widespread and continued support.”

Although the Valles Caldera Board of Trustees has not taken a position on the issue, Chair Kent Salazar supports the legislation.

“The trust board is charged, as is our staff, with complying with the legislation that was passed by Congress that makes this a self-sustaining Federal trust property. That’s our job, to meet those goals,” Salazar said.

“But if you ask me personally how I feel about the senator’s bill, I’m behind it.

“The senators have taken years of testimony and input. One of the concerns was maintaining hunting and fishing and sportsman activities access. They’ve looked at what’s wrong with the models that people have issues with, and they’ve addressed those. I think our senators have done a marvelous job of listening to the public, and addressing all their concerns.”

Salazar is hopeful that NPS would carry on one of the trust’s successes–a “science based adaptable management that is a model for how public land should be maintained.”

Opposing groups are advocating for NFS management.

The RMEF statement describes the Valles Caldera as “an island surrounded almost entirely by the Santa Fe National Forest.” It goes on to say, “It does not seem prudent to create yet another jurisdictional boundary for this important wildlife habitat that would only serve to complicate management of wildlife and other natural resources.”

The statement ignores the fact that although the trust’s funding is channeled through the NFS, the preserve is currently managed as an independent entity.

When RMEF Director of Communications Mark Holyoak was questioned about the group’s opposition, he offered no evidence of restricted hunting at national preserves but instead held up the Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 as an example of NPS’s poor forest management.

Many local groups take a different stance. In a letter urging New Mexico’s congressional delegation to pass S.285, NMWF, BHA and Trout Unlimited contend that NFS will be unable to maintain “science and education programs, visitor management or adequate law enforcement levels necessary to ensure this jewel of our public lands remains a high quality hunting and fishing experience.”

“As a hunting group we (NMWF) use the forests a lot, and we want to see the forest service strong. But the truth is they just don’t have the resources available to keep managing the Valles Caldera as the special place it is,” Vesbach said.

“For the Forest Service to run it, they’d have to earmark special funds. And earmarks just are not sustainable. That’s a situation we’re in now. If congress and our delegation have to fight for a $3.6 million dollar earmark every year (appropriated budgets were actually $3.2 million to 3.5 million in recent years), that’s in danger every year. It typically gets zeroed out by the administration and then they have fight to bring it back up.

“And there are some good things I think everybody wants to see continue, like the science program. The legislation provides for that. And the grazing program is better than typical public lands, and the legislation allows that flexibility to continue grazing management.”

Simpson spelled out the bottom line for many supporters.

“Basically it’s public land that needs to be opened up, and I and my organization think the park service is the best way to manage this and to protect the resource and the water shed.”