Caldera reboots under new management

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By Roger Snodgrass

JEMEZ SPRINGS – A new team is taking the field at the Valles Caldera National Preserve.


The newly elected chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, Stephen Henry, and brand new executive director, Gary Bratcher, and senior staff took questions Friday about plans and expectations on the preserve


They said two of the five new trustees to be appointed by President Barrack Obama are about to be named, with the three remaining appointments to follow.


Bratcher and Henry were joined for a group interview by Dennis Trujillo, preserve manager and Bob Parmenter, preserve chief scientist and Dennis Rino, the administrative officer.


Bratcher was concerned about what seemed to him to be “misinformation” going out about the preserve. Among other steps he intends to take is to fill the information post, which has gone vacant for several years.


But he also wanted to contradict “impressions” that the preserve was running out of time before its Congressional mandate expires.


While various stakeholders, including some trustees have sited the impending deadline of 2015, which was established in the founding documents as the goal for financial self-sufficiency at the preserve, Bratcher pointed out a seldom-cited portion of the document that authorizes the Trust for 20 years, which would be until 2020.


Section 110 of the act states that if by 2014, the Trust “has met the goals and objectives of the comprehensive management program … but has not become financially self-sustaining,” the board can ask Congress for appropriations beyond 2015. And then, not until 2018 would a recommendation be made by the board about whether to continue or terminate.


The point was made in response to public concerns that the trust has been slow in providing greater public access and has not made sufficient progress in terms of becoming self-sustaining.


Preserve staff pointed out that the federal government purchased the old Baca Ranch west of Los Alamos in 2,000.


And then the first two years were spent setting up the trust and the administrative mechanisms, as planned by Congress.


“We know we’re not meeting the desires of everybody, and we probably never will,” said Trujillo, emphasizing the six goals that were set up for managing the preserve, some of which can be contradictory.


These include requirements “to preserve and protect,” as well operating as a “working ranch” and providing public use for recreation.


Trust chairman Henry said the Baca Ranch property probably only hosted 200-300 people a year and that number went up to 15,000 people last year, without much additional infrastructure.


“We could dribble a few more, but we’re about at the max of our dribble,” he said.


To get to the next plateau of access requires the full-scale public access and use plan that is in the hopper now, Bratcher emphasized, which in turn will provide a rationale for infrastructure needs, like a Visitors Center, and funding.


On the question of sustainability, Parmenter said the founding legislation assumed the property could pay for itself with cattle grazing, timber harvesting and hunting and fishing.


“But actually the four, six, eight or nine thousand head of cattle they had in mind, we couldn’t do because the environment has been so overgrazed and the forests were so over logged in the ’70s that they are liabilities,” he said.


Two thousand head of cattle were accommodated last summer and brought in some revenue, but the forests are still far from productive.


“We have to thin them at our own expense just to keep them from burning up,” Parmenter said.


And then the elk herd, which is the main hunting resource, is out of the preserve’s control, since it falls under the jurisdiction of the state Game and Fish Department.


“So the three main things they had in mind for income vaporized,” Parmenter concluded. “So now we’re left with recreation and we have to get some other programs to generate funds.”


Bratcher pointed out that the Alpine climate and the seasons were a limiting factor.


“People may think we have 12 months of August,” he said. “Other places are operating 12 months out of the year. We only have five or six.”


A business plan that was supposed to offer some new ideas and opportunities for additional revenues was not finished at the end of last year, as expected, but should be available soon.


The chairman, director and managers were collectively enthusiastic and insisted that issues were being addressed, that information would be communicated, work was getting done and new progress was in store.


Henry is a 25-year veteran of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish who served as Secretary of the Trust for the last two years. Bratcher hails from Artesia.


He grew up to be Secretary of Economic Development under Gary Johnson in the mid-’90s, after what was already a successful career managing international agricultural operations for United Fruit and Del Monte.


The next public meeting for the Trust has been scheduled for Albuquerque on March 12.