Clock ticks on Valles Caldera

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With a new Congress waiting in the wings, passing the Omnibus Bill this year deemed critical

By Carol A. Clark

After jumping through 24 months of bureaucratic hoops, the management at Valles Caldera National Preserve is poised to become part of the National Park System.
Management of the 89,000-acre dormant volcano field by a troubled private sector trust has had activists campaigning for its inclusion this year, to stave off possible indefinite postponement by a new Congress January 1.
Conservationists, led by a group called “Caldera Action” have pressed New Mexico’s congressional delegation to introduce legislation to abolish the VCNP Trust and transfer the Caldera to the NPS as a reserve where hunting and fishing would continue but national park standards would apply.
The bill Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has advanced through the Senate to make the transfer lies embedded in the Omnibus Public Lands Bill of 2010. This is a bundle of individual public land bills from all over the United States. Caldera Action said it is urgent that the Omnibus bill gets time on the Senate floor for passage by Dec. 31.
Los Alamos County Council came out in support of the NPS managing the VCNP.
“The Valles Caldera Trust was a management experiment driven by a 2000 political requirement for economic self-sufficiency,” Councilor Robert Gibson said. “The Trust has tried, but will not achieve that economic goal. The insurance costs and regulatory burdens on this small federal entity are too great. While the special character of the Valle Caldera may be vulnerable to excessive use, the National Park Service is experienced in managing similar natural resources and appears to be the best potential manager going forward. There should also be some synergy and administrative efficiency from multiple adjacent Park Service units here.”
In March, the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce and the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation announced its endorsement of the proposed transfer. Kevin Holsapple, executive director of those entities wrote a letter to the council stating that the NPS “arrowhead” is a powerful brand in terms of attracting interest and visitation to the area.
“In our experience …, the involvement of the NPS in our community has far exceeded that of the other proposed management entities. Based on this experience, we believe that it is more likely that the NPS would be interested in working closely with our community for mutual benefit,” Holsapple said.
He made it clear that his organizations do not expect the Valles Caldera to become “Los Alamos-centric.” There is opportunity to collaborate on a joint visitor center in Los Alamos County that would be a natural first stop for visitors to Los Alamos and would feature not only the Valles Caldera, but also Bandelier National Monument, the Bradbury Science Museum, the Los Alamos Historical Museum, the Pajarito Environmental Education Center, area Pueblos and area recreational attractions, he said.
Including the VCNP in the National Park System is technically relatively easy because the federal government already owns the land. The government purchased the preserve 10 years ago amid a tug of war between those who felt New Mexico had too much public land and those who saw its exceptional beauty threatened by continued private ownership, ranching and possible real estate development. A trust was created to manage the preserve as a “government corporation.”
VCNP Executive Director Gary Bratcher said in regard to the transfer, “We don’t make the laws at the Valles Caldera Trust – we comply with them.”
The trust is overseen by a nine member board operating under a mandate to make the preserve financially self-sufficient by 2015.
The next public board meeting of the VCNP is 9 a.m. to noon, Dec. 3 at the Valles Caldera Trust Science and Education Center in Jemez Springs.
For information, visit www.vallescaldera.gov.