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GAO: Trust lags in effort to become self-sustaining

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Congressional attention is needed

By Roger Snodgrass

The Valles Caldera Trust is at least five years behind a timetable set in 2004 to become financially self-sustaining.

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A congressional report by the Government Accountability Office released Friday found that the preserve’s governing board still hasn’t developed an adequate management plan for its role as a federal corporation.

While acknowledging many accomplishments including rehabilitating roads and buildings, creating a vibrant science program, continuously expanding recreational opportunities and managing a series of grazing experiments, GAO concluded that the trust has been unable to get a handle on how it’s going to pay for itself, the one issue the trust officials consider their biggest challenge.

“We find your assessment to be accurate,” wrote Trust Chairman Stephen E. Henry in introducing an appendix of six additional pages of comments on behalf of the board.

Among other remarks, Henry promised to do something about an effective management plan.

“(T)here is no excuse for these plans and controls to be lacking,” he added.

To measure progress, the GAO evaluation used the trust’s 2004 report to Congress, in which the officials laid out the next two five-year plans, starting with completing a National Environmental Policy Act analyses for developing a system of road and trails and getting started on building a basic interpretive center and a science and education facility.

But, five years later, only the

science and grazing programs at the preserve have moved into phase two. If the current public use and access is completed on its current schedule in mid-2010, recreation can begin to move into phase two as well.

“Thus, at the close of fiscal year 2009, the Trust continued to work mostly on phase one of its programs and activities — at least five  years behind its anticipated schedule,” GAO reported.

Recreation, infrastructure and forest management are still expected to be in phase one, with only another five years to go before Congress, according to the founding legislation, could decide to stop appropriating money and possibly let the property default to the Forest Service.

GAO asked current and previous board members and staff to explain the problem and were told that turnover – both of trustees and staff – were significant contributing factors.

Nine months into the Obama administration, the board is still awaiting the new appointees and while short of a full board by three trustees, similar to experiences during the Bush administration. Additionally, there have been four executive directors in the eight years since the trust began managing the preserve.

Henry said the board turnover was built into the legislation. With seven trustees with different specializations interpreting “a vague piece of legislation containing dueling goals and objectives, discord can result,” he said. “Staff turnover would be an expected result.

Henry’s letter noted that New Mexico’s two Democratic senators have expressed doubts about whether the preserve can continue in its current form and have requested a study from the National Park Service about making the preserve an independent unit of that agency.

Both sides appear to agree on where to look for relief in the expectation that the preserve will be able to sustain itself within the current timeframe.

GAO recommends the chairman and the executive director work with Congress to seek legal remedies.

Henry wrote, “It is ultimately up to the Congress to give this experiment in public enterprise a chance to succeed. If the Act is made functional the Trust has more to offer than any other form of management.”