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Park service turns gaze on Valles Caldera

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New report focuses on feasibility of national park status

By Roger Snodgrass

The Valles Caldera National Preserve’s eligibility to become a national park has been enhanced in recent years by several important changes, according to an updated report prepared for New Mexico’s U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall.

Ironically, two of those changes have been introduced by the Valles Caldera Trust, the preserve’s governing body. The Trust would likely be dissolved should the preserve become a part of the park system, rather than the independently chartered federal corporation that it is now.

The National Park Service reconnaissance focusing on the preserve’s feasibility found a positive factor due to the fact that the 89,000-acre preserve was now federal property, having been purchased by an act of Congress in 2000. The enabling act also created the Trust as the preserve’s governing board of trustees.

Additionally, the report found that the preserve’s resources, “while compromised by certain historical activities such as grazing and logging, have improved under Trust management and pose no barrier to NPS.”

The Trust has further enriched the property by its scientific investigations and resource inventories, which have added to the understanding of the place and established a framework for planning and management.

While the current uses of the preserve are found to be consistent with other preserves and parks in the national park system, the report noted “an untapped potential for enhancing public enjoyment.”

The scenic preserve is located just west of Los Alamos County and is virtually surrounded by U.S. Forest Service property.

Tom Ribe, executive director of Caldera Action, was among those who welcomed the thrust of the park service assessment. Caldera Action with a number of allies among conservation and sportsmen’s organizations has been campaigning in recent years for a take-over by the park service of the preserve’s management.

“We’re following things pretty closely and feeling fairly optimistic about how things are going now,” Ribe said Friday. “All indications are that we can realistically expect some kind of legislative action some time this year.”

In a press release Friday, Ribe and Caldera Action emphasized the park service’s warning of a potential threat to the resource: “(T)he preserve’s legislative requirement to seek financial self-sufficiency by 2015 has generated a number of revenue enhancement proposals that call for large scale resort developments on the preserve,” one of the programs by the Trust that aroused significant opposition in the region.

“If you’re going to try to reinvent public land management, which is what Sen. Domenici wanted them to do, you better come up with some better ideas,” Ribe said. “They botched it. They didn’t even get their best minds engaged there.”

Of potential interest to the local community was a finding regarding economic impact that suggested positive economic affects would flow from a national park designation. An increase in recreational activity and visitation to the area could be expected under appropriate management by either the Park Service or the Trust, resulting in increased expenditures to the local area.

“However, it is thought that the potential visitation for the Preserve as a unit in the national park system would be higher than that under the current framework, due to access to a national audience under the NPS,” the report states.

Terry McDermott, the communications and marketing manager for the Trust, said Friday that they were not going to comment specifically on the report at this time.

“We worked with the park service,” he said. “They came out and visited the preserve. They got a look at it, but there’s more there than a couple of day trips.”

The Trust’s official position was spelled out late last year in a couple of letters to Bingaman and Tom Udall.

In the most recent letter, dated Nov. 11, Gary Bratcher, the Trust’s executive director said the preserve’s problems were not about the independent governance but rather the shortcoming of the Preservation Act, that created the preserve.

“It is time to be candid and realize that, as currently written, the Valles Caldera Preservation Act is unworkable,” Bratcher wrote. “The notion that a government corporation could within a 15 year period become financially self supporting on a limited resource base was naïve at best. Aside from the on-the-ground management needs, we have had to essentially replicate the administrative functions of a federal agency at considerable cost.”

The letter went on to offer specific amendments to the act to obtain legislative remedies for what the Trust believes would provide the most effective relief.

“We’re here to serve the people and whatever the senators decide to do next, we’re waiting for as much as anybody else,” McDermott said.

As a basis for eligibility the report found three of its four criteria met. The preserve was found to possess “nationally significant” natural and cultural resources. It was found to be a “feasible” and “suitable” addition to the system.

A fourth criterion that was not addressed was that the property needed “direct” NPS management, rather than some public or private alternative.

As the plot thickens, that question may now become the center of a new discussion on the fate of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.