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VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE (AP) — Visitors line the highway, most peering through binoculars, as they strain to get a better look at dozens of brown specks in the distance.
The specks — members of Valles Caldera National Preserve’s infamous elk herd — are munching in green pastures that stretch for miles. They are surrounded by mountain peaks blanketed with ponderosa pine, spruce and fir trees.
The expansive preserve is a sight to behold, but caretakers say Valles Caldera’s forests, grasslands and wetlands are not as healthy as they look. Nearly a decade of research has provided them with statistics to say so, and now they have developed a 10-year plan to get the preserve back into shape by using everything from prescribed fire and thinning to weed control and wetland restoration.
The trust has created a special Web site that allows the public to review the restoration and management plan and related documents. The public has until Sept. 29 to comment on the plan.
Marie Rodriguez, natural resources coordinator for the Valles Caldera Trust, which manages the preserve, considers it an understatement to say the area’s ecosystems are not up to snuff.
Soon after the federal government bought the 89,000-acre former cattle ranch in 2000, the trust began taking inventory of its trees, insects, wildlife, roads, soils and streams.
The information shows nearly all of the preserve’s forests — 95 percent — fall short of what scientists call a reference condition. That means the forests are in no shape to withstand attacks by insects, variations in climate or the ravages of fire.