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Plan for Valles reveals gaps

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By Arin McKenna

Editor’s note: Jim Lane’s abrupt resignation as director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish raises the question of whether the department will continue its bid to transfer ownership of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the state. R.J. Kirkpatrick, who has been designated acting director, presented the plan to the Game and Fish Commission during an Aug. 22 meeting.

As part of the Los Alamos Monitor’s continuing series regarding the jurisdiction of the preserve, here are additional issues raised by the plan the Game and Fish Department put forth for the preserve. The complete plan and the first article about the proposal (“Game and Fish makes bid for Valles Caldera,” Sept. 7, 2013) are accessible at LAMonitor.com.

One of the biggest questions raised by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish proposal to transfer the Valles Caldera National Preserve to state ownership under the management of Game and Fish is how the state would pay for the property.

The plan gives no indication of how the state would raise the estimated $101 million it would take to purchase the preserve, and it seems unlikely that Congress would transfer management of federal lands to a state agency.
Even if Congress were to consider such a transfer, the plan as proposed could be illegal under provisions of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was used in the purchase of the Valles Caldera.

The fund is for “preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility to all citizens of the United States of America” for recreational purposes. The emphasis on activities such as grazing and logging and the proposal to limit access may violate the fund’s mandate.

“You can’t really take Land and Water Conservation funded federal land and turn it into cow pasture or turn it over to the state,” said Caldera Action Treasurer Monique Schoustra.

During the State Game Commission’s Aug. 22 meeting, Kent Salazar, chair of the preserve’s Board of Trustees, reminded the commission of the range of resources that must be protected, monitored and managed in the preserve: 5,000 prehistoric and historic sites, habitat for numerous wildlife species and relationships with nine local tribes and protection of their sacred sites.

Compliance with federal regulations such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act also requires staff time and resources.

Administering those myriad resources explains the need for 28 full time staff and seasonal employees and an annual budget of approximately $3 million. The Game and Fish proposal questions the need for that level of staffing and funding, but does not specify what it would eliminate and how it would maintain an adequate level of protection for the preserve’s resources.

Salazar also advocated for continuing the preserve’s focus on science and educational programs.

Senate Bill 285, which would transfer the preserve to National Park Service management, makes provisions for that. The state’s plan includes no such provisions, other than to charge universities and research institutions for access to conduct research. And according to Caldera Action Executive Director Tom Ribe, the Game and Fish department has been reducing science and education programs already offered by the department.

The “use of volunteers” is cited as a means to “reduce staffing and management costs,” yet there is no indication of how volunteer hours could be increased enough to offset those. The trust’s 2012 figures indicate that volunteers contributed a record 11,377 hours, offsetting $247,905 of private sector costs.

Game and Fish’s record on managing public lands as well as hunting permits in the Caldera also calls into question the department’s ability to provide competent management and equitable access.

“We have been trying for years to get state parks to take over the Game and Fish lands up in Pecos Canyon, because it’s just a disaster there. There’s garbage all over, people just drive all over the place, including in the river,” Ribe said.

“If you want to look at incompetently run lands, look at the lands that are run by Game and Fish, per se, lands where they have management responsibilities. Not lands they manage game and fish on, but lands that they actually own. They’re terrible disasters.”

Past history also suggests that Game and Fish could try to exempt the Valles from state lottery requirements so bull elk licenses could be sold or auctioned for $10,000 or more.

The department approved such a practice early in the preserve’s history, but it was stopped when State Attorney General Patricia A. Madrid rendered an opinion that the auctions violated New Mexico Game and Fish regulations.

According to testimony before the state legislature, Game and Fish leadership later suggested to the Valles’ Board of Trustees that they should advocate for legislation to reinstate the practice. That resulting House Bill 11, introduced in 2009, would have exempted 25 percent of the Caldera’s bull elk licenses from complying with state regulations in order to provide additional revenues for preserve. The bill passed the house but failed in the Senate.

Salazar asked the State Game and Fish Commission to consider what was at stake as it considered the various proposals for management of the preserve.

“First of all, it’s a gem. It’s unlike any other area, the Valles Vidal or any other place in the state. It’s absolutely a gem,” Salazar said.

“My staff does an excellent job managing a very complex, broad program. The only problem I have with R.J.’s (Kirkpatrick, assistant director of Game and Fish) presentation is that your primary concern is wildlife. That’s what you’re all about. You’re not a land management agency.

“R.J. says we have properties. I know you have properties, but they’re managed for wildlife. We have properties that have historic sites, geological wonders that are incredible, we have geological formations, and we have the caldera itself. So it’s a very unique place.

“I cannot comment on pending legislation, but I just want you to know it’s a very unique place. It has a myriad of programs, and when you think you can just come in and run it for cattle and wildlife, you’re overlooking what it is. It’s a tremendous program it’s an incredible place, and remember that.”