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Plant society forum finds fault with Caldera trust

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By Roger Snodgrass

ALBUQUERQUE – The New Mexico Native Plant Society might sound like an unlikely place for a rebellion. But two of the four speakers at a meeting of the Albuquerque chapter this week called for an overthrow and a third said it was time for people to stand up and say they were not going to take it any more.

The object of their criticism was not the taxonomy of desert wildflowers, but rather the system of governance of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the 89,000-acre experiment in public land.

The preserve frequently attracts concerns from people around the state, but these were unusually substantial and direct, and they set the stage for a rare public meeting of the preserve’s governing board this week in neighboring Los Alamos.

Tom Ribe, president of the watchdog nonprofit organization Caldera Action, Dorothy Hoard, a Los Alamos author and long-time community servant and public land activist, and Chick Keller, a retired physicist from Los Alamos and former president of NMNPS, all called for fundamental change in the Valles Caldera’s direction.

The preserve’s Chief Scientist Bob Parmenter was the other speaker, who provided an initial overview and listened to a barrage of complaints that were not at all aimed at him.

“Virtually everything they’ve said is just about right,” he said after the initial volleys, but added the trust was merely following the orders that came down from Congress.

“They told us the game was football and my colleagues want to change the game to baseball.”

He said if Congress changes the game to baseball, the trust could play that, too.

Angles of dissent

With dissatisfaction intensifying about the preserve, some of the complaints this week were not entirely new.

But the sustained analysis was new and the airing of serious alternatives has not found a place on the preserve’s agenda in recent years.

Caldera Action has been calling with increasing emphasis on the dissolution of the independent trust and the establishment of a separate entity within one of the existing systems of federal land management, like the Park Service.

Much of the blame was heaped on the board of trustees, the nine-member trust, who serve as volunteers with staggered four-year terms.

“Public land management is being reinvented by people who are generally unqualified to do that,” Ribe said, noting that the current executive director has no experience in public land management and that there are no supervisors other than Congress, “which understandably has its attention elsewhere.”

The trust, he said, has become “the brainchild of the sagebrush rebellion” of the 1980s. That was a Reagan-era revolt by the livestock, timber and mining interests against federal interference.

“They have worked for years to find a way to take apart our system of public lands,” Ribe said.

The trust’s current emphasis on private, money-making concessions may provide more access but at a higher cost, he said, and higher fees means catering to wealthier people who can afford to pay them.

He said Caldera Action is working on a national legislative proposal that will eliminate the trust and turn the property over to professional managers in the National Park Service, while maintaining the property’s independent character.

“We see such deep flaws, we don’t think we can tweak it,” he said. “And we don’t want to wait five years or 11 years.”

For two decades Hoard has been devoted to an ambitious effort to bring about an 80-mile Valles Caldera rim trail that will circumnavigate the preserve and provide majestic 360-degree views of the preserve and the surrounding area.

Currently, she said, the Forest Service has the views and the preserve has the access. Nothing has come of her efforts.

Hoard dug into the political conflict inherent in a board made up of political appointees.

She described the founding board, appointed by President Clinton as being more conservationist in orientation while the Bush appointees were more “development-oriented.”

There are currently only four appointed trustees and two ex-officio trustees, enough for a quorum, but three Obama appointees are expected to be named this summer.

Hoard expected the Obama appointees could in their turn throw out everything the Bush appointees had done.

She said one day an employee at the preserve told her he could no longer help her on her Rim Trail proposal, because the entire staff was being devoted to grazing.

The matter of livestock grazing has been a polarizing issue around which many of the conflicts between money-making and public use have revolved.

“We feel the time has arrived to start complaining,” she said. “Los Alamos is a very vocal town and people are really peeved.”

Divide hikers, gawkers

Keller’s take on the problem of access was to accept the fact that many people would like to have an experience at the preserve, but most would not go any farther than a Visitor’s Center and a few more would like to see a little deeper inside.

“You’ve got to pave the road,” he said pointing to the main road into the heart of the preserve. “That way people will do the least damage because people will not get out of their cars.”

But he also argued against the trust’s current money-making ambitions and the idea that the preserve has to pay for itself.

“That means that only the rich folks get to use it,” he said.

He thought more access could be accommodated without mutual interference by the various visitors with better zoning, paving the central corridor and installing interpretive kiosks, but leaving large areas that could be devoted to quieter pursuits.

Every little bit helps

On the revenue question, Parmenter responded, “There is a fundamental economic feeling in the country that has to be addressed.”

The preserve is currently about 17 percent in terms of recovering its costs, he said, but with a few relatively small investments, it could begin to recover a little more each year of the remaining $2.5 million of administrative expenses.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve Board of Trustees meets in Los Alamos this week.

Among other matters, the board is expected to announce the next phase in its process for developing a public access and use program.

Critics have long complained, and it was heard again at the meeting in Albuquerque, that the trust conducts its business and makes decisions during day-long working sessions and then simply reports the results in a potted meeting afterward.