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Residents prefer park service

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Public wants ease of access

By Roger Snodgrass

Fences may make good neighbors, to paraphrase poet Robert Frost, but in the case of Los Alamos and one of its largest neighbors, the problem isn’t the fences. It’s how to get through the gates more easily.

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That was one main conclusion after a council session and a couple of public meetings over the last few weeks on the subject of managing the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

“People are very concerned about lack of access to the preserve,” said Councilor Nona Bowman, one of the councilors who participated in public meetings on March 4 and March 9. “They want to go when they want to go, not have to make reservations so far ahead,”

One of the points that came out this week in White Rock, she said, is that, “The preserve has not taken into consideration that limiting access is not treating the taxpaying public fairly.”

The comment period for advising Los Alamos County Council on taking a position about the future management of the preserve comes to an end today. The council is expected to take public comments into account before deciding on a resolution at a regular meeting on April 6.

In the public meetings the trust emphasized a wide range of attractions, including hunting, fishing, equestrian activities, facility rentals, hiking, biking, tours, long distance running, winter sports and special events.

The science program at the preserve brings in hundreds of researchers and the income from those programs more than doubled from $1.6 million to $3.5 million in the most recent reporting period.

Public access to the preserve began in 2002 during the first year of the Trust’s management authority, with 700 people visiting.

By 2008, according to the Trust’s report to Congress for 2009, that number had grown to 17,000 people.

By comparison, the nearby Bandelier National Monument, a National Park Service property established in 1916 had about 220,000 visitors in 2008.

No matter how many times the Valles Caldera Trust officials described the variety of public programs they have developed to bring people in, it only seemed to remind Los Alamos residents how much more they have been kept out or discouraged from entering by high costs and complex arrangements, according to the results of the straw polls taken during the meetings.

The Trust is a nine-member independent board that has managed the 89,000-acre preserve since it was purchased by Congress in 2000. The preserve is located next-door to the west of Los Alamos County. Last year, public dissatisfaction organized around the idea of doing away with the trust and granting responsibility for managing it within one of the major federal managers of public land.

The National Park Service under the Department of Interior and the National Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture were the most likely agencies, and of the two, the National Park Service seemed to be more appealing because of its experience as a manager of cultural properties and natural resources.

“Most of the folks appeared to be in favor of the National Park Service taking over the management,” said Councilor Ralph Phelps, who volunteered along with Bowman to monitor the listening sessions.

“Most people thought the parks service would provide better access to the public and be better and able to establish trail systems and make better use of the property for things like hiking, biking and snowshoeing in the winter.”

He said it also came out that of two kinds of park service entities, the public preferred what is called a preserve, rather than a park or monument, mainly because hunting would be allowed in the preserve rather than the park.

One of the unknowns, Phelps said, was what would actually happen if the Valles Caldera was taken over by the park service. That would still have to be defined by legislation and demonstrated in practice.

“NPS folks didn’t hide the fact that a preserve they managed would be funded by a budget that has to cover all the parks in the country,” he said.

“There’s no way to guarantee that they’re going to have enough money to build a trail or a visitors center in any particular year, but they’re going to have to govern it like the others.”

As an alternative the Trust has proposed revising the legislation under which it works to remove the requirement for it to become financially self-sufficient, among other changes.

About 70 people participated in the meeting at Fuller Lodge and another 27 people attended the White Rock meeting, according to a county report.

More information can be found at the county Web site, http://www.losalamosnm.us/.