Senators open options for Valles Caldera

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By Roger Snodgrass

New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators are exploring new options for administering the Valles Caldera National Preserve. They have also made known their recommendations for three open board positions on the governing Valles Caldera Trust.

Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both Democrats, announced last week that they had written to the Acting Director of the Park Service, Daniel Wenk, asking that agency to “assess the potential for including the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the National Park System.”

The schedule for what is called “a reconnaissance study,” the senators suggested, would be conducted over the next few months, “to allow us to review potential management options later this year.”

A second audit of the preserve by the Government Accountability Office is scheduled for publication in the September-October time frame, which is expected to provide additional perspective on the effectiveness of the preserve’s management.

Moving the VCNP under the National Park Service is a change that has been advocated by some critics of the current system of governance, a self-governing corporation directed by an independent board of directors.

The senators noted that the park service has a category of land management known as a preserve, which could be managed like a national park, but would allow for hunting.

“As we near the midway point of the Trust’s authorization, we believe it would be useful to consider potential future management options to best provide for the protection of the Preserve’s remarkable resources,” the Senators wrote in a joint letter.

The Trust was purchased by the Federal government in 2000 and given a 20-year charter with various reviews and potential decision points for continuing or changing course.

The board is composed of seven appointees who serve on staggered four-year terms and two ex officio members, one from the Forest Service and one from the National Park Service Bandelier National Monument.

Bingaman’s office was asked last week, if the senator had recommended trustees to fill three vacancies on the board. The senator’s staff provided a letter written to President Obama at the end of March, recommending three candidates.

The list includes Ray Powell, former Democratic state land commissioner, who served as the second executive director of the preserve; Melissa Savage, director of the Four Corners Institute in Santa Fe, a non-profit group that advises communities on environmental restoration and conducts research in forest dynamics of the southwest; and Ken Smith, an associate professor of Forestry and Geology at the University of the South (Tennessee) and a recent director of New Mexico’s Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at Highlands University in Las Vegas.

Ongoing programs at the Valles Caldera National Preserve include a number of recreational programs for summer and winter, a summer grazing program this year in partnership with New Mexico State University, and an elaborate set of collaborations in environmental and biological research.

In a recent public meeting, the Trust announced its intention to begin a public process for developing a program for public use and access on the preserve.

Terry McDermott, communications and marketing director for the preserve said Monday that the public participation phase of the program which was scheduled to begin next week has been delayed until next month because of technical problems.

He said preserve officials were told about the park service study last week during a visit to Washington.

“We’ll see what the (park service) study comes up with,” he said.  “Bottom line, we’re more than happy to help.”

Caldera Action, a watchdog group consisting of a number of environmental organizations, regards the request for a “reconnaissance” study as a positive step.

“Looking at options from a national level, the park service service stands out,” said Tom Ribe, president of the Caldera Action Board of Directors, who has been a leading advocate for changing the preserve’s form of management. “They don’t just do national parks; they also manage national recreational areas and national preserves, where they can vary their approach. It’s not all like Bandelier.”

In an interview on KUNM-TV last week, Udall said it has not been easy for the preserve to function under its current structure.

“They have to balance some difficult concepts in the law,” he said. “First of all we tell them in the law to protect the ecological integrity of the area – do research, do the very best science – but also we tell them you’ve got to earn some money and by a certain date you have to be self supporting and those two things are in conflict.”

He said over the years the trust has been a hard-working group of individuals, but that the current structure is still contingent and doesn’t have the permanent status that the preserve needs.