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A meeting of the Valles Caldera National Preserve Board of Trustees ended with a bang on Wednesday when Bandelier National Park Superintendent Jason Lott introduced three motions to provide greater access to the public. All three motions passed unanimously.
The first motion caused the greatest stir and will require considerable work by preserve staff to implement it.
That motion will grant visitors the "right to unstructured foot traffic through all areas of the preserve to allow for wandering and exploration, and that this be optimally facilitated by the Valles Caldera staff."
The motion authorizes an access fee of no more than $10 per day per person, and also allows for lawful closures of sensitive areas, to be managed by staff with the approval of the chair and notification of the entire board.
"The feeling of the board is that having more public access is something we're very committed to, and that we'd like to see happen on the preserve and in a much more robust way," said Vice Chair Karyn Stockdale.
The motion sparked considerable discussion among the board and members of the public, especially Lott's proposal that the motion go into effect immediately.
That raised issues about whether 90 percent of the preserve would continue to be off limits to the general public during hunting season.
"I don't think hiking and hunting are at odds, personally," Lott responded. Tom Jervis, president of Caldera Action, also noted that no other public lands have those types of restrictions.
The board decided that trying to implement this before the current hunting season, which starts Oct. 5, was untenable. The new policy will go into effect Dec. 3, the day after hunting season closes. Staff was directed to reassess this policy before next year.
There were also concerns that this would mean unrestricted vehicle access. Staff was directed to work toward establishing additional parking areas so hikers would have access without an additional $10 fee for van drop off, but parking during initial implementation will be at the visitor staging area only.
Hunters were concerned this policy could disturb both elk hunting and calving season. Staff was directed to report back on whatever closures might be necessary in that regard.
Marie Rodriguez, director of planning and natural resources division, expressed concerns that this policy would require an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"In my discussions with our compliance staff and our solicitor, their interpretation of NEPA is that there are some very heavy exclusions for just walking around. The place belongs to the people. Let them go look at it," Lott responded. "If you do see impacts, that is time for us as a federal agency to take action if it's warranted. But having people go out there and walk around should not be an issue."
Lott suggested that any legal opinion regarding this should be issued by an attorney.
A member of the public was concerned about damage to public lands due to lack of enforcement. The preserve has only one half-time law enforcement officer.
Lott responded that although Bandelier has four officers, very little of their time is devoted to land access violations. Despite open access, the park has few issues in that regard.
The trust's Executive Director Dennis Trujillo noted that the National Forest Service is in charge of closures at the preserve, and that any change in policy regarding closures would have to go through them.
Despite the concerns raised, the board voted unanimously for the amended motion, directing staff to report back on the issues involved in implementing the new policy at the December board meeting (date TBD).
"There are a lot of reasons why the caldera seems so locked up, and we could probably put a dozen of them up on the list of why various things have been closed, what the ramifications are," Stockdale said. "I think the challenge, and one that continues to go too much at a snail's pace is, how do you make sure that the public still knows that this is public land and something they can enjoy freely?"
Lott's next motion exempts all children 16 years and younger (accompanied by an adult) from fees for fishing, hiking and foot access. They would still be required to pay for any state licenses or van access to remote areas.
"I think the board feels that it's extremely important to develop the next generation of people who would use the preserve and be constituents for supporting the existence of the preserve," board member Melissa Savage said.
Current fees for children are $12 for fishing during the week and $20 on weekends. Hiking from the staging area is $5.
"I think we'll still get families going out, but it encourages more youth participation in that families will bring their kids," Chair Kent Salazar said. "Instead of fishing outside on the East Fork, they'll actually come into the preserve and fish within our system."
Lott's third motion limits fishing fees to no more than $15 per person per day. The current fee is $15 during the week and $25 on weekends.
"We're trying to make the preserve more accessible by other groups, particularly those in a lower economic bracket, who want to be able to take their kids fishing at a very reasonable cost," Lott said.
The last two motions will go into effect as soon as staff can change its literature and website information.
Staff was directed to report back on the success and impact of the new policies at every board meeting.