Valles Caldera EIS finalized

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Park access: Visitor Center with shuttle system is preferred option

By Arin McKenna

Valles Caldera National Monument has passed a milestone. The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Public Access and Use Plan has been released.

The draft EIS offered six alternatives for locating a new visitor center and providing access either through shuttles or private vehicles. The goal was to expand visitor access while preserving the natural and cultural resources of the preserve. One option would have reduced access to the preserve.

The Valles Caldera Trust received 125 comments over a 60-day period. The preferred option was Alternative 3A: Entrada del Valle Visitor Center with primary access via a shuttle system. Other options for the visitor center included the Banco Bonito area in the southwestern part of the preserve and a new Vista del Valle Visitor Center, located south of N.M.4 below Rabbit Mountain.

The FEIS was posted on the Federal Register Citations Nov. 2. Once the trust’s Executive Director Dennis Trujillo signs the statement — following a 30-day waiting period — the FEIS becomes the plan of record, guiding the future development of the preserve.

The Entrada del Valle is located just within the entrance to the preserve. This location offers opportunities for wildlife viewing and easy access to the East Fork of the Jemez River and South Mountain. Planned services and amenities include a theater, a main exhibit hall, a temporary exhibit hall, classroom/meeting space, retail and food service space and indoor/outdoor observation decks.

“This is a first step. We have a long way to go, but we’re dedicated to get it done,” Valles Caldera Trust Board Chair Kent Salazar said. “Part of it is the siting for our visitor center. We have to look at site planning for the proposed site, engineering and design and planning for future program elements, such as hiking and biking, more access for tourists and how they will tie into that area.”

The FEIS proposes including overlooks, picnic areas, staging for groups and special events and interpretive sites at the visitor center, with trails to the Jemez River, South Mountain and other areas.

The trust’s next major challenge is raising money to implement those plans. The trust is eligible not only for federal funding but for grants and private donations from outside sources.

“With the federal budget as tight as it is, it’s a tough situation, but I think that we will continue to move forward and get this all resolved,” Salazar said.

Director of Natural Resources Marie Rodriguez, who led the team that developed the EIS, said that the largest sources of federal funding could be on hold — at least temporarily — for another reason.

Under the legislation creating the preserve, the U.S. Forest Service is scheduled take over management in 2020 if financial self-sufficiency has not been achieved.

Senator Jeff Bingaman has introduced SB 564, the Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act, which would transfer responsibility for the preserve to the National Park Service. NPS currently manages 18 other preserves.

The bill has been held up — along with 50 other bills — by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (I-Alaska) in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Bingaman chairs the committee, and is currently working with Murkowski to draft a bill acceptable to all parties.

“The bill is still an active bill, so it could come up this session,” Rodriguez said. “If it’s not enacted, the process would have to start all over.”

Until the issue of whether the preserve will be under NFS or NPS management is decided, neither agency is likely to commit funds to the project, but Rodriguez said funds should be forthcoming once jurisdiction is decided.

In the meantime, staff and the trust will pursue other funding sources.

“We can raise money through donations, we can fundraise, we can seek grants,” Rodriguez said.  “We’re eligible for a variety of grants, such as economic development and transportation grants. We’ve already put in for a grant for a solar powered shuttle system through an Alternative Transportation in the Parks and Public Lands grant.”

With the FEIS in place other funding opportunities are more readily available.

“When grants come up, you usually have a 60- to 90-day period to apply, and they want to see a plan,” Rodriguez said. “So by having a plan and design in place we can do that. We’re ‘shovel ready,’ so to speak.”

Salazar expects the plan will be phased is gradually as funding becomes available, but is confident it will be implemented.

“I’m so happy that we have saved this gem, not only for New Mexico but for the United States. It’s really quite a spectacular place,” Salazar said. “And I hope that it’s a big economic boon for New Mexico and all the communities around it, when people start coming here more and more to view this wonderful place.

“This belongs not only to the citizens of New Mexico, it belongs to everybody. I think that moving forward with a facility like this is really important, that we make sure that we keep progressing forward and getting this ready to go. I really want to make this a gem and model for the United States.”