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Valles Caldera: Expanded access requires measured approach

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Preserve > Unstructured foot traffic unlikely in 2014

By Arin McKenna

The attempt by the Valles Caldera National Preserve Board of Trustees to expand access has run up against the realities of regulations and resources.
The board voted last September to grant visitors the “right to unstructured foot traffic through all areas of the preserve to allow for wandering and exploration. ... ”
At the trust’s December meeting, staff reported on some of the obstacles to implementing that plan. Stewardship Division Director Maria Rodriguez and other staff have since provided the Los Alamos Monitor with a detailed explanation.
According to Rodriguez, the preserves’ mandate is very clear.
“Laws that guide decision-making on federal land (National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act) require us to consider the outcomes of our actions before we make decisions or implement those actions,” Rodriguez said. “Changes in our programs also have to be reviewed under our liability insurance, etc.”
“Right now, we pretty much follow the ‘leave no trace principle,’ where hiking and driving and all those things take place on trails, as well as the rest of the leave no trace principles,” Rodriguez said. “So when we look at a substantive change to our programs, for example, changing how people access the preserve, and we move away from hiking on trails, that is a substantive change.”
According to Rodriguez, granting open access would involve three types of actions identified by NEPA that require an environmental assessment:
• Establishing or substantively revising a program or policy for the permitting of seasonal or short-term backcountry recreation or special use actions which could potentially create minor ground disturbance.
• Reconstruction, repair and use of roadways and trails, and construction of minor trail segments within the preserve which are not anticipated to significantly alter the magnitude and frequency of anticipated use.
• Closures of areas for resource protection for more than one year.
The preserve has already completed the Public Access and Use Plan, which is the first phase (the programmatic level) under NEPA procedures. That study determined the primary point-of-access and location of the visitor center.
The study also determined that motorized access into the preserve would continue to be primarily by shuttle, and that additional planning was required to develop an improved road system with shuttle shops, trail heads and recreational amenities such as rest rooms.
“And the open, unstructured access just wasn’t a part of that plan at all. It’s just something that’s new, and we haven’t really scoped that,” Rodriguez said.
Planning for recreational infrastructure is already under way, with the Transportation, Recreation, and Infrastructure Plan.
“We have been looking at the preserve as a whole and assessing the suitability of different areas of the preserve to support various types of recreational activities (more developed and less structured and developed) as well as considering the type of infrastructure needed and the level of investment required,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez noted that during the first study, public input about access was mixed. Some favored more open access while others argued against it.
Although planning for increased access is under way, the process is slow. Public comment on the Transportation, Recreation, and Infrastructure Plan will open in July. The study is scheduled for completion by the end of November.
Once the study is complete, staff will conduct environmental assessments of the various recommendations. According to Dave Davis, VCNP’s landscape architect/recreation planner, environmental assessments focus on changes that result in a FONSI (finding of no significant impact).
Those assessments can take anywhere from a week to months, and move the plan into the implementation phase. Implementation may involve construction of recreation infrastructure such as trailheads.
Changes that could have significant impact would require an environmental impact study, which is an expensive and lengthy process.
Tribal and cultural preservation concerns are some of the issues that must be addressed in an environmental assessment.
“The landscape is actually used today by a number of pueblos, Jemez and Zia in particular,” said Bob Parmenter, director of VCNP’s Science Services Division. “We have to integrate trail use with their spiritual and cultural practices, and reduce the potential for accidental or intentional damage to those sites.”
One of the biggest concerns about expanding access is the potential for irreparable losses to the Valles’ rich archeological record.
“We’re well aware of how extraordinary it is that there are so many surface artifacts out here. So we’ve focused on learning as much as we can from the surface before the influx of people change that,” said Ana Steffen, VCNP’s cultural resources coordinator. “Because people will collect surface artifacts and change what we can learn. The unusual, extraordinary and special things will go away quickly.”
Steffen cited Bandelier National Monument as an example of that.
“Before people started visiting it there would have been pottery shards and hundreds and thousands of artifacts lying over the surface that slowly go away,” Steffen said.
“We chose to try to control the impacts here by assessing what the frequency, duration and intensity of public impact would be, and restricting access. So open access will require some significant changes in management.”
Parmenter noted that at least one hurdle should be easy to clear.
“There is no biological reason not to have open access. There is not a big threat to wildlife or endangered species.”
Once the plan is complete, some of its elements could be implemented quickly.
“We would open up new areas as the construction is completed, not keep everything shut and open it all at once,” Parmenter said. “I’m relatively confident that we’ll see new trails opening up in 2015. It may take a couple of years to complete the entire plan. But it will not be put off until 2020.”
Parmenter noted that VCNP has been opening new trails every year as archeological studies are completed. According to Rodriguez, the preserve now offers 50 miles of hiking on 15 trails, as well as 80 miles of equestrian and mountain biking trails.
“It is challenging to meet that basic purpose of expanding access and use while protecting resources,” Rodriguez said. “We do that by really planning what our action is and then planning a budget that allows us.
“We recognize that people want a different kind of access than is available now, and we’re trying to create new opportunities for public access and use.”
“We’re trying as hard as we can to follow federal law that protects these landscapes that are important and valued by the American people, and at the same time provide the public with reasonable access and enjoyment of the preserve,” Davis said.