Valles Caldera reports progress and missed goals

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By Roger Snodgrass

Don’t panic. The grace period for the Valles Caldera National Preserve is not half over, it’s half begun.


This in paraphrase is what the preserve’s new executive director had to say about the organization’s report to Congress on its progress last year.


“What the trust has been striving to do is to keep on the straight and narrow with the mandates they have by law,” Gary Bratcher said in a telephone call Thursday.


“The process is slow and it has taken a while to get there. But things are going faster.”


Preparing the way for future projects and efficiencies is the hint of progress noted by the report, along with an expanded, seven-day-a-week accessibility for recreational and educational visitors during the summer.


More visitors, more science and $1.6 million in extramural funding for research activities were also highlighted.


On the deficiency side, the report noted that the environmental condition of the preserve, as it has been steadily better understood, has left both forest and rangeland resources “in as great, if not greater, need of restoration as to other public lands in the west.”


The warning is that the public should not count on renewable timber resources to contribute to the goal of financial sustainability, expected by Congress before July 25, 2015.


The preserve’s operating costs in the last six years have averaged $3.5 million annually, much more than the preserve’s ordinary appropriation or slowly growing earned revenues combined.


The gap has been filled by earmarks and other special appropriations that can’t be counted on from year to year. Former President Bush’s budget submitted early last year zeroed out funding for the preserve.


More acute financial pressures, the trust reported to Congress, have to do with a doubling of costs for their liability insurance.


Additionally, costs for meeting American Disability Act requirements and other infrastructure investments may add from $1.5 million to $5 million a year over the next decade.


Acknowledging that he’s been on the job for all of three weeks so far, Bratcher said that fears about the health and sustainability of the Valles Caldera Trust are premature. The trust is the nine-member governing board for the 89,000-acre experiment in public land management.


Earlier this year the board seemed focused on developing a business plan that might take some pressure off the budget, but the business plan was not accepted and was one of many goals that the trust reported as incomplete at the end of the year, but within view.


“When I see a business plan I think more of a plan that’s going to go out and identify a lot of alternatives and opportunities based on what’s been done elsewhere,” Bratcher said, brushing aside the administrative delay.


“Once we get the reporting requirements and paperwork finished and can start making capital improvements, I think we’ll see a lot of opportunities. You’ll see a lot of people coming in and we’ll have the infrastructure to handle them.


A long overdue financial audit for the four years from 2004-2007, a serious omission identified by a Government Accountability Office, missed completion for the year, although it was said to be available by the end of this month, with the 2008 audit to follow in March.


The Government Accountability Office attended the last trust meeting in December and will complete their second Congressionally mandated audit of the preserve in March, expecting to issue a final document in September.


Bratcher said he had read some reports


At the moment, the trust is down to five members, with four new appointments waiting in the wings for terms expired Jan. 16. Two of the continuing members are ex officio representatives of the forest service and the national parks. After six years of appointments by President Bush, there are expectations that the next set of appointees will reflect to some degree the changed perspectives under the new administration.


For one thing, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and new Sen. Tom Udall, both D-N.M., can be expected to have more input into the nominations, than former Sen. Pete Domenici, who wielded a lot of influence in recent years.


When the appointments are made and what changes, if any, is uncertain.


Bratcher said nobody could expect the trust to have everything up and running by now, with so many requirements, issues and assessments to take care of.


“I see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he added.