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Valles Caldera stars in PBS documentary

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By Arin McKenna

Ask Executive Producer/Director Tim Aydelott if he has a special love of Valles Caldera National Preserve and he responds, “I just have a special love for being outside.” 

But it soon becomes obvious the caldera has some sort of hold over him. 

Aydelott – owner of Tim Aydelott Productions – has been a filmmaker since 1996. He is currently shooting a one-hour documentary about the preserve. 

Aydelott was introduced to the Valles as a former employee of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMNHS). He got an education on volcanoes from his supervisor – a volcanologist. “It’s interesting to note the diversity of this geologic feature of New Mexico. We have every type of volcano here,” Aydelott said.

Aydelott first filmed in the preserve while collaborating with NMNHS on another documentary, “Sleeping Monsters, Sacred Fires: Volcanoes in New Mexico,” which has aired in over half the PBS markets in the United States. 

The Valles Caldera was created by a supervolcano, which Aydelott said gives the valley a special allure. He regretted not being able to spend more time on the Valles in the “Sleeping Monsters” documentary.

Aydelott’s first shoots for the current documentary began in 2008, before he had garnered any funding. Those shoots led to drafting an agreement with the preserve to do some filming for them and that agreement in turn became a fundraising catalyst. The project has received support from the Albert I. Pierce Foundation (a foundation dedicated to supporting New Mexico’s cultural life, education and environment), PNM, the New Mexico Geological Society and the National Science Foundation.

The project team includes independent Director of Photography John Golden Britt and Santa Fe Productions – which has 16 years experience in national television production. The Santa Fe Productions team includes Executive Producer Anthony Tiano and Producer Ylonda Viola.

Aydelott’s interest in the Valle was sparked when the 89,000-acre private ranch became a national preserve in 2000. He was attracted to the experimental approach to managing public lands, which involves a five-part mandate to protect the environment, serve the public with recreation programs, conduct quality ecosystem research, run a working ranch and be self-sustaining. 

Aydelott’s original intent was to make the management plan the focus of the documentary; with fire ecology just a small component of the scientific research segments. But Aydelott willingly changed course when the Las Conchas fire hit. 

“The Las Conchas fire really brings to the forefront the importance of fire to Western forests,” Aydelott said. “This created an opportunity to advance education on fire science and fire ecology in Southwest forests. 

“The fire, from a human standpoint, is a huge tragedy. But from the ecosystem standpoint, it’s a ready made experiment,” Aydelott continued. The documentary includes interviews with scientists researching the impact of Las Conchas on the preserve, and also with scientists involved in unrelated research who are recording the fire’s impact on their subjects. 

Elements of the management plan are included in this documentary, such as adaptive management strategies that use real time data to determine such things as how many cattle can graze in any given year. 

But Aydelott said that a more in-depth study of the preserve’s management – as well as the current debate about whether to change the present model – will have to be the subject of a later project. “That’s a story in itself, and to try to include it in this documentary would do it a disservice,” Aydelott said. 

This documentary focuses on current science, historical science and on some of the scientific breakthroughs made at the preserve – such as what the caldera has revealed about plate tectonics. Aydelott is also including cultural history that relates directly to volcanism, such as ways indigenous people used obsidian. Segments on recreational activities provide breaks from the hard science.

Filming concludes this month, and then the work really begins. “The hardest part is post production and editing. We have so much beautiful footage, it’s a challenge to use as much of it as possible,” Aydelott said. 

 The documentary is scheduled to air nationwide on PBS sometime in 2012.