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Valles passes milestone

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Preserve: Report shows improvement in past five years

By Arin McKenna

Valles Caldera National Preserve has just issued its second State of the Preserve report, and the results are promising. Visitation has quadrupled since the 2007 report, increasing from 24,000 in 2007 to more than 110,000 in 2012, and staff has made major strides in moving from an interim to a comprehensive management plan.
Executive Director Dennis Trujillo highlighted how much progress has been made toward reaching goals set out in the 2000 Valles Caldera Preservation Act.
“We have either met, exceeded or are making great strides toward meeting all goals stipulated in the enabling legislation, including financial self-sufficiency,” Trujillo said.
The VCPA stipulates that the park must be self-sufficient by 2015 or convert to national forest land. The report puts cost recovery at nearly 29 percent of annual appropriations and almost 100 percent for public programs.
Fifty percent of ecological restoration costs are recovered by the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program funded by Congress. Partnerships with a variety of organizations and universities provide most of the additional funding needed for restoration programs.
Despite the great strides toward self-sufficiency, the report makes it evident that Congress greatly overestimated the resources available to reach the 2015 target, or even a potential extension to 2020.
“The land was over grazed, heavily logged and the streams were severely compromised when we took over in 2002,” Trujillo said. “The preserve was incapable of supporting the livestock numbers and timber production it did under private ownership. We had to adapt, and adapt quickly.”
Staff responded with an approach called adaptive management, a science-based program, which allows the trust to institute new programs, monitor the implemented changes and adjust programs based on the assessment data.
“I really think that this 2012 State of the Preserve document could be a model for establishing a systematic approach to adaptive management of public lands,” Trujillo said. “We don’t just preach adaptive management, we actually do it on this landscape.”
Trujillo supports what he calls “reasonable fees” to access preserve activities.
“I think what’s really important is that for people that pay for these programs it’s a totally different experience. I think you get a different clientele, a group of people that learn how to respect the public lands,” Trujillo said.
“I grew up surrounded by the national forest system, and I have seen how it has been impacted by public use. I think we demonstrate that there’s a cost in being able to use these public lands. These are the only lands that we have, so we have to look at ways of managing the public. And we can’t be everything to everybody.”
Board of Trustees Chair Kent Salazar, on the other hand, wants to see greater accessibility.
“I just want to be sure that this resource is available to all people equally, because we’re all citizens, and you know that old song, ‘This land is your land?’” Salazar said. “This land is our land. It belongs to everybody, and we need to make it available to everybody.”
When the affordability of the fees was questioned, Trujillo responded, “I think we need to look at what this landscape is capable of sustaining. We’re currently looking at is what’s a sustainable number of visitors for any particular program and trying to manage it in that respect. Because if we don’t do that–I’ve seen it just across the street from us, that you can definitely love a piece of land to death quickly.
“I think our approach is to be conservative. We’re beginning to allow more and more access, but if we’re going to offer a quality experience, we need to know what that threshold is for the number of people for any particular program.”
Many fear inadequate protection or development of the preserve if it reverts to national forest land. To that end, New Mexico senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall have just reintroduced legislation to place the preserve under the auspices of the National Park Service. The bill failed to get out of committee last session.
Salazar fully supports that proposal, calling the model for the trust “flawed.” He noted that a self-sustaining model works for the Presidio in San Francisco, which has numerous commercial enterprises to support it, but not for an isolated area of New Mexico where livestock grazing and recreational usage provides most of the revenue.
“I really support the senators’ views that we need to open it up and go to a national park preserve, which is more people oriented and also will have a direct source of funding instead of being a stepchild to the forest service,” Salazar said.
Trujillo opposes the national park proposal on the grounds that it places the preserve “in limbo” and makes it harder for VCNP to obtain funds from either the Forest Service or private donors until the issue is decided.
Trujillo is especially concerned about the impact on a plan to build a visitor center. Under the current plan, the Forest Service is required to make the investment “once funds become available.” Trujillo believes they will be unwilling to prioritize the project when the preserve could pass out of their hands.
Donors may also be inhibited by the legislation, since it is uncertain what would happen to private donations should the preserve become part of the national park system. National parks are only allowed to accept donations through friends groups, whereas the VCNP can receive direct donations. Trujillo has not researched the possibility of setting up a friends group to channel donations that could be utilized regardless of what designation the preserve receives.
Salazar is leery of private donors.
“Outside sources are a two-edged sword,” Salazar said. “We look at things like running movie operations or having foundations fund things for us. Those type of things all come to us with strings. People can’t be on that portion of the property while we’re running those types of programs or maybe the foundation wants you to meet certain criteria.”
Trujillo outlined his goals for the next five years.
“Basically we’re going to be stewards of this land, still allowing for public programs and public access. We have to look at how we restore these lands back to where they’re functioning,” Trujillo said. “And also looking at that financial self-sufficiency as well.”