Caldera National Preserve Hatches Restoration Plan

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By Susan M. Bryan


VALLES CALDERA NATIONAL PRESERVE, N.M. (AP) — Visitors line the highway, most peering through binoculars, as they strain to get a better look at dozens of brown specks in the distance.

The specks — members of Valles Caldera National Preserve's infamous elk herd — are munching in green pastures that stretch for miles. They are surrounded by mountain peaks blanketed with ponderosa pine, spruce and fir trees.

The expansive preserve is a sight to behold, but caretakers say Valles Caldera's forests, grasslands and wetlands are not as healthy as they look. Nearly a decade of research has provided them with statistics to say so, and now they have developed a 10-year plan to get the preserve back into shape by using everything from prescribed fire and thinning to weed control and wetland restoration.

The trust has created a special web page that allows the public to review the restoration and management plan and related documents. The public has until Sept. 29 to comment on the plan.

Marie Rodriguez, natural resources coordinator for the Valles Caldera Trust, which manages the preserve, considers it an understatement to say the area's ecosystems are not up to snuff.

"We use the term ecological departure," she said. "We have a lot of numbers to quantify it, but that's what it comes down to — they are just out of whack from where they should be."

Soon after the federal government bought the 89,000-acre former cattle ranch in 2000, the trust began taking inventory of its trees, insects, wildlife, roads, soils and streams.

The information shows nearly all of the preserve's forests — 95 percent — fall short of what scientists call a reference condition. That means the forests are in no shape to withstand attacks by insects, variations in climate or the ravages of fire.

The grasslands and riparian areas are in a little better shape, but they still need help, Rodriguez said.

"There are a lot of things coming in the future. We don't know what all of them are, but we know that a forest or grassland that resembles that historic, natural condition will be able to withstand a lot of variation, as it has for thousands of years," she said.

Eight years of research show Valles Caldera has moved farther from its natural state over the past century due to sheep and cattle grazing, wildfire suppression and clear-cut logging.

There are very few large trees left on the preserve. Rodriguez said some of the domes visible from the highway are covered in trees that are only 40 to 50 years old.

"Because they are dense, small, even-aged trees, they have that potential to all burn in a wildfire. We'd like to not have that happen. We'd like to open it up," she said.

The plan calls for mechanical thinning on about 20,000 acres over 10 years and prescribed fire on nearly 59,000 acres of forest and grassland over the same period.

About 1,000 miles of roads would be closed and rehabilitated as part of the plan, herbicides would be used to get rid of noxious weeds such as cheatgrass and musk thistle, and riparian areas would be restored by using willows and other plants to stabilize stream banks.

Officials are hopeful beavers will return to the area once the plants along the banks mature.

"We've inventoried over 50 historic beaver dams on the preserve so we know beaver were there," Rodriguez said. "Removing beaver from our streams is kind of like removing fire from the forests. They have an important role."

It's not clear how federal legislation to have the National Park Service take over management of Valles Caldera would impact the planning. But Rodriguez said the preserve's goals are consistent with federal policy when it comes to reintroducing fire to the landscape.

Regardless of what happens in Congress, preserve officials acknowledge it could take more than one generation to see Valles Caldera returned to its natural, more resilient state.

"My son is 20, so probably not in his lifetime," Rodriguez said, "but maybe his children will start to see forests with large and old trees ... and the return of species like northern goshawk, the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and perhaps even Rio Grande cutthroat trout."