Listeners get an earful on the Valles

-A A +A

Park service vies with Caldera Trust

By Roger Snodgrass

Jonathan Neal, who works in Los Alamos but lives about a mile away from the Valles Caldera National Preserve, was a typical participant at a public meeting Thursday.

Along with more than 50 others who came out to Fuller Lodge, he had an experienced view of the federal property that was the subject.

“My family has operated an independent web site devoted to the Caldera – whose address is VallesCaldera.com – for ten years now, since before the Valles Caldera National Preserve was even created,” he said, reading his comments into the record. “We’ve watched the preserve for a long time now.”  

He was also typical of many others at the meeting in his basic conclusions.

“The Preserve was designed to be an experiment in land management, but due to the failures inherent in this legislative structure that many people throughout New Mexico have observed for the past decade,” he said. “We believe that the National Park Service, an agency of professional public land managers, should operate the Caldera as a National Park Preserve.”

The question of how the preserve should be governed has smoldered over the last few years, reaching the point where New Mexico’s two Senators, Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both Democrats, were asked to intervene.

They in turn called on the National Park Service to revisit a question that agency had examined several times before, going back to “A Report on Jemez Crater” in 1939. Michelle D’Arcy along with Karen Breslin represented the park service during a community “listening session” hosted by Los Alamos County Council. They gave a synopsis of that agency’s most recent conclusions, which are mostly favorable, including the feasibility of the project, which has been “enhanced” in recent decades.

While the current uses of the preserve are found to be consistent with other preserves and parks in the national park system, the report noted “an untapped potential for enhancing public enjoyment.”

With the possibility of changes in the air, the council decided to have a fuller airing of the issue to help inform their own position on any new Congressional remedies that may be forthcoming.

Speaking on behalf of the Trust, Terry

McDermott, the

marketing and communications manager, described the current position of the Caldera board, which has asked for specific reforms in the legislative language that would address some of the major problems and emphasize “cost recovery” rather than recouping the entire cost of operating the preserve.

“It is confusing,” he said about the language under which the preserve operates. “I heard one Congressional staffer recently call it ‘bipolar.’ ”

McDermott suggested the preserve should continue to strive to pay part of its own way, but not defy historical precedent and public land economics by trying to make it pay 100 percent. Something between 20 and 50 percent was more reasonable, he suggested, which could be accomplished by a restructuring the current system of governance.

Former State Sen. Steve Stoddard of Los Alamos, one of the founding trustees for the preserve was virtually alone in opposition to reassigning the preserve to the Park Service.

Along with the recent initiative by the park service to explore setting up a Manhattan Project National Park, he said, “I almost feel I’m under siege by the National Park Service.”

He criticized the Park Service for having had a “regrettable” record in dealing with Native American issues.

Jason Lott, Superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, replied defending current relationships with neighboring pueblos.

Facilitator Allison Majure called for an informal showing of hands after each comment. Public comment and the straw votes were consistently critical of the Trust’s management.

“We looked at this in 2000 and said this wouldn’t work,” said Dorothy Hoard about the governance of the preserve by a rotating board of directors chosen by the president.

In her remarks, she elaborated on the problems that she and others have found inherent in a system that “lurches” from focus to focus with each new reconstruction of the board.

In particular, Hoard criticized the emphasis of the second group of board members who downplayed public access and emphasized livestock grazing as a solution to the requirement of economic self-sufficiency that was written into the founding legislation.

“We didn’t pay $100 million for a part-time cow pasture,” she said.

 “Although the Trust has moved somewhat toward more public access in recent years, it has not adequately addressed public requests for increased access,” said Tom Jervis, President of Caldera Action, reading portions of a seven-page written statement. “After nine years of Trust management there are no permanent rest rooms, no visitor center, no potable water system, few trains and most preserve roads are not adequate to meet need for public access patrols or emergency vehicles.”

In his remarks, Neal compared the cost for taking his family fly-fishing on the preserve came out to $30 a person last summer.

“Imagine, our national preserve ­— in our own backyard — charging New Mexicans more than a major-league professional sporting event to access the land that we own,” he said. “Again, one can be absolutely confident that this would never happen under National Park Service management.”

Teacher Bob Walsh was among several people who emphasized what he saw as limited access and high cost of the current preserve, but he also thought the county was missing out on.

“When will Los Alamos County realize the tremendous economic opportunity we are missing,” he said. Labeling this town as a gateway to Bandelier and the Valles Caldera is a great thing to do.”

Another meeting will take place at the White Rock Town Hall from 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday. Deadline for public comment to the county is March 14.