Valles Caldera could join ‘elite club’ of geothermal national parks

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By Arin McKenna

It can be difficult to remember that the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve actually encompasses a 1.25 million year-old dormant volcanic caldera.
The keyword is dormant – not extinct. The magma chamber beneath the surface produces a number of geothermal features both within and outside the preserve’s boundaries, including hot springs, warm springs, acid pools and fumaroles.
Because of the wealth of geothermal resources, the National Park Service has nominated the preserve to the Geothermal Steam Act list of “significant thermal features” within the national park system. If the Department of the Interior approves the nomination, Valles Caldera would be one of only 18 parks units within the 400-plus national park system with that designation.
According to Bob Parmenter, the preserve’s division chief for science and resource stewardship, the designation would serve two purposes: protection and an added level of distinction for the park.
“It adds to the diversity of the national park system as a volcano and certainly accentuates the geologic resource that provided the geothermal aspect to this,” Parmenter said.
The geothermal resources within the preserves boundaries have been protected from development since the early 2000s. This designation would add protection from negative influences outside the park’s boundaries.
According to Parmenter, protection under the Geothermal Steam Act “would established the fact that these geothermal resources are important to the national park service and the people of the United States, and the fact that if a development is proposed, it must be shown that it will have no negative effect on the geothermal resources within the preserve.”
Geothermal development outside the park’s boundaries could still be allowed, but developers would have to meet a higher level of proof that the project would not have a negative impact on the preserve’s geothermal resources before a permit was issued.
If a project does move forward and the preserve experiences impacts such as diminished flows or lowered temperatures in the hot springs, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – which issues the permits – would have to essentially shut down the operation until it could determine if the development caused those changes.
“So it raises the bar for any development that might go on in the Jemez Mountains,” Parmenter said.
This could impact the Environmental Impact Statement the National Forest Service is conducting on the potential effects of geothermal energy development on 195,000 acres of Santa Fe National Forest land west and north of Valles Caldera.
“Essentially, the proposed designation for the preserve as a geothermal resource of the national park system really is not affected by the geothermal EIS that is being conducted by the forest service, but it could have an effect the other way,” Parmenter said. “That is, the forest service EIS may be affected by this designation, because it would provide a higher bar for establishing no negative impact on the preserve’s resources.”
The other effect the designation could have is “a public designation that this is a really interesting place,” Parmenter said. “It’s a volcano and it’s not an extinct volcano. It’s a dormant volcano that will erupt again at some point, just like Yellowstone will and Mount Rainier and some of these other places.
“So it kind of drives home the point that this is a unique resource here in New Mexico.”
Two Los Alamos residents were major contributors to the preserve’s application for the geothermal listing. Parmenter consulted Fraser Goff and his wife Cathy – both geologists – on the preserve’s significant geothermal features.
“(Fraser Goff) is a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory geologist who literally wrote the book on the geologic history of the Valles Caldera and was one of the lead geologists on the new geology map of the Jemez Mountains. So he provided us with a large proportion of the information that went into our nomination document,” Parmenter said. “The two of them contributed to our knowledge of the Jemez Mountains, and were very important in providing the information that makes this nomination particularly persuasive, in terms of the value of the resource and the manifestations of the geothermal resources on the preserve.”
 NPS has already approved the designation, which means the preserve is now listed on the National Register as a park unit with “significant geothermal features.” The 30-day comment period on the listing ends on Jan. 27. After the comment period closes, the Department of Interior will address the comments via park service staff in Washington, D.C.
The final step is for an official within the Department of Interior to sign off on the designation. According to Parmenter, listing requests are rarely denied, but can die from a form of “pocket veto” by languishing on that person’s desk.
Parmenter suggested that the chances of getting approval would be increased “if we get a groundswell of support that says, this is fabulous, it’s a great idea. We want the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico to have this extra designation and level of protection, as well as the honor of being one of only a few park units with this designation.”
Parmenter stressed the importance of being only the 18th park unit with this designation.
“It’s an elite club of the park units,” Parmenter said. “So having this join that designation would be that much more prestigious for the preserve.”
To view the documentation or comment on the “significant thermal features” designation, search for “Valles Caldera” on the Federal Register website, federalregister.gov.