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Valles Caldera expands visitor activities

A herd of elk cross the open spaces of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
A herd of elk cross the open spaces of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
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One look at the online calendar Valles Caldera Trust and it is clear that this organization, which manages the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains, is moving toward a goal of opening the area to a wider variety of interests.

Nearly 15 years after The Valles Caldera Trust was created by the Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000, the nine-member board of trustees responsible for the protection and development of the preserve is slowly expanding opportunities for open hiking, biking, hunting and fishing while also being dedicated to historic preservation and scientific exploration.

Terry McDermott, who was hired several years ago as the trust’s first public information specialist, says this “experiment in public management” is still an experiment. But the staff and board are constantly trying new approaches to access and activities to “see what will stick.”

This year, the preserve is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and offers several trails that are free to hike or bike ride. Other daily activities that begin from the staging area including hiking, biking and horseback riding in the backcountry (fee-based) as well as fishing on San Antonio Creek and the East Fork of the Jemez River (fee-based). Most are about $10 per person and help cover the cost of the shuttle vans operating through the area, McDermott said. Additional trailheads are open on the weekends.

The trust has also opened to more “special use permits” for activities including trail runs and mountain bike events.

It’s popular “Run the Caldera” will be back this year on July 27 but put on as “Run on the Volcano” by TCR Productions.

At the staging area is an information center, gift shop, picnic tables, spotting scopes to view elk (if the elk are out in the Valle Grande), and restrooms. Daily activities include the hour-long Magma to Magpie van tours and access to three hiking trails – two short ones and one longer one.

Several outdoor and wildlife organizations have been critical of the trust’s management of the area, saying the fee structure is restrictive. A plan by the board to open the area to unrestricted access was put on hold last spring amid concerns that Indian tribes and pueblos weren’t consulted. McDermott said the staff and the board are still working toward that end.

McDermott said the trust is constantly exploring ways to open the land to visitors while focusing on the quality of the experience all while preserving and enhancing the ecosystem and being sensitive to historical and cultural concerns.

In the meantime, the area’s management and plan continue to evolve. New Mexico native Jorge Silva-Bañuelos will take over as executive director of the trust in mid-July. Silva-Bañuelos was selected from a field of 24 applicants to fill the position vacated by Dennis Trujillo, who retired in January.

There is also pending legislation, supported by New Mexico’s congressional delegation, that would shift management of the preserve to the National Park Service, which a recent poll found is supported by a majority of New Mexicans.

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