Although Jorge Silva-Bañuelos grew up in Albuquerque and spent quite a bit of time exploring parts of the Jemez Mountains, he never quite made it around the bend to the Valles Caldera.
But, years later, as a staffer for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, he made his first trip to La Caldera and it made an immediate impression.
“I had no idea growing up that it existed,” Silva-Bañuelos said of his formative years in New Mexico.
After that first visit in 2007, though, “I have been paying close attention to how it’s managed,” he said.
And now that he’s been named executive director of the Valles Caldera Trust, replacing Dennis Trujillo, who retired in January, Silva-Bañuelos is set to take the helm officially during today’s public meeting of the Trust Board of Directors from 6-9 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites at the Los Alamos Entrada Park.
In addition to the introduction of Silva-Bañuelos, the board will hear an update on public access and use, and a review of post-fire conditions.
It’s the former that has Silva-Bañuelos fired up as he’s ready to get to work to expand public use of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Greater public use could turn the site into a major tourism center and economic driver for the area, while also help protect its future, he said.
This would serve a dual purpose of bringing more revenue into the area and, by bringing in more people, creating a larger portion of the public that will grow to love it and strive to protect it.
“In all sincerity, I think Valles Caldera is one of the most special places in all of New Mexico,” he said. “It could become the premier destination in all of the state.”
Of course, Silva-Bañuelos realizes that will be walking a fine line between preserving the resources and natural beauty of Valles Caldera and expanding access and recreational opportunities, while also working with the Native American tribes that consider the area sacred.
“One of the most of the important things is to get the public to experience it so they can fall in love with it and want to protect it for their children and their grandchildren and the future. Without it, who knows what happens in the future? That’s why it’s important to get people into the preserve to experience it,” he said.
Silva-Bañuelos is an Albuquerque Academy graduate who then earned a double major from the University of San Diego in international relations and Spanish. His father’s side of the family hails from Santa Fe and his mother is an immigrant from Mexico.
After graduating college, Silva-Bañuelos went to work in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Bingaman as natural resources and public lands policy advisor, but he spent many hours in his native state, seeing it as he never had before.
“I like to believe I got to know New Mexico better while in Washington, D.C., than when I was growing up,” Silva-Bañuelos said. “Working for Sen. Bingaman, I got to know parts of the state that I never knew existed.”
He spent the past two years with the Department of the Interior, and was instrumental in the development of the Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments.
Several areas that Silva-Bañuelos would like to see developed sooner rather than later in Valles Caldera include the creation of more hiking trails and backwoods backpacking experiences, more access from adjacent public lands, and expansion of the pullout areas along NM 4 to encourage visitors to linger, picnic and take photos while protected from traffic.
“I think I have a good skill set to bring people together around the common goal going forward,” he said. “I come to the job with a sense of humility in that I could have stayed in Washington, D.C., and risen up the ladder there. But I really did feel that I had something unique to bring to this place to better move it in the right direction.
“I fell in love with it the first time I visited and it’s been a special place to me ever since. I feel sense of obligation to help protect it.”