SANTA FE, N.M. — With a stroke of the President’s pen, management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve is expected to soon shift from a trust that has been overseeing the preserve since it was created by an act of Congress in 2000 to the National Park Service.
But will the change make any real difference to the visitor?
Supporters say yes, contending it will bring more attention and better programs while safeguarding preservation of the 89,000 acres of high country in the Jemez Mountains.
Critics are more skeptical, especially those who want to be assured of hunting access to the property, which is rich in elk and other wildlife. Mountain streams also attract anglers there.
The management change is part of a Congressional compromise, embedded in the defense spending bill that has passed both chambers and awaits the President’s signature.
The bill also designates the Columbine-Hondo area within the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico as wilderness, and establishes the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Los Alamos and other sites.
The package has been pushed by New Mexico’s Democratic delegation.
Sen. Martin Heinrich said in a news release that it “will help grow our economy in the energy, tourism, sporting and recreational sector.”
Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall sponsored the bill to shift authority of the preserve to the Park Service, picking up on an effort initiated by former Sen. Jeff Bingaman before he left office.
Not only does the act transfer the management of Valles Caldera from the trust to the Park Service, but it also assures hunting and fishing will be maintained (a huge concern for sportsmen), along with grazing rights for ranchers.
While Jemez Pueblo still lays claim to the land, the property was given to the Baca family in return for a terminated land grant in 1876 and, for more than a century, was known as the Baca Ranch. It changed hands several times before the federal government bought it in 2000.
In recent years, the Valles Caldera has offered recreational opportunities, such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and mountain biking, and has hosted tours, workshops and special events, drawing about 100,000 visitors a year.
Smooth transition promise
The Valles Caldera Trust said in a statement last week that it was committed to a smooth transition to the Park Service, an event that will take place within six months of the President signing the bill.
Jorge Silva-Banuelos, executive director of the trust, said he was proud of what the trust accomplished in the face of budget cuts and recovery from two major wildfires. The trust’s management was set up under 2000 legislation to be financially self-sustainable within 15 years, or come up with a solid plan to do so, which Silva-Banuelos said was probably an untenable goal from the start.
“That being said, I think the trust’s legacy will set the stage for the Park Service to come in and build on our successes,” he said, pointing to science and education programs, and forest and watershed restoration projects. “I think we’re handing it off in much better shape than we received it.”
Though the original act included a sunset provision that opened the door for the U.S. Forest Service to take over management of the preserve in 2020, a spokesperson with the Santa Fe National Forest said there were no hard feelings.
Julie Anne Overton said, “The Santa Fe National Forest’s working relationship since the ranch was purchased has been really positive. We plan to continue that positive relationship, both assisting with the transition to the National Park Service and after the transition, as well.”
Silva-Banuelos expressed hope that most of the trust’s 50 or so staff members would keep their jobs.
“Generally speaking, the trust employees work at Valles Caldera for a reason: They are passionate about it and want what’s best for the preserve,” he said.
James Doyle, chief of communications and legislative affairs for the intermountain region of the National Park Service, said staffing levels have yet to be determined. That is among a number of unanswered questions that will be decided in the coming months.
“This legislation was just enacted Friday and there are a lot of moving parts,” he said. “All the affected parties are still trying to understand what all this means to them.”
Doyle noted that the appropriation bill keeps operation of the preserve in the hands of the trust through fiscal year 2015.
Until then, “we’re working in collaboration with the trust and the Forest Service,” he said. “We’re all kind of working frantically to figure out how this transfer will occur. I can tell you it’s not something that will happen overnight.”
Not everyone happy
Not everyone is thrilled with the Park Service takeover.
Kerrie Romero heads the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, a nonprofit groups she says works on behalf of the 250 outfitters and 1,500 guides working in the state, as well as the interests of 25,000 hunters and anglers.
While there are those among them who support the transfer to the Park Service, Romero said the majority don’t.
“From our standpoint, we want to see the hunting and fishing remain intact,” she said. “While the Park Service does many other beneficial things across the country, they have not always been super-supportive of hunting.”
Romero said she is grateful that hunting will remain intact for the foreseeable future, but “the concerns I have are things that have taken place in the Grand Teton (National Park) – ammunition restrictions, the whittling down of hunting opportunities and generally more stringent restrictions.”
She said as many as 25 sportsmen organizations went on record with a letter to Congress expressing opposition to Park Service management.
The state Game Commission also opposed the Park Service taking over management of the preserve, making its own bid to do so.
The Game Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, presented a plan it said would turn an annual $2 million to $3 million deficit into positive revenue of up to $1 million per year.
The commission, which sets policy for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, expressed concern that language in the Heinrich-Udall bill could negatively affect wildlife management, as well as hunting, fishing and trapping opportunities on the preserve.
In response to the concerns of sportsmen groups regarding hunting, Silva-Banuelos said, “The legislation mandates that hunting, fishing and grazing continue, and the National Park Service has a pretty good record for hunting at these preserves.”
Everyone wants what’s best
One group that is happy about the switch to the Park Service is Caldera Action, a citizens group advocating for the long-term protection of the preserve.
“This is exactly what we wanted,” Tom Ribe, the group’s executive director, said. “It’s good for the place and it’s good for the New Mexico economy.”
Ribe, himself a guide, said the preserve can probably expect an increase in visitors under Park Service management.
“When you see something that’s managed by the Park Service, you know it’s special and worth a visit,” he said.
Its proximity to Bandelier National Monument, one of the top tourist attractions in the state, should stimulate tourism at both sites, he added.
Ribe pointed out that Valles Caldera would become the 19th preserve managed by the Park Service.
“The Park Service is experienced with managing places like this,” he said. “I would say the biggest thing from my perspective is the Forest Service is a multi-use agency, dealing with grazing, logging and mining. It’s utilitarian about using resources, whereas the Park Service has a tradition of valuing cultural properties and the landscape.”
Ribe pointed to a 2011 study by Harbinger Consulting Group that concluded: “The National Park Service is more likely than the U.S. Forest Service to maintain a high and consistent level of funding, staffing, visitor service, and resource protection.”
Ribe said he doesn’t expect hunting opportunities to decline. One of the current issues, he said, is the elk are staying in the high country and feeding off aspen shoots, stunting regeneration.
“The Park Service wants to see that area recovering and the best way to do that is reduce the elk herd,” he said.
Time will tell what impact the Park Service taking over management of Valles Caldera National Preserve will have. What’s sure is everyone is hoping for the best for one of New Mexico’s treasures.
“… I think that sportsmen and environmentalists agree it’s a special place and neither one of us wants to see anything negative come of it,” Romero said.