Valles Caldera National Preserve

Posted: Mar 1, 2006
Written by: 
Joshua Zaffos

20 miles west of Los Alamos, New Mexico

Objective: To preserve the working landscape and protect the biological, geologic, recreational, and cultural resources of the region through science-based adaptive management while becoming financially self-supporting.

History: The Baca Ranch is a geologic wonder, with a large elk population, headwater streams, and undisturbed archaeological and cultural sites. When the historic Baca Ranch went up for sale in 1998, people from all over the country called for the federal government to purchase and protect the 89,000-acre, high-country grasslands. Citizens feared that if the government passed on the opportunity, the ranch would be subdivided into ranchettes that would scramble the landscape and shut off public access. Still, then-Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico had strong reservations about the federal government enlarging its holdings in the state. Ultimately, Domenici and the Clinton Administration struck a deal in 2000 that enabled the government to buy the Baca Ranch for about $96 million, but provided that it would be administered by the Valles Caldera Trust as a new, experimental model for federal land management.

The Trust is a wholly-owned government corporation with a nine-member board of trustees, seven of whom are appointed by the President in consultation with New Mexico’s congressional delegation. The supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest and the superintendent of Bandelier National Monument also serve on the board. Each of the seven appointed members represents a particular interest or area of expertise -- ranching, wildlife and recreation, sustainable forestry, conservation, financial management, natural and cultural history, or state and local government. At least five of the appointed members must be residents of New Mexico. Trustees serve staggered four-year terms, and no trustee may serve more than eight consecutive years.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve was closed to the public and managed by the Forest Service for two years as the Trust got organized, hired staff, and developed its own policies.  The Trustees took the reins of the Preserve in 2002 and went to work creating a comprehensive management framework (CMF) that would enable them to meet their congressional mandate – to operate the Preserve as a working ranch, provide public recreation opportunities, protect the cultural resources of the property, and achieve financial independence by 2015.  "This is not going to be like starting the Indy 500,” deBuys cautioned at the time.  “There won't be a certain moment when all the programs are launched. Rather we expect an incremental and progressive opening of multiple programs over a considerable period of time." 

 Field research at the caldera.
Photo by Don J. Usner
Accomplishments:The CMF, published in 2005, provides strategic guidance aimed toward balancing the numerous objectives of the Preserve. Science-based adaptive management guides resource policy and gives the trust flexibility—rare in federal land administration—to amend programs in a timely manner based on the results of on-going monitoring and assessment efforts. The preserve scientist is on equal footing with the preserve manager, which is "unheard of" in public lands management, says Thomas Swetnam, former forestry chair of the Trust’s board and a professor of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona.  

In cooperation with the Council on Environmental Quality, the board developed its own streamlined procedures for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Tailored to the Preserve, its resources, and the Trust's commitment to adaptive management, the guidelines are designed to facilitate interaction with the public during planning. When a proposed action involving the natural and cultural resources of the Preserve is conceptually approved by the board, it is posted on the Trust’s website, and public input is encouraged through a direct feedback link, regular mail, telephone, or comments at meetings.   In addition to that web-based process, Trust outreach also involves media notices, public meetings, agency consultations, and targeted contacts. 

In 2005 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a congressionally mandated review of the Trust.  The resulting report noted “some progress”: (1) the establishment of a staffed organization; (2) procurement of federal accounting services; (3) initiation of engineering and construction work to address infrastructure problems--roads, water systems, fences, and buildings; (4) establishment of interim grazing and recreation programs; and (5) implementation of an adaptive management approach.   Major criticisms were that the Trust had not developed strategic and performance plans with measurable goals and objectives, had no plans in place to manage program risks (such as fire), and had not monitored progress with annual financial audits and performance reports.  GAO observed that “frequent turnover in Board members and key staff has contributed to the problems….”  

Although the Trust has had two more turnovers in the executive director position since the GAO report was issued, progress has been made in addressing the identified deficiencies.  A master plan for interpretation was adopted in 2005, followed by a strategic planning document in 2006. A State of the Preserve report was published in 2007.  Audits for 2004-2007 were completed in 2009, as was a revenue enhancement study. 

Public access to Valles Caldera has been increasing yearly, from 5,000 people in 2003 to about 15,000 in 2008. Among the available activities are hiking, biking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, and guided van tours of the Preserve.  Deliberately limiting access provides solitude and, according to deBuys, assures that visitors will not "love the place to death." When the ranch was in private hands, only a few vehicles entered it each day.  Now 6,000-7,000 vehicles enter each year.  Thirteen miles of ranch roads have been upgraded, restoring the natural hydrology to over 3,000 acres of wetlands. Road upgrades are a major expense, costing over $100,000 per mile. Existing logging roads are used for hiking programs. 

 A hiker overlooking the valley
Photo by Don J. Usner
Revenues from public access, commercial uses, product sales, donations and grants grew from $321,000 in 2002 to $754,428 in 2007, but still cover less than a quarter of the Trust’s annual operating costs.  Congressional appropriations remain the Preserve’s major source of revenue.  In addition to providing annual operating funds, Congress authorized the acquisition of a private company's subsurface mineral rights beneath the Preserve, and ensures that wildfire management is paid for through the U.S. Forest Service.  

The Trust has thinned roughly 370 acres of forestland deemed at risk from wildfire. In 2005, a prescribed burn improved forage in one area of the Preserve while producing no detectable deleterious effects on plant populations, soils, stream water quality and fish and invertebrate communities. Currently, all natural or human-caused ignitions are managed as wildfires and suppressed. 

In 2006 and 2007, 43 groups and 1,226 individuals participated in educational programs on the Preserve. K-12 and university students, citizen groups, and others participate in a variety of workshops, seminars, interpretative programs, and other learning activities. 

Natural and cultural resources have been inventoried to establish a baseline against which to measure the impacts of Preserve operations and management actions. Monitoring programs track climate, stream water quality, ecological condition, wildlife habitat, and plant and animal populations. The Trust collaborates with universities, agencies and non-profit organizations on research related to climate change; forest, range and fire management; forest restoration; hydrological cycles; infectious diseases; carbon cycling; fire history; elk and cattle interactions; coyote and predator studies; and cattle behavior. These efforts result in over $1.5 million of research work on the Preserve each year. 

A non-profit group, Los Amigos de Valles Caldera, was organized in 2005 to serve as a support organization for the Trust, providing fundraising and other types of assistance. Los Amigos now has over 130 members, and has had some success in obtaining grants to help finance Preserve activities.  

Challenges/constraints: The biggest challenge for the Trust is achieving financial autonomy.  The goal is to do so by 2015, with a possible extension of the deadline to 2020 if all other management goals have been met by 2014.  However, Bob Parmenter, chief scientist for the Preserve, told the Los Alamos Monitor in February 2009 that that goal was based on an assumption that the Preserve could pay for itself with revenues from grazing, timber, and hunting and fishing.  “But actually the four, six, eight, or nine thousand head of cattle they had in mind, we couldn’t do because the environment has been so overgrazed and the forests were so over-logged in the ‘70s that they are liabilities.  We have to thin them at our own expense just to keep them from burning up.”   Hunting permits and fees are under the control of the state Game and Fish Department.  “So the three main things they had in mind for income vaporized.  So now we’re left with recreation, and we have to get some other programs to generate funds.” 

Grazing has proven to be one of the more controversial and economically challenging of the Trust’s programs.  Some critics see the presence of cattle as detracting from recreational opportunities.  Others are concerned about possible overgrazing, damage to riparian areas, and other potential negative impacts.  In 2002, an interim livestock-grazing plan specifically addressed needs among smaller ranches in the region. The trustees created a replacement heifer program to supply area ranchers with bulls for breeding with their own heifers to improve their stock. A second component was a cow-calf "stewardship conservation program," which allowed ranchers, including those from Jemez Pueblo, to move their herds to the Preserve for two-year stints while resting and restoring their own pastures. In 2006 the grazing program was cancelled because of drought conditions. In 2007, the Trust managed 500 yearlings for four months under a contract competitively awarded to a single livestock operator.  In 2008, a rancher paid $58,000 to graze 1,960 head of cattle on the Preserve for the summer.   

Among the five proposals received for the 2009 grazing season was one from WildEarth Guardians, an environmental organization that offered to pay $50,000 to graze 3-5 head.   The contract was awarded instead to a team proposal from New Mexico State University (NMSU), Jemez Pueblo, and The New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association.  Their objective is to develop a high altitude performance testing facility for virgin bulls and replacement heifers.  Between 500 and 1500 animal units (a cow and her calf) will graze for the 2009 season at a rate of $52/unit, with a total revenue potential between $26,000 and $78,000.  The Trust’s press release announcing the contract cites additional possible benefits.  “Partnering with NMSU gives the Trust…access to the region’s leading natural resource and livestock production scientists and producer-educators.  This partnership will explore potential revenue generating opportunities for the Trust, including but not limited to the development of feed supplements and mineral formulas for high elevation beef production.” 

In March 2009 the Trust released a revenue enhancement study conducted for the Trust by Entrix, Inc, a national consulting firm. Somewhat surprisingly, according to the report, hunting has been the largest single source of revenue generation for the Preserve so far. The report indicates that local residents want greater access to the Preserve and are clamoring for a rapid increase in recreational offerings, but infrastructure development and maintenance are “desperately needed” to support additional visitation. 

The report lays out two approaches.  Alternative 1 “relies on…generating revenue through a particular focus on hospitality and service sector ventures …[including] partnering with concessionaires to manage a mid-level lodge with a restaurant, as well as a high-end lodge.…A new visitor center, recreational programs, and special events will help fill the demand for the hospitality services.” Alternative 2 “is less reliant on the hospitality and services sector, but still depends on wildlife tent camps, a campground…, and renovation of existing cabins….”  Both alternatives also include other enterprise activities such as education and research, domestic livestock grazing, hunting, fishing, public programs, commercial film and photography, timber, merchandise, and donations.  

In order to implement Alternative 1, $22.5 million would have to be generated over ten years from special appropriations from Congress and donations from private parties or universities. Under Alternative 2, the amount would be $17.5 million. In both cases, the funds would be used for infrastructure improvements (roads, parking lots, etc.) and the development of new facilities such as lodges and a visitor center with gift shop. 

Some individuals and organizations, including a number who strongly supported the creation of the Valles Caldera Trust, are now calling for its early termination, suggesting the Preserve would be better managed by either the Forest Service or National Park Service.  Others, however, want to see this experiment in public land management be given every chance to succeed, and they are encouraged by the vigor now being brought to the effort by the Trust’s recently-elected chairman and its new executive director, who between them have extensive experience in fish and wildlife management, economic development, and agri-business.

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