A few years ago, Gary Salzman hiked a trail in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a historic forestland 70 miles northwest of Santa Fe that some call the Yellowstone of the Southwest. The trail, which leads to one of the many mountainous domes inside the caldera's 89,000 acres, required a $5 fee and a shuttle ride to the trailhead. Salzman's time hiking was also limited; he had to meet back with the shuttle on schedule to make sure he could get back to his car.

"Logistically, that's just a crappy thing to do," Salzman, who with his wife Joan wrote the 2006 book Hiking Adventures in Northern New Mexico, tells SFR. "We've since written off the Valle as a place to hike."

Salzman, a White Rock resident, shares a viewpoint common among many who live near the caldera: frustration over the lack of public access.

"A number of people just go hiking without checking into headquarters," he says. "The staffers call them wild hikers."

To Salzman, the root of the problem is the caldera's management—part presidentially appointed board, part US Forest Service.

In March 2010, he testified at a Los Alamos County Council meeting in favor of transferring ownership of Valles Caldera to the US National Park Service. "The few hikes allowed are pathetic," Salzman's written testimony reads. "The present operators just don't get it. They believe they are providing public access, but they aren't."

The Valles Caldera National Preserve was established in 2000 in a class of its own; no other wilderness area in the United States is run like it. Created as an experiment, it's essentially a public park operated with a private mentality. A presidentially appointed board of trustees operates the land. The trustees work closely with the US Forest Service, which also manages the nearby Santa Fe National Forest. The board's goal is to make the caldera financially self-sustainable without excluding the public from the wilderness area.

But in its 11 years as a public park, Valles Caldera is nowhere near on track to meet its 2015 deadline of financial self-sustainability. In fiscal year 2010—one of the trust's better years to date—the caldera recovered just over $700,000 of its $3.5 million in operating costs.

For the public, accessing the caldera has proven restrictive and costly, prompting nearby residents and interest groups to push for a change in management. But the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire, which charred 30,000 acres of the preserve—along with several square miles of the surrounding land—now further complicates the caldera's already uncertain future.

"Sometimes, in our traditional ways, we say we might think one way," Raymond Loretto, chairman of the caldera's board of trustees, tells SFR. "But there's a greater force that we can't control."

Even though the Valles Caldera, a former volcano that features heavily in the creation myths of Jemez Pueblo, abuts Jonathan Neal’s land, he is prohibited from entering it through his backyard.Credits: Joey Peters
Even though the Valles Caldera, a former volcano that features heavily in the creation myths of Jemez Pueblo, abuts Jonathan Neal’s land, he is prohibited from entering it through his backyard.Credits: Joey Peters

Standing on his porch, Jonathan Neal looks out at Redondo Peak, one of the caldera's mountainous domes towering above the land's valleys. Wrinkles cross Neal's forehead, but he still looks young enough to resemble a gleeful adolescent on his first backpacking trip. Neal's home is about a mile away from the preserve, but he's barred from entering it through his backyard. Trees fill the hilly landscape, except for a valley at the stem of Redondo shaped like an outstretched eagle.

In the Jemez Pueblo creation legend, that eagle-shaped valley is sacred. It represents a divine signal to the Pueblo people who were forced to relocate from their original homeland, the present-day Four Corners area. After running out of food and water, their gods told them an eagle would guide them to their new home.

"So they came to the Jemez and saw this very same view," Neal says. "They saw an eagle stretched across the mountain and realized this was their homeland where they were supposed to settle."

The fertile grasslands gave the Natives a place to hunt. Its rivers gave them a water supply. Years later, when Europeans introduced horses, the Natives used the land to graze cattle. To this day, cattle from both the Santa Clara Pueblo in the north and the Jemez Pueblo in the south still graze on the preserve. Its significance runs deep; this is the land that sustained them.

Like Yellowstone National Park, Valles Caldera was once a volcano. Two massive eruptions occurred 1.6 million and 1.2 million years ago, collapsing the land into a bowl-like shape. Scientists predict it will erupt again. After the eruptions, hills and valleys formed. A lake once filled the Valle Grande, which is now grassland. Magma rests just below its surface and heats the many hot springs scattered across the land.

People have populated the area for millennia. Spear points made from volcanic obsidian date from 11,000 years ago. Native elk lived on the land before hunters killed them off in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, scientists transplanted elk native to Yellowstone to the caldera; today, between 4,000 and 6,000 of them freely roam the area.

Recounting the history of the caldera is enough to make Neal yearn for something he's never been legally allowed to do. An avid camper, he craves the day when he can pitch a tent on caldera property.

"I stand here and look at Redondo—a sacred, mystical mountain—and wonder, why am I completely shut out from going on that peak?" Neal says.

Forest geographer Melissa Savage, who has spent two years on the Valles Caldera board, says the site has a long history of misuse.Credits: Joey Peters
Forest geographer Melissa Savage, who has spent two years on the Valles Caldera board, says the site has a long history of misuse.Credits: Joey Peters

Around the time of the Civil War, Congress awarded a federal land grant to the family of Luís María Cabeza de Baca, a descendant of Spanish royalty. Cabeza de Baca had owned land encompassing the caldera when it was still part of Mexico. Once the United States acquired what is now New Mexico, the government gave the caldera to the Cabeza de Bacas as compensation for their lost land grants, creating the Baca Ranch.

By the time President Woodrow Wilson established the nearby Bandelier National Monument in 1916, there was already interest to make the caldera public. A 1923 proposal that would have put the caldera under the National Park Service failed amid opposition from private interests, ranchers, Native American pueblos and the US Forest Service. Another push for public management occurred in 1961, but the Park Service and Forest Service bickered over rights to the area, and the trust that took ownership of the ranch after the Cabeza de Bacas sold it instead to James Patrick Dunigan, a Texas oilman. Over the next four decades, the Dunigans kept a working ranch in the caldera.

A third opportunity came at the close of the century, when the federal government generated surpluses for the first time in decades. At a speech at Los Alamos National Laboratory in February 1998, President Bill Clinton spoke of the need to protect "the magnificent Valles Caldera, 100,000 unspoiled acres near the Santa Fe [National] Forest."

Clinton also said he was willing to pitch in $40 million make the land public.

But with Republicans in control of Congress and US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, as a powerful go-between, any deal to make the Caldera public would have to be a compromise.

"The Valles Caldera Trust experiment arose from a sense that public land had become gridlocked with too much litigation," William deBuys, who chaired the caldera's board of trustees from 2001-2004, tells SFR. "[Domenici] was hoping to find an alternative that would have a thriftier bottom line."

Five months after Clinton's Los Alamos speech, Domenici met with him on Air Force One. Both were coming from a public meeting in Albuquerque on Social Security when the Valles Caldera came up. Domenici, worried about the burden more public land in the West would put on taxpayers, laid out his stipulations: First, the caldera had to continue operating as a "working ranch," just as it was under private management. Second, its structure of operations should be new and experimental. Its model would be the Presidio Trust in San Francisco, which Congress had established in 1996.

The Presidio, an urban park managed by a board of trustees, was created with an ambitious goal: financial self-sustainability by 2013. Since then, it's met that goal, largely by leasing out its buildings and land. Its urban setting—a far cry from the remote caldera—attracts millionaires such as George Lucas, who relocated his Lucasfilm production company there.

Domenici wanted a similar goal for the wilderness of Valles Caldera, and Clinton agreed to his terms. Five days later, they outlined their plan to the public.

With support from Sen. Bingaman, D-NM, and then-US Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat from Santa Fe, Domenici composed the Valles Caldera Preservation Act. It established the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the public park wilderness advocates sought for nearly a century. The Valles Caldera Trust, a corporation much like the one that operated the Presidio, would administer the new preserve. The trust's presidentially appointed board members were chosen according to their areas of expertise: ranching, politics, environmental issues and so on. They would serve either two- or four-year terms.

By July 2000, Domenici's vision for Valles Caldera had become a reality. After designating parts of the southeast portion of the Baca Ranch to Bandelier National Monument and parts of its northeast territory to the Santa Clara Pueblo, 89,000 acres of the 100,000-acre ranch became public domain.

Later that year, Clinton appointed seven caldera board members. Among them was deBuys, whom the board quickly elected its chairman. At the time, deBuys was optimistic about the trust's ability to succeed under its experimental structure. Nothing like it had been tried before on a land of the caldera's size.

"It was a diverse, experienced, talented and bipartisan group," he writes in a 2006 essay about Valles Caldera. "I was honored to be a part of it."

Proponents of the plan to bring the Valles Caldera National Preserve under the National Park Service umbrella argue its current push to be financially self-sustainable impedes public access.Credits: Teri Nolan
Proponents of the plan to bring the Valles Caldera National Preserve under the National Park Service umbrella argue its current push to be financially self-sustainable impedes public access.Credits: Teri Nolan

Since the heady days of the preserve's creation, much has changed. As public land, the caldera suddenly had to comply with federal regulations. It still has yet to meet certain conditions of the National Environmental Policy Act.

"We inherited that 89,000-acre landscape in a degraded condition," Melissa Savage, a forest geographer who has served on the board since 2009, explains. "It had a long history of very exploitative land use."

Federal obligations have also complicated the preserve's financial objectives.

In 2009, already behind on its fiscal sustainability goal, the board hired Gary Bratcher to serve as the caldera's executive director. Bratcher brought with him three decades of work with the United Fruit Co. and Del Monte banana company—business expertise the board considered essential.

Under Bratcher's watch, visitation to the Valles Caldera increased by almost 60 percent, and revenue jumped 15 percent. Still, it wasn't nearly enough to meet the preserve's financial goals, and Bratcher's lack of expertise in governmental matters showed.

"It was hard for him to do any of this because, everywhere he'd go, he had to ask for permission to open a door," Loretto says. "You don't run a business like this."

Bratcher resigned this May.

Securing funding for the preserve also became a routine struggle. Congress must approve appropriations for it every year. While the board vowed not to let revenue get in the way of public access to the preserve—something Domenici also hoped for—it proved difficult to maximize public access while still meeting the preserve's financial goals.

"It's a very difficult thing they were asked to do," Jason Lott, a member of the board who represents the Park Service, tells SFR. "When you're balancing profit against land management, probably some of the activities taking place on the land are not ideal."

A 2009 report by Washington state-based environmental consultants Cardno ENTRIX outlined schemes to increase the preserve's income. Among the company's proposals were restaurants, bars, high-end lodges and "glamping," or luxury camping. The plan would have cost $143 million to develop. Neal calls it "pricing out the average working-class New Mexican"—a venture with the potential to limit public access rather than expand it.

Amid public backlash, the trust ultimately rejected all of the proposals.

Even so, a day at the caldera still costs more than most parks. Two trails alongside Highway 4 are free, but the rest have individual prices ranging from $10-$15. A day of fishing costs $35 per person. On his website—which contains trivia, photos and other useful information about the caldera—Neal compares it to the average cost of attending a Major League Baseball game, which he puts at $26.91. The caldera's prices, he says, are "reprehensible."

The nearby NPS-operated Bandelier National Monument, in contrast, has a one-time fee of $12 for access to everything save camping. Fishing is free.

"The Park Service model, in most cases: You pay, come in, and the whole park is [available] to your use," Lott says.

But Dennis Trujillo, the preserve's interim executive director, says he doesn't think the fees are unreasonable. He points to a variety of free educational activities as examples of attempts to include the local community. After all, he says, the goal is self-sufficiency, not maximizing profits.

"We're trying to pay for some of the costs we incur," Trujillo tells SFR.

DeBuys goes further: Running the Preserve as an "elitist playground," he says, may be the only way to make it financially self-sustainable.

"But," he cautions, "that's not what this piece of public land is for."

Opinions differ on the preserve's purpose, and often the outcome depends on politics.

"There is a political component," Savage says. "The board has had very different personalities over the years."

As the board's makeup changed, grazing operations crept to the front of the agenda. By the mid-2000s, cattle could be found in the caldera's streambeds, something Lott says could have damaged the watershed and fish population. (The board has since moved the livestock out of the watershed.)

At times, the board favored larger grazing operations over profitability. In 2009, environmental group WildEarth Guardians made a $50,000 bid to graze just three to five cattle on the land—the highest bid the board received that year.

Instead, though, the board went with a $26,000 bid from New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association to graze 100 cattle for high-altitude disease research, citing its working-ranch and science-based management objectives as justification.

“We will not rest until [the Valles Caldera] is safe from the Forest Service…their instructions they have from Congress would be disastrous to the place.” —Tom RibeCredits: Joey Peters
“We will not rest until [the Valles Caldera] is safe from the Forest Service…their instructions they have from Congress would be disastrous to the place.” —Tom RibeCredits: Joey Peters

In part due to such scenarios, pressure to make the caldera public has again mounted.

"We will not rest until it is safe from the Forest Service," Tom Ribe, the executive director of the environmental group Caldera Action, tells SFR. "Not that they're bad people, but their instructions they have from Congress would be disastrous to the place."

The Forest Service's philosophy is multiuse: Logging companies and ranching businesses use the agency's land, and their needs are balanced with public access. Park Service land is more focused on preservation and recreation.

After a series of public meetings like the one in Los Alamos and efforts by environmental groups such as Caldera Action, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and New Mexico Trout Unlimited, in May 2010, Bingaman introduced a familiar bill: one that would bring the caldera under Park Service control.

Part of Bingaman's reasoning lay in the caldera's financial woes. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found the preserve five years behind schedule on its financial goals, and a feasibility study concluded that Park Service ownership would save $1 million per year.

Bingaman, who chairs the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, had no trouble getting the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor. But despite support from local and national politicians, the caldera law was attached to an omnibus lands bill that never received a vote.

Although Bingaman reintroduced the bill this March, it faces hurdles from the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. After months of fractured debate over raising the debt ceiling, comity in Washington is at a historic low.

"It's gotten harder and harder to move things in Congress," Maria Najera, a spokeswoman for Bingaman, tells SFR. "The tea party doesn't want to fund stuff like that."

In a way, Republican support of Bingaman's proposal would also constitute admitting defeat to the conservative principles on which the preserve was founded. Domenici had supported the land's private-public structure on the basis that the West already had too much public land.

Three months ago, Loretto went to Washington to testify in favor of the Park Service transfer, which would have abolished the board. Ironically, he was speaking for the board.

"We believe that the outstanding landscape that is the Valles Caldera National Preserve deserves the best stewardship possible, situated in a stable administrative structure that is permanent and adequately funded," Loretto told the committee.

He mentioned that the caldera's revenues cover just 20 percent of its expenses and that the preserve wouldn't be able to meet its self-sustainability goal by 2015. To Neal, it's evidence that the caldera's experimental structure had failed.

"It was this ideological experiment by Pete Domenici to try to vindicate his conservative principle of free market values," Neal says. "His experiment failed big time."

Bob Parmenter, science director at the preserve, checks weather station information in the Valle Grande.Credits: Teri Nolan
Bob Parmenter, science director at the preserve, checks weather station information in the Valle Grande.Credits: Teri Nolan

Shortly after Loretto's testimony, a tree fell on a power line just a few miles south of the caldera, causing what became the largest wildfire in the state's history. The aftermath of the Las Conchas fire leaves Valles Caldera in a fragile spot.

In a July 18 interview with Neal, Bob Parmenter, the preserve's science director, says Valles Caldera hasn't had a real fire-prevention management plan since the 1960s, "when the clear-cutting was underway."

In the interview, Neal compares it with Park Service-operated Bandelier.

"The National Park Service has worked so hard, for many years since [the 2000] Cerro Grande [fire], to actually thin their understory," he says. "It worked really well."

But some fires are just too big: Las Conchas burned about half of Bandelier's 33,000 acres, too.

Now, the most immediate task for the Valles Caldera isn't financial self-sustainability or opening public access—it's repairing the damaged 30,000 acres, which will require more money from Congress. The urgency of this new goal has brought Loretto back to the drawing board.

"Both the senators and the congressmen are really going to have to evaluate what is happening in our backyard," he says. "Maybe we were on the right track in the first place."

Loretto says the Forest Service stepped up to the plate during the fire, sending agency representatives to visit the Jemez and Santa Clara pueblos and hear the tribes' concerns over cultural resources that needed protection.

Loretto also says the Forest Service is best equipped to handle the required postfire rehabilitation. "Special dollars [from the Forest Service] are being set aside to tribes to do the rehab work that needs to be done, and they are going to depend on these," he says. The caldera would lose access to Forest Service rehabilitation grants if it went to the Park Service today, he notes.

Bingaman's office hasn't made immediate plans for remediating the land, but his Park Service bill will likely to be presented in committee next month. At that time, Congress will also renew its annual appropriations bills, under which the caldera's yearly funding falls—and over which Najera expects another drawn-out battle in Washington.

Political maneuvering has also taken its toll on the board—and Loretto says he doesn't think it can survive in its current structure, in part because presidential appointments are taking longer than they used to. Three seats have been empty for the past two years.
Trujillo, however, still says there's room to keep testing the experiment.

"There's not going to be too many opportunities to experiment with public land," Trujillo says. "This is only 89,000 acres. Why give it up to another agency that pretty much has a standardized or cookie-cutter way of doing business? We're able to try different things here."

He argues that the board's unique structure allows it to do things other public lands might not be able to. "We've closed the entire place just to host mountain bikers," he says. "We've closed the entire place just to host marathon runners, and people seem to like it."

Trujillo, who grew up around the caldera and has been on its staff ever since it became semipublic, isn't necessarily for or against the Park Service transfer. He says the land's uniqueness, with its sacred peaks and booming valleys, lends itself to unique management, regardless of which agency operates it.

But the dissolution of the board may be inevitable. If nothing happens in Congress before the trust's 2015 deadline for fiscal self-sustainability, the caldera goes immediately to the Forest Service. Maria Garcia, a member of the board who represents the Forest Service, thinks it's a good fit.

"The Forest Service has been involved with Valles Caldera since the beginning," Garcia says.

Garcia points to the Forest Service's track record of keeping the land running as a ranch, managing the area's timber and promoting revenue-generating activities as reason for keeping the land with the Forest Service.

Either way, the caldera's uncertain future positions both agencies back into the century-old squabble over operating it.

"Agencies have turf battles," Neal says. "The Forest Service would like to keep controlling it. Who wouldn't?"

Bingaman is the leading advocate in Washington of the Park Service transfer. His impending retirement, in 2013, means Udall could fill that void. But Udall, who doesn't chair any committee, will have less of an ability to move the legislation.

A big question mark overshadows the future of the preserve, which has been marked with uncertainty ever since the experiment first began 11 years ago.

"Can it be placed in a position where grazing, public access, NEPA, cultural properties—all these things are protected?" Loretto asks. "It's not a one-man show. Somehow, the government needs to manage all those things."  SFR