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Burned Ambition

Valles Caldera seemed poised to become a national park. Then it caught fire

August 10, 2011, 12:00 am

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.”

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