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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

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.”

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