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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Burned Ambition

Burned Ambition

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

August 10, 2011, 12:00 am

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.

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