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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

“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 Ribe
Credits: 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.”

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