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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

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

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