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Education Coordinator Stacy Urich and Dr Robert Parmenter, Director of Science and Education

Singularly unique

—Margaret M. Nava
Are there any pikas around here? Is the peregrine falcon really the fastest animal on earth? Where do frogs go in the winter? What happens to animals after a fire? Does the temperature ever get hotter than 90 degrees or lower than zero? These are just a few of the questions people ask when they visit the Valles Caldera National Preserve located 22 miles north of Jemez Springs.

Acquired with the passage of the Valles Caldera Preservation Act in 2000, the 89,000 acre preserve encompasses most of the 12 to 15 mile wide caldera (bowl-like hollow) formed by the collapse of a pair of great volcanic domes following explosive eruptions that date back about 1.5 million years ago. Surrounded by National Forest, meadows, grasslands, streams, rock outcrops, and wildlife, it is a singularly unique land mass, with significant scientific, cultural, historic, and recreational opportunities. 

Although best known for its skiing, hunting, and sleigh rides, this area is also popular among people who wish to study and learn about a wide range of topics such as geology, botany, ecology, archaeology, climatology, and cultural history. And with the recent opening of the science and education center, such studies have become even more popular.

Housed in what was once the Fitzgerald Retreat Center, the Valles Caldera Science and Education Center is a multipurpose venue for educational programs, retreats, conferences, and scientific research studies. Located about 20 minutes from the preserve’s southwest corner, this facility serves public and private schools, scout troops, conservation groups, scientific organizations, business corporations, and government agencies by providing housing, food service, and learning resources for “students” of all ages—kindergarten through elder hostel. The overall education program focuses not only on the science-related aspects of the preserve (geology, ecology, forestry, wildlife and fishing management, etc.), but also on being an inspirational environment for a wide range of other disciplines such as art, photography, literature, and music. Groups may create their own study program or take part in hands-on field trips designed to help students gain a better understanding of northern New Mexico’s natural and cultural resources. A limited number may even sign up for seasonal projects such as the spring and fall fish shocking programs that use electro-fishing techniques to determine the species composition and fish densities in preserve streams or the annual spring frog-call survey conducted to determine where frogs are calling on the preserve in order to identify their breeding sites and possibly aid in increasing their abundance.

According to Dr. Robert Parmenter, director of science and education, “We don’t have a lot of amphibian species up there. We have tiger salamanders and the protected Jemez Mountain salamanders and huge numbers of the western chorus frog, a small green and gray frog that beeps and lives in the creeks and marshes. But the one that is missing is the northern leopard frog, a smooth-skinned green, brown, or yellow frog covered with dark leopard-like spots edged in a lighter color. Populations of this particular frog species have drastically dwindled in the last 10 or 15 years, so we’d like to see about getting it introduced here. The problem is we already know we have the chytrid fungus that is prevalent throughout the western United States—it kills northern leopard frogs and has been suggested as the principal cause for the worldwide amphibian decline. The chorus frog seems to be fine, and the two salamander species seem able to tolerate the fungus, but we have had one instance of a Jemez Mountain salamander that has been identified with it, which is odd since the fungus is aquatic and the salamander is terrestrial.”

During the fall months, middle and high school students can participate in the one or two day restoration monitoring project that studies the response of wildlife to forest restoration treatments such as thinning and prescribed burning. Important parts of this program include learning how to make field wildlife observations, developing research techniques, and employing decision making skills to test hypotheses and evaluate forest restoration success.

Education Coordinator Stacy Urich said, “We’ve even got special geology, ecology, and botany programs for teachers. These three-day courses offer opportunities for field observation, laboratory analysis, restoration, and management. Food and lodging are included in the cost of the training, and credit can be received through UNM’s College of Education.”

There are nearly 2,000 interagency Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWS) strategically located throughout the United States. Looking very much like a miniature “Lunar Lander,” one such station is located on the grounds of the science and education center. Among other things, this station monitors wind speed, air temperature and relative humidity, and transmits collected data, via satellite, to land management agencies for monitoring air quality, rating fire danger, and research applications. This information, updated hourly, can be viewed on the Valles Caldera National Preserve Web site home page (www.vallescaldera.gov) by clicking on “Current Conditions” or by logging on to www.wrcc.dri.edu/vallescaldera.

Throughout the year, the Valles Caldera National Preserve hosts a wide array of other events. Recent programs, designed to get visitors out on the preserve for a day of exploration and discovery, have included archery shoot-outs, mountain bike trail rides, fly-tying clinics, fishing clinics, orienteering programs, star gazing, and a variety of other offerings. So put away those skis, lock up that rifle, lace up some hiking boots, and spend a day… or two… walking around, observing the natural world, finding out how fast falcons fly, checking the weather, and experiencing a sense of solitude that is sure to leave you refreshed and relaxed.

There is something special about the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Dr. Parmenter said, “It’s a dormant volcano, but there’s still a lot of activity up there like hot springs and sulfuric acid springs, and the wildlife is just amazing. Anyone who gets the opportunity should come see it because there’s no other place just like it.”

The main entrance to the preserve is located at mile marker 39 on NM Highway 4, northeast of La Cueva; the science and education center and gift shop are located directly across the road from the Jemez State Monument, north of Jemez Springs on NM Highway 4.

For more information about the preserve and the science and education center, call (505) 629-1417, (866) 382-5537, or log on to www.vallescaldera.gov.

     

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