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Volcanic dome in Valles Caldera Preserve

New Mexico’s Valles Caldera Preserve will soon welcome hikers

—Jodi Peterson, High Country News

In northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, hikers are finally getting access to some stunning lands that have long been off limits—the 89,000 acres of the Valles Caldera Preserve.

Starting December 6, much of the preserve’s forests, meadows, and streams will be opened to unrestricted cross-country hiking for a ten dollar daily fee. “The intent of the motion that we passed is that people can actually go out there and walk around and enjoy the entire preserve. And enjoy it on [their] own terms,” board of trustees member Jason Lott, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. The board also voted to give kids free access if they’re with an adult, and to cut fishing fees.

Valles Caldera has been a unique experiment in public lands management for more than a decade now. The federal government bought the Baca Ranch—home to the state’s largest elk herd and 17 rare species—in 2000 for $101 million dollars, and Congress declared it a preserve, to be run as a nonprofit ranch overseen, by a board of trustees.

It hasn’t been easy for the public to enjoy, though—just four short hiking trails are available, van tours must be booked in advance, and to fish or hunt, you have to get lucky in a lottery drawing. In most of the preserve, there’s a one hundred dollar fine for trespassing (although cattle ranchers, who graze about two thousand head there, are allowed to move around unhindered).

The U.S. Forest Service was slated under the original legislation to take over operations in 2020, if the Trust could not meet the self-funding mandate. But U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. and Tom Udall, D-N.M., reintroduced the Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act, S. 564, in March 2011. The bill would transfer jurisdiction of the preserve to the National Park Service within ninety days of enactment.

The bill didn’t pass then, or in 2012, and Sen. Udall introduced the bill again last spring.

If the preserve were to become a National Park, the probable increase in visitation would bring economic benefits. A 2011 study found that National Park Service management of Valles Caldera would generate $11 million dollars annually in economic activity and create 202 jobs in gateway communities like Los Alamos and Jemez Springs.

But state and tribal leaders have their own ideas of what should be done with the land. In August, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish presented its plan for transferring the preserve to state ownership and running it in a way that critics describe as a “free for all” for multiple users. The state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department has also reportedly discussed taking over management. The Los Alamos Monitor reports:

“Despite the fact that the Valles Caldera Trust has only achieved thirty percent self-sufficiency after 12 years in operation, Game and Fish professes it can ‘transition the current federal fiscal burden of two-to-three million dollars annually to positive state revenue of $500,000 to $1 million dollars annually due to reduced employee numbers and management costs, cooperation with other state agencies and universities, enhanced use of volunteers and partnerships with private sector via concessionaires, the wood products industry, livestock producers, outdoor recreational businesses, and hunting and fishing related corporate sponsors.’”

Meanwhile, Jemez Pueblo has long sought return of the preserve, which it claims as ancestral lands, still used today for religious ceremonies and hunting. The Pueblo’s lawsuit was dismissed in late September, reports the Albuquerque Journal, on the grounds that a lands settlement had been made with the tribe in 1974, and couldn’t be revisited. Pueblo officials say they may appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

Valles Caldera Trust Board of Trustees Chairman Kent Salazar said, “We will continue to work closely with the Pueblo nonetheless to ensure the cultural history, spiritual significance, and the landscape are preserved for generations to come. It is what we do as the Valles Caldera Trust and what we are committed to as friends and neighbors of the Pueblo of Jemez.”

Fireworks, open fires, smoking ban lifted on state trust lands

On October 11, New Mexico State Land Commissioner Ray Powell made a public announcement that a ban on fireworks, open fires, and smoking on state trust lands has been lifted.

“Efforts on state trust land are ongoing to reduce forest fuels and the risk of high severity fires, while improving ecosystem function and health,” said Commissioner Powell.

The State Land Office received $500,000 dollars from the 2013 State Legislature to address hazardous fuel loads through forest thinning and fire prevention on state trust lands during the fiscal year, beginning July 1 of 2013.

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