Valles Caldera Trust seeks input on preserve plan

Aug 8, 2012

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is one of the most iconic sites in New Mexico. It’s a sweeping landscape of meadows and forests that sits in the massive crater of a collapsed volcano. Congress bought the former ranch in 2000 and created the preserve with a special mandate:  Become financially self-sufficient by 2015.

One way to do that is bring more visitors, but there is also a mandate to protect the environment. A new plan is supposed to do both and officials with the preserve are taking public comments on the draft environmental impact statement that evaluates potential scenarios for building more facilities there. But the self-sustaining model remains challenging.

A photo of the caldera from 2006 is far from the pristine wilderness many imagine when they think of the preserve. A traffic jam in the wilderness with hundreds of cars crawling over an old ranch road. The Valles Caldera Trust, the organization that manages the preserve, opened the site for a day, inviting one and all to visit.

“So we’re a little leery of swinging the gates wide open,” said Marie Rodriguez, director of natural resources for the Preserve. 

At a sparsely community meeting in Los Alamos, she said the Trust has since avoided another mass invitation to motorists. But it does want to improve people’s access to a place many consider the jewel of northern New Mexico.

“It may be one of the most special places on earth,” she said.

Last year alone, 100,000 people recreated in the preserve and Rodriguez understands just how vital it is to manage the impacts of those visitors. She laid out six options currently under consideration aimed at doing just that. They range from no action, which would actually decrease access, to constructing a visitor center to handle up to 120,000 folks a year, who might be shuttled to minimize vehicle impacts. And then there’s taking care of the basics, like answering nature’s call. For Rodriguez, that means vault toilets. Let’s just say people are getting creative and it’s not the best solution.

“You need these things if you’re going to open this place. And there are like 30 photos of quite inventive toilets in this one little corridor. This isn’t a unique thing,” she said.

Patti Steinholtz is showing community members displays outlining the different options. Several years ago, the Trust board explored commercial ventures like a grandiose high-end lodge as part of its self-sufficiency mandate from Congress. But Steinholtz, whose firm, David Evans and Associates, created the plan for the Trust, said those ideas didn’t go over very well.

“This is in response to that. People wanted a small footprint, low impact,” she said.

Some 64 people chimed in online with passionate thoughts on the plan. There is even a suggestion that the Trust raise revenue by allowing a group of researchers to look for Sasquatch. However, few people showed up at recent community meetings.

Valles Caldera staff say people are less concerned about the process, now that plans for hotels have been scrapped. But can the preserve become self-sufficient without those big money-making projects?

“That’s always going to be a challenge,” said Dennis Trujillo, executive director of the Valles Caldera Trust.

“Using public land and trying to charge fees only balances out to a certain level of funding. You can only request so much money from people,” Trujillo said.

But he’s optimistic the Trust can recover most of its operating costs. As a nonprofit, it can do private fundraising and partner with other organizations to save money. There is one other location in the entire country with the same self-sufficiency mandate: The Presidio, which sits on some of the most desirable real estate in the world overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Back here in the high desert, if the Valles Caldera doesn’t reach self-sufficiency by 2015, management of the site could revert to the U.S Forest Service, although a lot of critics prefer to the National Park Service.

“National forests work on a commodity basis,” said Tom Jervis, president of Caldera Action. “The national park service doesn’t provide commodities. It provides recreation and preservation.”

Caldera Action is a nonprofit advocacy group that favors the plan option of developing a visitor center while limiting access by private vehicles. But Jervis said that if the day were to come when the Park Service managed this gem, it would definitely take a more comprehensive approach.

“Why should a visitor center be in one place rather than another if you don’t know where the trails are leading from or to? What kind of transportation network will be on the preserve and how will that be decided upon? All that is left in the future.”

With a longstanding bill introduced by New Mexico’s Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall that would transfer the Caldera to the Park Service trapped in a deadlocked Congress, its future remains uncertain. Until that changes, the Valles Caldera Trust will march with the hope of proving that this New Mexico treasure can prove its worth by paying for itself.

The environmental impact statement on the different scenarios for the Valles Caldera Preserve are online. Comments are being accepted through August 14.