October 2, 2013
April Reese, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, September 27, 2013
POJOAQUE, N.M. — Visitors to the Valles Caldera National Preserve in northern New Mexico will soon be able to wander wherever they wish on foot — with some restrictions.
The board of trustees that calls the shots on how to manage the lands voted unanimously yesterday in favor of a motion floated by Jason Lott, superintendent of neighboring Bandelier National Monument and an ex officio member of the board, to allow “unstructured foot traffic” in the 89,000-acre preserve’s vast meadows and forested knobs. Until now, visitors had to stay on a few short designated hiking trails.
“I hear it all the time — ‘I just want to walk over there and take a picture,'” said Lott. “And you can’t do it.”
The board has weathered considerable criticism for years from environmental groups and members of the public who thought access to the preserve, which sits atop a collapsed volcano, was far too limited.
“Some of the board members feel frustrated with the work we’ve tried to do to get more access for hikers who want to experience this national treasure,” said Karyn Stockdale. She represents nonprofit conservation groups on the board, which is composed of seven members representing various interests, plus the monument superintendent and the supervisor of Santa Fe National Forest.
A member of the preserve’s staff, however, warned that opening up the preserve to cross-country hiking without analyzing the potential environmental impacts of the decision may be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We have to look at effects on natural and cultural resources,” said Marie Rodriguez, director of planning and resources for the preserve.
Lott said he has already determined there’s no need for a NEPA analysis before expanding hiking access.
“Letting people go out there and walk around should not be an issue,” he said, adding that sensitive areas such as archaeological sites and elk calving grounds can be placed off-limits.
It’s likely that more visitors will be taking Lott up on the offer: According to an earlier presentation by Lance Weinbrenner, a recreation specialist for the preserve, hiking increased from 1,128 visits last summer to 1,459 this year, partly due to the preserve waiving the $10 hiking fee after the Thompson Ridge fire burned through part of the area in June (Greenwire, Aug. 5).
The new policy will go into effect Dec. 3, the day after hunting season ends.
The board also voted to waive the admission fee for children under 16.
When Congress designated the former Baca Ranch as a national preserve in 2000 at the urging of then-New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D) and Pete Domenici (R), it did so on the condition that the preserve would be managed by a trust and stipulated that it should support itself financially, rather than through congressional appropriations like other federal lands. But although revenues have increased by 38 percent since 2008, the preserve has yet to bring in enough cash to meet that obligation.
Only one other federal area has the same self-sufficiency mandate — the Presidio in San Francisco, a former military base within the Golden Gate National Monument. It has already achieved its self-sufficiency mandate.
If the preserve isn’t able to pay its own way by 2015, it could be handed over to the Forest Service. Santa Fe National Forest borders the preserve, along with Bandelier National Monument and tribal land.
There are some New Mexicans, however, who say the preserve would be better off under the wing of the Park Service. A long-languishing bill, reintroduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) in February, calls for transferring the preserve to the service, which Udall and other supporters say is better equipped to oversee the preserve than either the trust or the Forest Service. The bill passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June but has yet to be scheduled for a floor vote.
That it took years for the board to approve expanding hiking access to the preserve underscores the dysfunction of the current model, said Tom Jervis, president of the group Caldera Action.
“I’m astonished it took them this long to do it,” he said.