By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
People who drive up to the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico are greeted by a sign explaining the majestic 89,000-acre site is “an experiment in public land management.”
But after 14 years, a decision is looming as to whether the experiment should continue.
The board of the Valles Caldera Trust wants the federal government to give the public-private partnership an extension to an annual budget of $3.5 million that comes from the federal government.
Or the preserve could end up the hands of the U.S. Forest Service. Others want to see it go to the National Park Service.
One Native American tribe says it’s the rightful owner and wants a federal court to transfer the Caldera to it.
Then there’s the question of whether the experiment has been a good use of taxpayer dollars.
Earlier this year, Citizens Against Government Waste cited the Valles Caldera and the money it received from the U.S. Department of the Interior as an example of pork-barrel spending on Capitol Hill.
There are plenty of opinions about the future of a working ranch that’s home to awe-inspiring views as well as wildlife, including a majestic population of elk that draws visitors and hunters when the animals descend the mountains for the caldera’s wide expanses during the fall rutting season.
“It’s a such a natural wonder,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. VeneKlasen called the pending decision “massive.”
The property used to be held in private hands, but in 2000 the federal government bought it for $101 million. Under the terms of the agreement, the preserve would be considered a unit of the National Forest System but established as an “experiment” to make the Valles Caldera financially self-sufficient.
A series of deadlines were established, and the first is coming up.
In little more than a month, nine board members of the Valles Caldera Trust are required to make a recommendation to Congress on how to proceed.
From its beginning, though, the Caldera has been unable to pay for itself.
Jorge Silva-Bañuelos, who took over as the Valles Caldera Trust’s executive director in July, estimated the preserve generated $800,000 the past year.
That’s a big gap, considering the Caldera each year gets $3.5 million from the Department of the Interior.
Silva-Bañuelos conceded to New Mexico Watchdog that it’s hard to see the preserve ever generating as much money as it costs to operate.
“It’s clear the concept of achieving total financial sustainability is probably something that is not going to work fully,” Silva-Bañuelos said in a telephone interview. “But if we’re talking about it more as a public-private partnership, where the government’s costs can be defrayed to a degree … then maybe it is a good deal for the federal government for the long-term.”
Here are four possible scenarios for the future of the Valles Caldera:
1. Extend the experiment five more years
The Valles Caldera Trust board members plan to send a letter to Congress asking for a five-year extension of the current agreement.
Silva-Bañuelos said the extra time will give the board a chance to implement programs it thinks can generate more money — such as expanding opportunities for tourists to rent overnight units and recruiting foundations, donors and private sector organizations to open their wallets.
“That’s something the trust hasn’t really pursued on any kind of concerted basis,” Silva-Bañuelos said.
The Caldera is breaking even on its recreation, grazing and hunting and fishing costs, Silva-Bañuelos said, but “inherent administrative costs” that total about $1.2 million a year have proved too onerous to overcome.
The big-tickets costs include expensive forest restoration programs to help reduce the risk of damage from large wildfires.
“That stuff costs money and frankly, there’s no way around that,” Silva-Bañuelos said.
But there are bureaucratic costs, too.
For example, Silva-Bañuelos said the trust has to contract out its own human resources, equal employment opportunity and civil rights officers.
Plus, the preserve is responsible for its own marketing and advertising budget of $400,000, as well as IT services.
“As our own little independent agency, we have some redundancies,” Silva-Bañuelos said, “all of those things that would generally be handled by a regional office or a Washington office if we were part of a larger organization.”
Instead of getting the Caldera completely self-sufficient, Silva-Bañuelos said a more realistic goal may be a “50-50 cost share” with the federal government. “That would be a good deal for the taxpayer in the long run.”
And he’s optimistic Congress will approve the five-year extension by Oct. 1 next year.
“The simple solution is for Congress to continue funding the trust,” Silva-Bañuelos said.
2. Turn it over to the National Park Service
VeneKlasen of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a sportsman’s group that advocates for hunting and fishing, gives the Valles Caldera Trust high marks for managing the preserve — “I’d give them five stars,” he said — but believes the trust is fighting a losing financial battle.
“If you look at their numbers, they’re not even close,” VeneKlasen told New Mexico Watchdog.
His organization calls for handing over the Caldera to the National Park Service.
“I think the biggest reason is (the NPS has) the infrastructure and the dedicated funding to manage it,” VeneKlasen. “You have the manpower, you have the enforcement capabilities and they have a great science-based approach to land management.”
Such a move would still leave federal taxpayers on the hook, but advocates claim the Park Service can run the Caldera for about $1 million less per year than the trust does.
“I’m a Republican and fiscal conservative myself,” VeneKlasen said, adding that “everything is in place” for the park service to run the Caldera.
3. Turn it over the U.S. Forest Service
Under the terms of the 2000 purchase, if the Valles Caldera Trust cannot show the site was self-supporting, it would change hands to the U.S. Forest Service by 2020.
Forest Service officials say they’re ready for the job.
“We feel that management by the Forest Service is a desirable option for the preserve’s future,” Maria Garcia, forest supervisor for the Santa Fe National Forest, said in an email to New Mexico Watchdog.
“The Forest Service currently manages approximately 895,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains surrounding the preserve. Given the connectivity of the forests, rangelands and waters in the area, the Forest Service is well positioned to provide natural resource and restoration management on a landscape scale on the Valles Caldera.”
But VeneKlasen says the Forest Service isn’t the best choice.
“It’s not to say that the Forest Service isn’t a good land manager,” he said. “The challenge the Forest Service has now is that they’re extremely underfunded. They don’t have the money and manpower to make sure that place is really well taken care of.”
4. Have it go to the Jemez Pueblo
Tribal members say they are the rightful heirs to the Caldera, which is part of the Jemez Mountains where their ancestors lived, and they’re taking their case to court.
“The Valles Caldera is our church,” said Joshua Madalena, governor of the Jemez Pueblo. “It’s our Holy Land. This place is as important for us as the Vatican is for Catholics.”
This is the second time the pueblo is heading to court. In 2013, a federal judge dismissed its claims. But earlier this month, the tribe and its attorneys argued before a panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the earlier decision was wrong.
“We’re not going to quit,” Madalena told New Mexico Watchdog. “We will continue to fight for our land. We’re were the first environmentalists and the first stewards.”
Madalena said the pueblo is putting together its own management plan for the Caldera that would include overnight camping, tourist access and hunting and fishing. He said there are no plans to establish gaming, should the pueblo win its lawsuit.
“We know the area,” Madalena said. “We know where the sacred sites are.”
Madalena said he expects a decision in the lawsuit to take “six months, or it could be longer.”
No plans to return the Valles Caldera completely into private hands exist.
But if generating income is such a problem, why not dramatically increase the cost for elk hunting tags? There’s certainly a market for it.
For example, big game hunts on the reservations of the Mescalero and Jicaria Apache tribes elsewhere in the state go for $13,500 to $17,500.
“The essence of public lands use, especially from a hunting and fishing perspective, is that everyone has the opportunity to utilize that resource that is held in the public trust,” said VeneKlasen, whose group has long advocated for low hunting fees at the Caldera. “To exclude people without means is not in the spirit or essence of what public lands and public resources are all about.”
The Caldera Trust originally used an auction system that drove up the costs of elk tags, but it reversed course after catching some flak.
The trust has set up a “one ticket, one chance” lottery in which hunters are limited to buying one $35 ticket for a bull elk tag and a $20 ticket for an antler-less hunt.
“That’s still one of our largest revenue-generation sources,” Silva-Bañuelos said. “If we can tell that story better than we have in the past, we can gain a lot stronger interest from hunters to buy into the lottery, and that will help us generate some additional revenue.”