BY TOM RIBE
Caldera Action is a non-profit organization focused on protecting National Park Service lands in the Jemez Mountains area. Recently we have come out against a bill by New Mexico’s US senators to elevate Bandelier National Monument to National Park status. Our position may seem counterintuitive for a group that helps the National Park Service protect its lands and educate the public. Yet we feel the Bandelier National Park bill would not protect Bandelier and it would not benefit the American people.
Bandelier is a 33,700 acre park managed by the National Park Service that was set aside as a National Monument in 1916 to protect a stunning array of Pueblo cultural sites strewn across a dramatic landscape of canyons cut in volcanic ash. Around the turn of the last century, the area around Los Alamos drew museums and pothunters who plundered many of the prehistoric Pueblo villages in the area. Bandelier National Monument, which used to include a large area of land directly east of Los Alamos, was established to protect archaeological sites and the natural features of the area.
Bandelier used to be a park used primarily by locals but by the 1980s it was drawing people from all over the world. It is one of the top -five tourist attractions in northern New Mexico, attracting 209,000 people a year. The problem is, the facilities and staffing at Bandelier are geared for small numbers of visitors. The proposed Bandelier National Park bill would increase the number of visitors, to the delight of local businesses, but to the clear detriment of Bandelier’s features, landscape, facilities, visitors, and staff. Our Senators are pushing the bill to help the local economy, not our Monument.
Someone has to speak out for Bandelier, its staff and its stressed, overburdened facilities since the Park Service cannot enter the political fray. Someone also has to draw the line with Congress which keeps allowing the National Park Service budget to decline in real terms while heaping more work on a declining NPS staff. Something gives and it is the park land and cultural resources that suffer along with visitors who find crowding and inadequate basic services.
Visitation at National Park Service sites around the country has increased by around 37% since the 1980s while the NPS budget has decreased by 5% over the last decade. Our National Park system famously has an $11 billion dollar maintenance backlog with deteriorating facilities stressed by increased use. At Bandelier, the, the 1930s era Headquarters buildings, need upkeep which has been falling behind with slim budgets and maintenance staffing.
Bandelier has one small restroom for each gender and two restrooms that have been disabled for years by flood damage. Busloads of people arrive to find lines out the doors of these facilities. The Monument lacks the staff to provide more than minimal educational programs for visitors. None of this will improve with more visitors under National Park designation.
Though visitation has declined since 1995 at Bandelier, it is trending sharply upward without any legislative changes. Given a housing shortage for NPS staff, problems in government hiring processes, and retiring baby boomers, all parks across the US are facing staffing shortages that need immediate attention before we use National Parks and Monuments as economic drivers.
Nationally, the NPS has suffered a 16% staff decline since 2011, which has made it difficult for the Service to protect lands and resources in places like Bandelier. Despite a large increase in visitation to national park units, law enforcement staffing has declined 20% since 2011. Visitor services staffing has dropped 16% and resource management staffing has dropped 19% since 2012. These numbers may vary for specific park units, but the trend is clear as is a hostile environment created under the Trump administration.
The National Park Service has not had a Senate confirmed Director since 2016. It has no director now and two thirds of the top management positions at the agency in Washington are vacant. Donald Trump has never nominated an NPS Director and his budgets have proposed a 14% budget cut to the NPS every year of his administration. Congress refused the cuts. Surveys of NPS staff find that many employees believe political leadership is far out of step of the legal mission of the agency.
Hunting in Bandelier
Senator Martin Heinrich is a hunter and his Bandelier National Park bill would carve off 4011 acres of Bandelier where people could hunt and trap in the upper elevations of the Monument. A new “Bandelier National Preserve” would be created with these lands where the State of New Mexico would manage fish and game populations. People could trap virtually any animal at all as New Mexico has weak trapping regulations.
Right now, Bandelier National Monument is the only land outside of Indian reservations in the Jemez Mountains where hunting and trapping are not allowed. We oppose trapping on all National Park Service lands in the Jemez Mountains. Creating a new hunting area in Bandelier is more trouble than it is worth given the management confusion it will cause and the risk to rare animal populations.
Senator Heinrich has been a great senator for our public lands and environment in general. We hope he will draw back and address system wide problems and deficiencies at Bandelier National Monument before increasing visitation and opening areas to hunting and trapping.
Caldera Action is a 501c3 organization dedicated to public access and long term protection of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.