BY TOM RIBE
The Valles Caldera National Preserve joined the national park system for good reason. Beautiful and awe inspiring, this unique landscape is valuable for all Americans, especially New Mexicans. The land encompasses a young caldera in the center of the Pueblo world, a geological and cultural hot spot. By protecting the 89,000 acre Preserve under the National Park Service, we have an opportunity to do something that has never been done in New Mexico before.
Most public land in New Mexico is used for multiple use, meaning various forms of natural resource consumption. Congress set aside the Valles Caldera for education, protection, and environmental restoration. Aside from archaeologically centered parks like Bandelier, no other piece of wildland in northern New Mexico has such a management mandate. We all have a say in the Preserve’s future.
At the top of the Jemez Mountains, the Caldera has drawn people into its high altitude environment for centuries. It is an important ceremonial and hunting area for the surrounding Pueblo communities, a place where they gathered high quality obsidian that they used and traded widely. With prehistoric and contemporary Pueblos surrounding the Caldera, it is difficult to overstate the place’s importance to Native people.
Starting in 1860, the Valles Caldera was owned by a succession of private parties. Then in 1999 a group of citizens pressed Congress to buy the Baca Ranch for the public. Using the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal government bought the land for the American people in 2000. At first it was managed by an experimental “trust” organization, but various problems let to the dissolution of the trust, and the land was transferred to the National Park Service in 2014.
Congress established the Valles Caldera is a National Preserve, not a National Park. National Preserves are areas where hunting and limited other uses that are not permitted in national parks are allowed. Thus, in essence, the Valles Caldera is managed as a national park with hunting and a limited grazing program.
Though some people have described the VCNP as pristine, it has faced human exploitation for more than a century. Sheep and cattle grazing began in the early nineteenth century. By the time the railroads reached northern New Mexico in 1880, the Caldera had already been overgrazed by sheep and grazing intensified with livestock brought in by the Chili Line railroad. Photos show the Valle Grande grazed to bare dirt under the Oteros and the Bonds before being shifted to cattle ranching by more recent private owners.
Its grasslands lie above 8000 feet and though it appears to have large areas of grass for grazing, the high-altitude grass cover is delicate and many wild animals depend on those grasslands for survival. Past overgrazing caused topsoil to wash away in many areas of the Preserve. Fortunately, volunteers and public employees have worked hard to stop erosion and restore the grasslands since 2000. Even so, much more restoration work needs to be done and illegal trespass cattle grazing needs to stop so streams and meadows can fully recover.
Before 2000, the forests of the Valles Caldera were green and recovering from intensive logging that started in 1920 and largely ended in 1972. In the late 1900s, northern New Mexico entered the era of climate-change-driven high severity fires. In 2011 the Las Conchas fire burned 30,000 acres of the Preserve, much of it at such intensity that thousands of acres of trees were killed. Then the 2013 Thompson Ridge fire burned another 25,000 acres in the Preserve, much of it at high severity. Today only the northern and western third of the Preserve is largely unburned by stand-replacing fires. Today the National Park Service is reintroducing low intensity prescribed fire and thinning thickets of trees and brush to calm future wildfires.
The Promise of the Valles Caldera National Preserve
Unlike surrounding national forest land, the Valles Caldera is protected from off-road-vehicles, widespread cattle grazing, logging, and unmanaged motor vehicle travel. As such the Preserve is the only large island of public land in northern New Mexico set aside as an ecological recovery zone and a place for quality public recreation and education.
Today, we can walk virtually anywhere in the Preserve. Though there is no camping yet, we can bicycle, even e-bicycle, ride horses, ski, and snowshoe. You may enter the Preserve from Camp May, Guaje Ridge, or Bandelier. In the summer you can drive to the back of the Preserve and picnic or walk in any direction. You can find solitude or bring the family. This is our land together.
Science and Education
As a unit of the National Park System, the VCNP is mandated to be a research and education center. Since the days when the Trust managed the Preserve, scientists have inventoried the natural and cultural resources to find out exactly what the public now owns. Other researchers focus on climate change, wildfire, wildlife, and geology. Researchers based at neighboring Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos National Lab, as well as national universities fan out in this unusual landscape.
This resulting science presents a big opportunity for public education. Here the education and interpretation staff at the Valles Caldera may one day share the wealth of science directly with the public while helping local kids learn to look more deeply at the land and its creatures and gradually learn to be the next generation of Caldera stewards.
Likewise, the perspectives and deep knowledge of the Pueblo people can be integral in public education programs as they are at Bandelier.
Most important, New Mexico’s kids from all economic and ethnic backgrounds can now visit the Preserve for life-changing experiences. The Preserve is a giant classroom without walls or ceiling. Students from low-income areas can learn how the natural world works and how people manage natural areas. They can gain confidence and hike, picnic, study, fish, hunt, bicycle, ride horses, ski, explore, contemplate, and find peace and solace. They can develop a personal bond with place that can pay forward for generations.
This is Caldera Action’s vision. As the National Park Service develops its overdue General Management Plan, we hope the public will tune in and help the Valles Caldera become a community center and a place to find a deep sense of belonging.