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HOME arrow BLOG arrow Time for Action on Valles Caldera NP
Time for Action on Valles Caldera NP
Written by Guest Tom Ribe, President of Caldera Action   
Wednesday, 08 April 2009

   With November’s election results, New Mexico moved into a new era of possibilities for achieving our common environmental goals. While the list of needed actions is long, the need to transform management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains is a high priority. As I write, the VCNP is taking a truly perilous course and it will take a strong coalition of organizations to protect this “Yellowstone of New Mexico” from commercialization and development. We hope you will actively join us.

    Caldera Action is a 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2007 to advocate for the protection of the VCNP’s natural environment and to promote appropriate public access. We have a hard-working board that has studied the VCNP situation closely and we’ve drafted federal legislation to reform the VCNP. Naturally to succeed we need a full coalition of conservation, science and education groups to prevail upon a receptive Congress.

 In 2000 when the federal government purchased the VCNP a compromise was struck between those who didn't want more public land in New Mexico and those who wanted the VCNP protected as federal land with high environmental standards. Rather than setting up the Preserve under an agency, a "Trust" was created to manage the Preserve. This Trust basically is a "government corporation "overseen by a board of mostly private-sector Trustees. These Trustees supervise a staff and together they struggle under a mandate to become "financially self-sufficient" by 2015. No other piece of wildland has this management structure and, frankly, it's not working.

  The Trust is an “experiment” where the private sector was supposed to manage public lands better than federal agencies could.  Despite a strong mandate from Congress to protect the environment at the VCNP, more and more the Preserve is being run like a business with little regard for the public interest. The new executive director has stated that his job is to commercialize the Preserve to achieve financial self sufficiency. Soon, there may be proposals for lodges, golf, full-hookup campgrounds, and new paved roads plus high public fees. Expect all this to be rushed with an aggressive PR campaign and minimal compliance with federal law.

   Rather than entirely focusing on the actions of the VCNP Trustees, Caldera Action is taking a big picture view. We feel strongly that the whole Trust model is a failure and worse, it encourages privatization and the sort of commercial development on the VCNP that inspired the public to demand federal purchase back in 2000!

  In response, Caldera Action has submitted a draft bill to our congressional delegation seeking to have the VCNP transferred to the National Park Service as a Preserve. The restoration of the damaged ecology would continue, protection of headwaters of the Jemez River would be an emphasis, and the VCNP would become an accessible place of rare quality where people could have exceptional outdoor experiences in a well-protected environment.

Our legislation would:

• Replace the experimental public-private Trust with professional management under the National Park Service.  It will remove the unrealistic and unattainable financial self-sufficiency provision of the original Act.

• Guarantee the long-term protection of the Preserve’s natural and cultural heritage so that we can all experience the sense of wonder that comes from individual discovery of this unique and significant landscape.

• Mandate a Comprehensive Management Plan for the Preserve that will integrate resource protection, expanded public recreation, watershed restoration, scientific research and youth education, while maintaining the scientific adaptive management approach currently in place.

• Maintain and improve hunting and fishing opportunities offered on the property.

• Allow for limited domestic livestock grazing if consistent with the primary purposes of protecting natural and cultural resources, and educational, recreational, and scenic values.  It will remove the mandate to operate the Preserve as a working ranch.

• Foster sustainable economic development in surrounding communities through increased visitation and provision of visitor facilities and services.

• Achieve management efficiency and cost savings by sharing administrative, law enforcement, and resource management staffs with neighboring Bandelier National Monument and incorporate the upper watersheds of Alamo, Capulin and Sanchez Canyons into the Preserve.

    We feel strongly that the National Park Service is the best management agency for the VCNP given the Preserve’s national importance and the increasing demand for public access. The NPS manages 18 national preserves and a variety of other non-national park properties nation wide.

    Caldera Action will call you soon to meet with you to get your ideas, discuss our proposal, and your involvement with it. We hope you will help your membership get involved as we did for the Valle Vidal so we can rescue the VCNP early in the Obama administration.

Tom Ribe, President

(NOTE; Continue reading to view a related news article in which the business options for the Caldera are revealed.)

--- begin quoted ---

Caldera discloses business options
By ROGER SNODGRASS, Monitor Editor

In a presentation last week, the Valles Caldera Trust offered a preliminary look at a self-sufficiency plan for the 89,000-acre national preserve under its charge.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve was founded in 2000, when the federal government bought the old Baca Ranch for $101 million.

Conceived as an independent experiment in public land management, the preserve is now about halfway through the 20-year start-up program outlined by Congress in its authorizing legislation, but the governing board has yet to demonstrate prospects for “long term sustainability” consistent with the sometimes conflicting set of purposes Congress prescribed.

The new plan considers an ambitious program of new construction and infrastructure improvements, starting with a Visitors Center and Headquarters and assorted revenue enhancing projects over the next several years that might include high-end and mid-level lodging establishments.

The cost estimates range between $53 million and $21 million, bounded by a high-low set of options that are analyzed in detail.

The main difference between them can be attributed to a $13 million luxury hunting lodge and a $14 million mid-scale lodge with a restaurant, along with more development generally in the pricier alternative.

New revenues would come on top of current income generated by hunting, fishing, grazing and a variety of public access programs. About 15,400 visitors came through the gates in 2009, compared to 250,000 annually at nearby Bandelier National Monument.

The strategy suggests an effort to encourage visitors to spend extra time, including an overnight in the area after visiting Bandelier, which is usually a day trip from nearby tourist destinations.

The financial analyses and projections are based on multiple variables and assumptions that have been carefully researched by a commercial firm which was awarded a contract “to prepare a strategic business plan” in March 2008.

Reporters were individually called into an office in Santa Fe for a long-distance computer presentation by project leaders of Entrix, a group of economists and resource managers who have performed major feasibility studies and business plans for public land agencies including the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

The reporters agreed to an embargo on the information for release after Monday.

Entrix Project Manager Gretchen Greene said up front that the 232-page report “is not a business plan, but rather a financial information plan,” that analyzes possible activities and revenue generating options.

The document was due in September 2008 and delivered on Dec. 31, according to the Trust’s report to Congress for last year. A further period of review has followed.

A few days before the report was unveiled, officials of the trust said during the presentation, it was decided to table one of the revenue enhancing options that is discussed in detail in the report.

Now off the table is a plan for “green burial,” – described as “an environmentally friendly style of providing end-of-life care.”

The report states, “Green burial uses dry ice or refrigeration to preserve the body, encloses the body in a biodegradable casket or simply a shroud and does not use a vault.”

The “green burial” business was an idea favored by former Trust Chair Tracy Hephner and had been mentioned informally in public discussions during meetings. The report noted that it was identified as an option during the public meeting process in 2007.

Trust officials said the green burial enterprise was considered because of its potentially high returns for each $4,000 burial and low risk because the up-front costs were minimal.

But it was removed from immediate consideration after objections by the Native American neighbors, with whom the Trust is obliged to consult, according to the enabling act.

During the presentation, Entrix demonstrated various tweaks in the flexible pricing structure and slightly more optimistic revenue estimates that might make up for absence of the burial service, which was, by a fraction, the single most lucrative source of annual revenue (20 percent) identified in the plan.

Among possible ways to make up the difference, Vice Chair Ed Tinsley said the Mid Level Lodge might charge $210 per day instead of $150.

An increase in the $5 entrance fee per visitor, or realizing slightly more than currently projected purchases per visitor or adding a breeding program to the cattle grazing program were among other possibilities mentioned for closing the gap.

The trust officials said that a $10 million Education and Research Center would partly pay for itself by attracting scientific grants and projects that could reduce environmental compliance costs under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Some expenses will depend heavily on whether funding comes from appropriations or must be financed by the enterprises themselves.

The plan includes a fundraising effort from donations by private individuals and universities, amounting to $525,000 a year.

Downside risks for the hotel developments, the report observes, include “a lack of infrastructure currently in place, possible political and social resistance to developments on the preserve, and federal employees who are generally not trained in hospitality management.”

There are ways to mitigate the weaknesses, as well, such as “green development strategies and hiring concessionaires for operation of the lodges.”

But leases longer than 10 years with potential partners may not be possible under the current legislative contingencies.

The Entrix report, which contains valuable marketing and economic development information, is available at www.vallescaldera.gov/about/trust/docs/VCTRevenuePlan20090327.pdf.

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