In May, Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that transfers title to the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service.
This is big news because the intention of the original bill creating the preserve, passed by Congress in 2000 and signed by President Bill Clinton, was to maintain the formerly private property as a "working ranch." Congress also created a nine-member trust to manage the preserve and charged it with the unprecedented mission of combining ecological stewardship with financial self-sufficiency.
It was an audacious and visionary experiment in public-lands management and quite controversial. It looked to some like an intriguing step forward in the effort to confront the fiscal, bureaucratic and procedural gridlock engulfing the federal estate. To others, it was a dangerous step in the wrong direction.
Now, it looks like an experiment in danger of expiring prematurely. According to the original act that created the preserve, the trust had to balance and integrate six separate goals:
- Operate the preserve as a "working ranch," with an emphasis on stewardship and ecological and economic sustainability;
- Protect the preserve's exceptional qualities for future generations;
- Multiple use and sustained yield, managing resources for revenue generation in a manner that does not impair the productivity and health of the land;
- Public access and recreation;
- Provide benefits to local economies, being sensitive to the diverse values of neighbors, and utilizing their skills to save money;
- Optimize income, striving to become financially self-sufficient by 2015.
This last goal was the most controversial. What did "financial self-sufficiency" on public land mean exactly? According to a Draft Framework for the Preserve, published in 2003 by the trust, it meant being businesslike so that the preserve could eventually eliminate its reliance on annual federal appropriations. The framework's authors admitted this was a novel, untested, and complex goal.
There were two concerns among conservationists and others on this point. First, could the trust resist the temptation to "optimize income" without overgrazing, overlogging, or overrecreating? And second, isn't the reason that public land exists in the first place to protect it from the profit motive?
Examples of sustainable management on private working ranches that maintain ecological integrity while providing financial self-sufficiency are widespread today. Also, the challenges of the 21st century — climate change, ecological services, local food production, alternative energy, water scarcity — require a new approach to public-land stewardship. Furthermore, in this era of massive federal deficits, the idea of financial self-sustainability on the federal estate is not a bad one!
I know that the implementation of the preserve's mission has been a rocky road so far. I have first-hand knowledge because I was part of the team that grazed the preserve with livestock in 2007. The preserve is nowhere near financial self-sufficiency yet. But is the answer to these problems abandonment of the vision?
The bill introduced by Sens. Udall and Bingaman replaces the original act entirely and eliminates the trust. It also eliminates the vision. While it allows livestock grazing and hunting to continue on the preserve, the bill uses the words "may allow," meaning they'll take place at the discretion of the secretary of the interior. And because hunting and livestock grazing are generally inimical to the mission of the Park Service, "may allow" will likely become "won't allow" eventually.
I believe the transference of the Valles Caldera to the National Park Service is a step backward. That's because the national park idea, whose roots extend back to the 19th century, is not well-suited for the onrushing, global challenges of the 21st century. In contrast, the Valles Caldera National Preserve, under its current mandate, has the potential to keep testing an innovative model that addresses pressing problems. For this reason, I think the experiment should run for a while longer.
Santa Fean Courtney White has worked on range and ranching issues in New Mexico for many years.
Please note, the comment system has been temporarily suspended. Comments will return with the launch of our new website on March 11, 2013. Please direct questions or concerns to web editor Natalie Guillen at
Thank you for your patience.