Letter to the Editor: Hiking Problems at VCNP Emphasize Need for NPS Management

Executive Director, Caldera Action

Recent events at the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) emphasize the urgency of having the National Park Service manage the VCNP as soon as possible. Senate Bill 285 is pending in Congress to bring NPS management to this national treasure as a Preserve. The longer the bill languishes in the low accomplishment Congress, the worse the situation at the Caldera becomes.

Caldera Action, a nonprofit organization focused on access and protection for the Valles Caldera National Preserve, was disappointed to learn that the open access hiking proposal passed at the Sept. 26 Valles Caldera Board of Trustees meeting was suspended at the Dec. 5 Board of Trustees meeting. The public has been actively requesting more, low cost access to the Preserve since 2001. The law establishing the Preserve in 2000 states that reasonable public access will be granted no later than 2002.

The Board of Trustees suspended the open hiking program after Jemez Pueblo pointed out that they had not been consulted about the proposal as required by the VCNP enabling legislation. Consultation with tribes is a core responsibility of all public land agency staffs and happens routinely at Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos National Laboratory for example.

Clearly the VCNP staff could have consulted with the Pueblos about open access hiking many times over the last 13 years. The VCNP legislation requires that the Trust carry out “consultation with Indian tribes and Pueblos, as are necessary and appropriate to carry out its authorized activities.” 

Hiking is authorized in the legislation and everyone involved, including local tribes has been aware of this. Further the existing legislation and Senate Bill 285 make clear protections for traditional access and activities and explicitly protect archaeological resources. Caldera Action does not believe that the open hiking access program should be suspended beyond the time it takes to consult with tribal officials. The Sept. 26 motion to open the VCNP to less structured hiking specifically contained a formal procedure for closing any area to hiking if tribal, endangered species, game, other concerns warranted a closure.

Once the tribes are consulted, we suspect that tribal areas of concern will closely match those identified in Senate Bill 285, the bill to transfer to VCNP to the National Park Service, which was written with intensive tribal consultation. That bill has very clear provisions to protect Pueblo ceremonial uses and has firm tribal consultation requirements for the National Park Service when they assume management of the VCNP. The current events emphasize the need to pass S 285 soon. Aside from the need to consult with the Pueblos, we find the other reasons for suspending the hiking program unconvincing.

The Associated Press reports, “He (Board of Trustees Chair Kent Salazar) added that review of endangered species, cultural resources, and habitat protection also needed to be considered before the plan goes into action.”

The VCNP staff has had 13 years to study hiking and other public access issues related to the Preserve. In 2007 the VCNP staff conducted a full Environmental Impact Statement and planning process on Public Access and Use at great expense. Public input into that process reflected strong public preference for unstructured hiking activities throughout the Preserve. Yet somehow all the planning and environmental studies conducted with the Public Access and Use need to be revisited now if the public walks around the Preserve which we all own.

The Jemez Mountains have some of the richest cultural and archaeological resources in the United States. The eastern Jemez and Pajarito Plateau sites have drawn international attention since the late 1800s, and many of the most significant sites are or were protected by the National Park Service within
Bandelier National Monument.

The Western Jemez has huge ruins of prehistoric and historic Towa villages, field houses, cavetes, and artifacts almost entirely on US Forest Service land where public access has few restrictions. We don’t know what consultations occur between the Forest Service and the Pueblos when off-road-vehicles, cattle grazing, and other ground disturbing activities occur directly on cultural sites on the Jemez District.

The VCNP is home to significant prehistoric obsidian mines, lithic scatters, and wildlife traps. Contemporary Pueblo people use sites and shrines there for cultural activities as they do within neighboring Bandelier National Monument.

We are disappointed that the open hiking program has been suspended but we trust that the confusion surrounding its implementation will abate soon and the policy will be fully put in place within appropriate limits. It is hard to imagine that hikers could damage the Preserve, especially once appropriate area closures are in place, and once we are all reminded that cultural properties on the VCNP are protected by the Antiquities Act, as they are on all federal lands in the United States.