Letter to the Editor: Public Access on the Valles Preserve

Los Alamos

Concerning public access policies and attitudes of staff and most board members of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, Greg Kendall’s Dec. 7 analysis is right on. The “Temporarily Closed” sign in your photo actually dates from 2001. 

The signs are installed almost within sight of each other on the entire 50-mile fence surrounding the preserve. The government spent $101 million dollars of public assets to purchase the land and $3 million to $7 million per year for management. A major focus of staff has been, and still is, to control and limit public access to public land. They have assembled a long litany of reasons for the restrictions. Perhaps the most valid is that their private liability insurance policy is very expensive with very limited benefits; for reasons none of us understand, Congress has consistently refused to put the preserve in the federal insurance system. Still, is that sufficient reason and when does “temporary” end?

At their September meeting, the board of the VCNP approved Jason Lott’s motion to allow free roaming on the preserve. It was a very limited proposal, restricting the number of people at any time, constraining entrance and parking to the contact visitor center in the Valle Grande, and charging $10 per adult. Still, it was a small crack in their monolithic public exclusion policy.

The board approved Jason’s motion with modifications, but I was willing to bet real money that staff would find a way around it. I couldn’t attend the December Albuquerque board meeting that rescinded the motion. I suspect they scheduled the location so far away to avoid the fury of local people closer to the preserve. Greg’s disgust is fully justified and has been shared for years by local outdoor groups.

Jason’s proposal would not have resolved Greg’s ability to go up on the rim above Cañada Bonita, or, better yet, an evening stroll to the rim above Camp May with Karen to watch the sun set over the Valle Grande, as many of us used to do when the Dunigans owned the property. We have had many meetings about access with staff over the years, and I have argued that opening that short stretch of rim might mitigate some of the animosity that Los Alamos has built up against the VCNP. The hang-up seems to be that they can’t devise a way to 
collect fees for entry in that remote location.

I personally have had good access to the preserve, both as a volunteer on their projects and for projects I initiated by writing proposals and filing final reports. I and members of my small crews had to undergo training and sign waivers. It is a prickly relationship with staff. We are well aware of each other’s positions but we are all polite and the people are personally likeable.

Even so, for me it is galling that few other taxpayers have the same access to their public land. Staff has opened the hillside south of State Road 4 to free access and allow access to the caldera when there is sufficient snow; neither action seems to have any adverse consequences. It is unlikely that Jason Lott’s modest proposal would have great hordes of people swarming over the grasslands and hillsides either.

The 2000 enabling legislation for the preserve states that the board must demonstrate that the preserve can become financially self-sustaining within 15 years and actually be self-sustaining within 20 years. Failing that outcome, the land would revert to the National Forest Service. A previous board confirmed to Congress what we all knew: that the Valles Caldera does not have the resources to ever become self-sustaining under federal regulations for the management of public land. This is the third year that the bill to transfer the preserve to the National Park Service has been before the Senate. The bill will expire at midnight Dec. 31 if not passed beforehand by both houses. My prediction is that time will just run out to 2020 and, in the meantime, staff will do its utmost to restrict access to their private fief.