A Valles Caldera National Park At Long Last?

Famed former Baca Ranch could emerge as national park after failed “free market” experiment-

I have never been to this famous New Mexico supervolcano area with its scenic, but degraded grasslands and forests.  The area is notable for its elk, but the herd is much smaller than it could be due to the competition with livestock.

In 2000 this former ranch was purchased by the U.S. government to become a national preserve, but under the rules of right wing ideology.  The former ranch, as a preserve, was to be managed by the Valles Caldera Trust.  It was supposed to be run much like a ranch — generate its own income by grazing, logging, oil and gas, and maybe geothermal development, and expensive visitor fees. These are hardly the rules the public expects for land it bought for scenic and environmental protection.

At the time, I wrote the whole thing off as a waste of money doomed to fail, and I forgot about it.  I was right. The area could not support itself financially without destroying its amenities. Today it is overgrazed and too expensive to use, and the local public wants it transferred to the National Park Service to restore it and allow affordable public access.

There is a bill before Congress (S.3452) by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Tom Udall (D-NM) to transfer it to the Park Service.  If it becomes a national park, or some other public land unit, it will have to be rehabilitated.

RLMiller at Daily Kos has written a number of articles about it. Here is his latest. Hike On: A Valles Caldera National Park At Long Last? July 3, 2010



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  1. Virginia Avatar

    Ralph – how do you know that RLMiller is a male? Just wondering. I kind of thought RL was a female. Anyway, I have already written to the senators to encourage them to make this a national park. Let us hope it happens!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      I don’t really know RL’s sex.

    2. RLMiller Avatar

      Hi y’all. RL tries to leave her gender off the internet 🙂 In all seriousness and responding to comments below, most of the overdeveloped nat’l park units were overdeveloped long ago when entertainment of tourists took higher priority than conservation. Some of the newer and more remote NPS units — for example, Black Cyn of the Gunnison, CO and Mineral King in Sequoia Nat’l Park, CA are virtually untouched and unstaffed. Yosemite Valley has been overrun, but if you don’t want to be in 2% of the park holding 98% of the people, the rest of the park is glorious.

      Thanks for the link, Ralph!

    3. WM Avatar


      Thanks for weighing in. Your piece says national park. Tom Udall’s bill says national preserve. There can be huge differences in the way they are administered, and the activities which are allowed. Which is it likely to be?

      And, by the way, the reason the Black Canyon is primitive and has no staffing is there is nothing for them to do in this very small (30,000 acre NP). It is an incredibly beautiful natural natural phenomenon, but you either view it by car, short hiking trail or take the very long and difficult day long trip to the river bottom (which few people are inclined to do). There is little to manage. It is administered by NPS because they have responsibility for the Curicante National Rec. Area comprised of three Bureau of Rec. reservoirs in the alkali sage brush, that store water and that coincidentally regulates the flow on the Gunnison River through the canyon. BCG will never be a draw for tourists because it is in the middle of nowhere in a landscape which most find uninspiring (except the canyon itself). It also has virtually no administrative cost to run, from my recollection having been there before it was designated. Have you actually ever been there?

  2. Rusty Avatar

    I drove through there last year for the first time and the area could be very beautiful. The wife and I didn’t stop because the fields were full of cattle which is typical for public land everywhere but seems even more prevalent in New Mexico.

    1. jon Avatar

      Get those dam non native cattle out of there!

  3. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    It would be nice to see a new national park. Is this anywhere near the wolf recovery area?

    1. WM Avatar

      Any type of preserve as long as it is not a National Park administered by the worst of the NPS staffing. The best way to screw up a once beautiful natural area (even such as this which needs rehab from livestock overuse) is deed it over to those half-wits as a NP who will pave it over, put up more instructional signs than a CA freeway, build a dud visitors center and hire a bunch of national corporations to run food service and lodging at inflated prices, with no jobs for locals except busing dishes and changing bed sheets.

    2. ProWolf in WY Avatar
      ProWolf in WY

      WM, not every national park is like Yellowstone in that regard. The ones in Utah actually are pretty minimally staffed and paved. To see those ones you do actually have to get out of your car. If this one takes the model from those there is little to worry about.

    3. WM Avatar


      I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you.

      I have been in all of them in UT except Capitol Reef. Obviously you haven’t spent time in Zion, Bryce and Arches (done a fair amount of backpacking there) lots of pavement, lots of signs, restrictions up the wazoo. Canyonlands is primitive, but now the mountain bikers have taken it over, lots of places you can’t go so much anymore, and don’t get me talking about the town of Moab (see corporate issue above- not in the park but a service community for it). Escalante – Kaparowitz (BLM administration as a preserve) would be like what I would like to see. Its natural constraints keep it from ever being developed, fortunately.

      Then just across the border from UT, in CO is Mesa Verde – paved over and, within it there is my favorite, a newer access area – Park Service won’t let anybody go up on the Wetherill Mesa after Sept 1, because they are afraid some unprepared idiots will get snowed in and they will have to rescue them. Even if you are prepared and experienced they will deny access. I think I already mentioned on another thread about the arrogant NP employees who wouldn’t remove a couple of flourescent cones so that a few photographers could get a good picture of Spruce Tree house in Mesa Verde.

      Don’t get me going on NPS and their administration. It is run by ambitious bureaucrats and large corporate food service and lodging interests. Bob Jackson may come out of the shadows and tell you more about good old NPS and their way of doing things.

    4. ProWolf in WY Avatar
      ProWolf in WY

      I have not been to Zion or Bryce Canyon but I have been to Arches. Yes, it had signage but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Yellowstone nor was Capitol Reef or Canyonlands. As far as denying access due to weather I can see that. Yellowstone and Grand Teton have a lot more but even then I don’t think they have been ruined. From what I’ve heard, Yosemite is the epitome of what national parks should never become and it also matches your description. Has anyone here ever been to Yosemite that can confirm this?

    5. JB Avatar


      Perhaps we should put you in charge and you can devise a better system for accommodating 3 million visitors per year?

      As much as I am annoyed by all the visitors and yes, I have been harassed by half-wit rangers, I’m still amazed at the conditions in YNP. There are very few roads, and once you’re away from them, you’re in pretty wild country. NPS has a very different mission than the FS, FWS, or BLM, and the resources they have been put in charge with are among the most compelling.

    6. WM Avatar


      Yes, I do appreciate the huge difficulties in trying to herd through 3 million visitors a year. That huge number is indeed the problem; it is what they expect, how the park experience is given to them and how they behave. I just wanted to gripe, and hope for the possibility that others can do a better job of administering a preserve. At least sponsors of the legislation for the Valles Caldera seek National Preserve status instead of national park.

      Regardless of formal designation, NPS staff always seems to have the obligatory need to advertize to get the numbers up there, so they can justify new expenditures and more staffing. It is part of the bureaucratic game for high level administrators (don’t get me going on that as I have reviewed several park master plans which have called for “improvements” which will allow even more people in a defined geographic space during a park summer season – more campgrounds; more new and bigger existing visitors centers and more in park services and accomodations; more access roads following valley bottom rivers and streams, which degrade the resource and the experience.). It is like they never heard the term carrying capacity at the same time they introduce and try to adhere to contradictory concepts like “soundscapes.”

      Other criticisms aside, BLM, FS and FWS seem to do a pretty good job of administering their second tier (my term) national treasures that have been set aside as preserves/monuments under their purview. I hope whatever is in store for Valle Caldera does not involve the words “national park” and, contrary to the lead article by RL Miller, the accompanying video seems to pretty strongly suggest the sponsors want something else, even though under NPS administration.



      I avoided Yosemite for years, but a couple of years ago my wife convinced me we should make the trip. She wanted to do her own large format B&W photos from some of the same vantage points as Ansel Adams. Campgrounds were a menagerie and our campsites were reserved months in advance. Trails in some instances worn down wider than a car width, and fresh horse manure four inches deep on a couple, although to some extent they try to do parallel horse and pedestrian paths. Tour buses full of foreign visitors, some of whom have different views of personal space, as they crowd you out trying to get a video of a major waterfall with their traveling companions in the foreground. To be fair, Americans do it too.

      I felt compelled to act one afternoon, when I saw a couple of obnoxious teen-agers spitting out sunflower seed shells at a fairly crowded viewing area. The NPS ranger was too busy talking to notice what was going on. I just kneeled down; picked up a bunch of one kid’s freshly expelled seed shells and said in a VERY loud voice – Excuse me. I think you dropped these, and there are more for you and your little friends to pick up.” It worked, and eventually engaged the ranger to oversee the enterprise.

      I have mentioned before a good read called Olympic Battleground by Carston Lien (Mountaineers press). It is the story is about the creation of Olympic NP but draws heavily on the history of the creation of the National Park system, in the vision of the first Park Superintendent Stephen Mather. He saw Yosemite as an amusement park, and did, in fact, promote shows, and night feeding of bears garbage under lights, where tourists could come to watch from bleachers. And then, Yosemite has the luxury Ahwahnee hotel with its fancy swimming pool (talk about a reason to puke).

      The Ahwahnee is still there in all its glory, but the other gaudy stuff of Mather’s time is gone. Also long gone are the Native Americans (Paiute and a couple other tribes), who once inhabited the valley.

      The scenery is stunning, and there are great hikes, backpack trips for those with the foresight to make backcountry reservations, and the challenges of rock climbing for those inclined. But you won’t be alone, that is for sure, and to me that is the part that is most disappointing. I guess, like Yellowstone or many other high use parks, one can adjust their trips to avoid crowds by going before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. But even these off season periods are getting crowded as our population grows.

    7. JB Avatar


      Most people are unaware that NPS is in charge of a wide range of types of resources (e.g. national monuments, seashores, parks, and even wilderness). While in recent years they have leaned more toward the preservation of resources, there is still no escaping the so-called “dual mandate” to protect while at the same time providing for the use of resources. Resource damage has been shown to be related to human use in a non-linear fashion; specifically, very little use can cause pretty serious degradation (use/damage graphs end up looking similar to this: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/03081/images/fig4.gif). In response, NPS (and in some cases FS and BLM) have chosen to harden surfaces (e.g. pavement, boardwalks) and “focus” recreation in areas that are the most sought after. This ends not only reducing resource degradation (by reducing use of the back country) it also allows them to provide for different types of experiences. For example, despite 3 million users, my wife and I have backpacked in the back country of YNP and, on some days, not seen any people.

      I certainly agree with your complaints about administrators and, as I said (above), I have had a number of less then pleasing experiences with park personnel. But given how little resources they receive, I think NPS does a remarkable job, in most instances (but don’t get me started on Yosemite).

  4. Nancy Avatar

    Thought this comment stood out in the many following RL Miller’s article……….

    Beautiful RLMiller got me longing to get out… (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:la urracca, RLMiller
    my back pack & fly rod and disappear for awhile.

    I have one question though, probably a dumb one. Why does this gorgeous land have an annual budget of 4.4 million dollars?

    It’s land and will survive if left alone. Land exists before and long after we humans.
    Why does it cost anything?

    Critics say the whole emphasis on commercial exploitation is misplaced. Since the trust only generates about 20 percent of the money it needs to run the preserve, it needs 80 percent to come from some new enterprises — a huge amount. Meanwhile, it has been receiving $3.5 million a year from the federal government — public money, to be exact — to meet its annual budget of $4.4 million. I don’t think anyone is getting their money’s worth. – emphasis added.

  5. mikepost Avatar

    One of the issues with the purchase of land with gun and tackle taxes is that those funds cannot be used to operate a piece of property. There is plenty (relatively speaking) of cash to buy land, but then the operating and managment expenses kick in and the poor agency that is presented this “gift” has to find funding. That leads to goofy “arrangements” and quid pro quo trade offs to sustain the property.

    The succesful operations have a dedicated 501c3 that supports the operation.

    1. pointswest Avatar

      I have been to Valles Caldera literally hundreds of times. I have backpacked it, X-country skied it, and have hunted in it. There are a couple of hot springs there that my friends and I would go to about every weekend. It is only about 45 miles north of Albuquerque where I lived for several years.

      It is a very large caldera about 35 miles across. It is mostly forested but the collapsed center of the caldera is a relatively flat open prairie about a dozen miles across. It is a nice change of geographic pace from the vast deserts of New Mexico but it is really nothing special. Island Park is a much larger caldera and is much, much more interesting and beautiful. The Valles Caldera, although largely forested, is very dry and the trees are mostly P-pine and the forest supports cactus. There is hardly a stream in it. Yes, there are some elk and deer and a grassy prairie you can look across but I do not believe it is worthy of National Park designation. Island Park has miles of large streams that are blue ribbon fisheries, it has hundreds of ponds and marshes full of wildlife, it has one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the USA, it has three very large springs, about the largest springs in the West, and Island Park has a ton of wildlife. Island Park has views of the Centennial Range, Madison Range, and of the Tetons and it has Henry’s lake, another blue ribbon fishery. The Valles Caldera has none of that. It reminds me of Antelope Flats west of Island Park towards the desert.

      I like other areas in New Mexico much better. The area Georgia O’Keefe fell in love with called Abiquiu or The Ghost Ranch is a favorite of mine. It is pink and indescribable. It made O’keefe famous. I liked the Gila Wilderness and that area down in southwest NM in general. It is where the wolf recovery area is and there are several streams full of trout…including the endangered Gila trout. I liked the Truchas Peaks and the Pecos Wilderness. I also liked the Blanca Peak area and Ruidoso. I like an area call Quemado. The Valles is a yawn in my opinion.

      I think it has interest only due to is location near Albuquerque and especially to Santa Fe. All the artists, hippies, and ecologists in Santa Fe are probably in favor of designating the Valles since it is an easy hour drive away and you can see it by car, but it is really nothing very impressive in my opinion. New Mexico has many much more beautiful and interesting areas worthy of special preservation.

  6. RLMiller Avatar

    Replying to WM: Yes, I visited BLCA in 2007. I believe Valles Caldera will end up as a nat’l preserve, rather than park, so as to allow hunting and other uses not normally found in nat’l parks. They’re trying to placate all stakeholders.

  7. WM Avatar


    I just have to throw in one more gripe, since I am on a roll here and you seem to be listening. This is a recent one, that illustrates how out of touch NPS is with preserving experiences in nature, and specifically flagship national parks. Olympic NP has a couple of very narrow discontinuous coastal strips, one is south of the mouth of the Hoh River, where there are named and numbered beaches – eg. “Beach 3 or Third Beach.” There are campgrounds in a couple of these areas, which are all high bank, allowing unobstructed views west across the blue Pacific. If not for the curvature of the earth you could see all the way to Japan (just kidding). Sunsets can be spectacular, and it is neat to watch cloud banks or low fog roll in from the distance from your camp site. The sound of the pounding surf is less than a hundred yards away, with trails down to the beaches which can run for miles at low tide. A couple of these very special campgounds have a few numbered campsites along the very edge of the high bank, and more sites further to the east in the shelter of scrubby trees.

    Huge motorhomes and trailers pulled by large trucks especially like these edge bank spots. They readily occupy them (no advance reservation system). But these guys sometimes stay for as long as the regulations allow. Seven days is what I recall, then they move to occupy another space, or drive around the campground loop to technically reoccupy as a “new” camper the very same spot for another seven days. The problem is these long and tall vehicles totally obstruct the view of tent campers in the more numerous camp sites behind them to the east. And then……there are the generators these RV campers run at all hours from morning (gotta watch the Today show with your satellite TV or run the microwave) to night (video movie sci fi or WFF wrestling), that even drowns out the soothing sounds of the surf. Nothing like returning from an invigorating beach walk, or laying in your tent at night, being forced to listen to some ass- —‘s generator or the loud appliances they power until 10 pm, when the regs. finally require them to be turned off. Often even those rules are ignored because there is no ranger working that late to enforce the rule.

    This problem has an easy no-cost fix. No generators and no occupation of certain camp spots by RV’s or trailers. Numerous constructive requests from tent campers have been made to champion this change over several years. Bureaucrats are unaccountable and don’t like change, even if in the best interests of the public and the statutory mission they (are supposed to) serve. Damn two-faced NPS!


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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