For more than a century folks have talked about creating a national park around the unique geology and beautiful landscapes of the Valles Caldera area in New Mexico. Now the latest National Park Service study on that proposal reconfirms that the caldera's landscape is suitable for inclusion and says such an acquisition would be feasibly sound.
Located in north-central New Mexico and surrounded by a good handful of other National Park System units, Valles Caldera, as guest writer Tom Ribe noted earlier this month, "is a circle of 11,200-foot mountains that cradle vast valleys full of grass and wildlife and rippled with hot springs and clear creeks. Its rim mountains are cloaked in fir, aspen, pine and spruce."
The latest NPS study, requested by U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall of New Mexico and attached below, builds on previous Park Service studies of the area produced in 1939, 1964, 1977, and 1979. The difference with this one is that it focuses primarily on the feasibility, not the suitability, of adding the nearly 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve to the National Park System. The suitability question long ago was settled, the Park Service notes.
The key finding is that the feasibility for the preserve to be managed by the National Park Service has been enhanced by three principal changes in conditions: federal acquisition of the site; the introduction of visitor use and resource protection measures by the Valles Caldera Trust; and the enhancement of site understanding through natural and cultural resource inventories and scientific investigations sponsored by the (Valles Caldera) Trust, concludes the report.
That's not to say there aren't issues that the Park Service would be saddled with if Congress approved the addition. Decades of logging have taken a toll on the landscape, cattle grazing has impacted grasslands, the existing roads are in so-so condition, and watersheds are not in pristine condition, according to the study.
Over 58% of the forests were logged prior to 1992. The composition and function of Preserve ecosystems have been impacted; the forest structure departs significantly from sustainable natural conditions and is now dominated by dense stands of small diameter trees. Unlike the ecological condition of grasslands and riparian communities, forest conditions will not improve if left alone. Forest restoration to reduce fire hazards, improve wildlife habitat, and watershed health will require a significant investment (thinning, prescribed burns, wildland fire use, etc) to return them to a healthy condition. The Trust is currently pursuing limited forest restoration efforts through controlled burns and forest thinning as funding allows. Some America Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding is available for work on the western boundary east into Redondo Canyon and along Rabbit Mountain during the spring of 2010.
A number of high elevation forests found on a series of eruptive domes within the caldera still retain over 800 miles of crudely blazed spiral logging roads created to harvest timber. Many of the road scars are now visually obscured by the regeneration of vegetation on the slopes between road corridors, although erosion can still be a problem during heavy rainfall events. An extensive roadway network can also be found throughout the valley floors. The Preserve has upgraded 16 of the 184 miles of road that have been designated for public and administrative access. This effort has enhanced natural drainage and returned natural flows to approximately 3,000 acres of wetlands.
At the same time, the report reinforces past conclusions that Valles Caldera is a highly significant area that would be a perfect fit in the National Park System.
The national significance of the geological resources of the Valles Caldera was formally recognized in 1975 when the area was designated a National Natural Landmark. The resources of the Valles Caldera also meet the National Park Service’s established standards of national significance for new national parklands for the following reasons:
1) The Valles Caldera is considered one of the world’s best intact examples of a resurgent caldera.
2) The Valles Caldera possesses exceptional value in illustrating and interpreting the phenomenon of large volcanic eruptions, their deposits, and caldera resurgence.
3) The Valles Caldera’s unique setting, consisting of a series of expansive grassland valleys and montane forests, provides outstanding scenic value and an array of superlative opportunities for public recreation, reflection, education, and scientific study.
4) The geologic features of Valles Caldera retain a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled resource.
Valles Caldera would expand and enhance the diversity of volcanic sites already represented by other parks in the system. Moreover, Valles Caldera offers the opportunity to illustrate the connection of human history in the region that is showcased at Bandelier National Monument with the geologic history of the Valles Caldera that helped shape the surrounding mesa and canyon landscape.
The 88,900 acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, contained within an approximately 13-mile wide caldera rim in north central New Mexico, is of sufficient size and appropriate configuration to facilitate long-term, sustainable resource protection and visitor enjoyment. It is now in public ownership. A majority of the land surrounding the Preserve is under management by the U.S. Forest Service; management of adjacent lands is expected to remain compatible with park values. Visitor use has been introduced, and the Preserve offers untapped potential for public enjoyment. Over the past seven years, the Valles Caldera Trust has inventoried and established baseline resource conditions and initiated proactive measures to improve range, forest, and watershed conditions impacted by centuries of land use. These resource stewardship efforts have enhanced the feasibility of NPS management.
For more details on to see how the NPS would go about managing the preserve, take a look at the 34-page report.