Editor's note: Across the country, there are many spectacular landscapes that would fit appropriately within the National Park System. This article, the first in an occasional series that looks at some of these places, describes Valles Caldera National Preserve and explains why it would make a strong addition to the park system. To stay abreast of efforts to point out landscapes deserving of inclusion in the National Park System, along with reading the Traveler, check out People United For Parks.
After years when few additions have been made to the National Park System, many important places are poised to be added. A huge dormant volcano field in northern New Mexico might well become one of the first additions under the Obama administration. The 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains due west of Santa Fe might sound like an area already well-protected, but its management by a troubled private sector “trust” has activists campaigning hard for its inclusion in the National Park System this year.
The Valles Caldera 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 Valles Caldera stands at the center of the Pueblo Indian world of the Southwest with many living Pueblo communities a short distance from its flanks and the great “Anasazi” (ancestral pueblo) ruins at Bandelier National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and various state parks nearby.
Complementing its expansive wild beauty is the rich, colorful history of the area. Hispanos from centuries-old villages to its immediate north ventured into the caldera warily before the American army drove Apache and Navajo raiders from its forests in the 1860s. Pages from the Valles Caldera’s rough past tell of sheep ranchers grazing its valleys nearly to dust during the Depression, and loggers spiraling many of the mountains with logging roads until the 1970s.
But it's the rugged and spectacular scenery that most draws visitors. The Valles Caldera is a huge, dormant field of volcanoes that erupted between 1 million and 20 million years ago. The volcanism sculpted a magnificent and well-preserved complex of landscape features. The Pajarito Plateau (where the National Park Service’s Bandelier National Monument lies just east of the Valles Caldera) reveals orange and pink volcanic cliffs, rich with archeological sites. Many of the high Jemez Mountains formed by massive volcanic ash-spewing eruptions are contained within the Valles Caldera National Preserve and excite geologists, many of whom have called for the preserve to be declared a World Heritage Site.
Interestingly, the latest movement for national park status is not the first for Valles Caldera. Nearly a century ago the area repeatedly drew the interest of national park planners. Today Valles Caldera offers the Park Service a chance to interpret this rich human history and extraordinary volcanism for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Bandelier National Monument and to nearby Santa Fe, (one of the most visited tourist destinations in the United States).
Conservationists see its livestock-worn landscape and numerous old logging roads as a prime place for the Park Service to lead environmental restoration programs employing young people from nearby low-income areas while helping establish a stronger land ethic in the area. Along with the restoration work, the preserve offers exceptional environmental and science education prospects as well, given its accessibility and the ease with which people can visit its varied environments.
Adding Valles Caldera to the National Park System would technically be relatively easy, as the land already is owned by the federal government. In 2000 the land occupied by the preserve was purchased by the federal government amid a political battle between those who felt New Mexico had too much public land and many others who saw the exceptional beauty of the Valles Caldera threatened by continued private ownership, ranching and potential real estate development. As a compromise, rather than setting up the preserve under an agency such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Park Service, a "trust" was created to manage the preserve as a "government corporation" (like the Post Office) overseen by a board of term-limited, politically appointed private-sector trustees. Critics say these nine trustees have been reinventing public-land management in largely closed meetings as they struggle under a mandate to become "financially self-sufficient" by 2015. No other piece of wild Western land has this structure, and few people -- including the trustees themselves -- believe it can work.
With little public resistance, conservationists led by a group called Caldera Action have pressed New Mexico’s congressional delegation to introduce legislation that would abolish the VCNP Trust and transfer Valles Caldera to the National Park Service as a reserve (similar to Mojave National Preserve or Big Thicket National Preserve) where hunting and fishing would continue but national park standards would apply.
Thanks to support from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and the National Parks and Conservation Association among others, Caldera Action has written legislation for the Valles Caldera hoping to assist the Senate in crafting a bill in the over-worked Washington environment. With three freshmen House members representing New Mexico, all eyes are on New Mexico’s senior senator, Jeff Bingaman.
Senator Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked the National Park Service to conduct a feasibility study in 2009 and indications are, with continued public encouragement, that a bill establishing the Valles Caldera National Preserve as America’s newest National Park Preserve will pass in 2010.