A View From The Overlook: Land Access

Will Valles Caldera National Preserve ever be added to the National Park System? Photo by Tom Ribe.

“The land, like the sun, like the air we breathe, belongs to everyone----and to no one.”

I saw that quote inscribed on an interpretive plaque in Mount Rainier National Park. The quote was incorrectly attributed to the sometime park ranger and full time environmental gadfly, Edward Abbey.

The actual speaker was the Mexican Revolutionary leader, Emiliano Zapata.

Can’t say I blame the NPS for getting them confused. Had Abbey and Zapata lived in the same time and place, they would have been the best of friends; both were familiar with the ideas of the Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. All three of them had rather relaxed views on what constituted private property.

However, the quote, when you think about it, is rather dangerous one; it could also be used by a West Virginia coal company to justify mountain top removal. “That cheap potential electrical energy belongs to us all, so we must all share the burden of polluted air, water, and destroyed landscape; we are all guilty, we are all innocent; it’s nobody’s fault.”

It is, of course, somebody’s fault or at least somebody’s responsibility. Now that Humankind has become an actual geological and geographical force like wind, water, and ice, capable of changing whole landscapes, we do have to take responsibility for the outcome.

Who Owns The Public Lands?

Understandably, in a free society, there is some debate about which best manages the national patrimony, the land: Is it the public sector or the private sector?

To Congressman Steve Pearce, (R-NM), the question is a total no-brainer; private ownership winning hands down.

Congressman Pearce has a knack for telling his constituents what they want to hear; mainly that the federal government has too much power and way too much land. Rep. Pearce would like to change that. Depending on how the election goes, he may have that opportunity.

In the interim, the congressman has played “double dare you,” egging on local county officials in his district to arrest or otherwise harass U.S. Forest Service officers doing their duty, taunting the feds by bulldozing destructive roads on federal property and so on. So far, nobody’s been killed or injured by the congressman’s antics, but as the IRA would say, it’s only a matter of time.

Now does all this yelling and hollering result from a shortage of private land in New Mexico?

Not particularly.

Due to its heritage as an active Spanish colonial possession, much of what is now New Mexico was divided up into land grants divvied up by the king for past or future services.

So, unlike say Montana, Utah, or Wyoming, much of New Mexico was actually owned by folks of European descent when we Yanks took over in the 1840s (Whiney Native Americans who said, “Now just a darned minute!” had long since been shouldered aside).

These Spanish land grants were largely honored by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, resulting in the preservation of huge, baronial ranches, many of which exist to this day.

This is all to the good, as large tracts of semi-desert rangeland are easier to manage than fragmented parcels.

How Does "Bandelier National Park and Preserve" Sound?

One of these was the Baca Grant in Northwestern New Mexico, a 95,000-acre ranch that contains the spectacular Valles Grande Caldera, one of the largest volcanic calderas in North America if not the world. It is rich in forests, grass, and wildlife.

Many said that the Valles Caldera would be a natural addition to the adjoining Bandelier National Monument, creating Bandelier National Park & Preserve (The “Preserve” bit to Allow the continuance of world-class elk hunting; the NPS already has some 13 such “preserves).

The Baca Ranch was owned by the Texas oilman and environmentalist Pat Dunnigan (No, “oilman and environmentalist” is not an oxymoron; such creatures do exist and Dunnigan was one of them.) He had no particular qualms about selling his ranch to the National Park Service, though, understandably, he did not want to take a bath. Negotiations dragged on.

Dunnigan passed away but his heirs and the government finally agreed on a price, $97 million, from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the year 2000.

A win-win situation? A new "national park?" Not quite, neighbors.

Enter the mischievous Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM). To say that Senator Domenici has some reservations about environmental preservation is to understate the case. Indeed, “The Green Elephants,” Republicans for Environmental Responsibility, (Yes, there are such Republicans) voted Mr. Domenici the most environmentally destructive senator in Congress; quite an achievement, considering the competition.

Senator Domenici was faced with the dire threat of that Leading Purveyor of State Socialism, the National Park Service, establishing a new and enlarged national park in his state. What to do?

Rather than a national park or even a national forest, the senator insisted on a new experiment; a sort of hybrid “Preserve” that would be run for a profit or at least self-sufficiency. It would be managed by a board of directors drawn from both the private and public sectors and if it was not self sufficient by the year 2017, it would become part of Santa Fe National Forest.

Now that sounded like an interesting experiment. There were those who suggested that this model of successful “private enterprise” could be used as a template to privatize most public land.

Doesn’t seem to be happening this way. The increasingly questioning public is being denied access to their $97 million purchase except under restrictive and rather expensive permits. The “Preserve’s” board of directors have come up with some colorful ideas to raise money for the Preserve, including (my favorite) selling the Boy Scouts the exclusive right to collect and sell elk antlers shed on the Preserve. (A similar agreement is in place at the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming)

All to no avail. It doesn’t look like the Valles Caldera National Preserve is going to become fiscally solvent anytime soon.

Ranching Is Not For The Meek Or Poor

Why not? Well that’s just the way Capitalism works neighbors. You see, owning a ranch is the most romantic way of going broke in America. Almost all ranches require some sort of subsidy, as gentleman rancher Theodore Roosevelt found out.

America’s largest contiguous ranch, New Mexico’s 590,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch, is subsidized in bad years by its owner, TV mogul Ted Turner, who must charge you $12,000 to hunt elk on his property. (To be fair, that includes five days of board and room and a guide. Ted’s immediate neighbor, telecommunications taipan, John C. Malone, owns the 200,000-acre Bell Ranch. Mr. Malone, America’s largest landowner, has instructed his ranch manager that the goal is to break even, with the realization that that is not going to happen very often.

You will recall that the previous owner of the Baca Ranch was a Texas oilman. Down in the boot heel of southwestern New Mexico, we have the huge 502-square-mile Diamond A Ranch (Formerly the Gray Ranch) owned by the cowboy poet, Drummond Hadley. As there is a limited market for cowboy poetry, it helps that Mr. Hadley is one of the heirs to the Anheuser-Busch fortune. As long as you continue to drink Budweiser, the Diamond A ranch will flourish.

As far as access to these private lands, well, that can be a bit dicey. Ted Turner needs to charge you $500 a day to go birding or hiking on his property. I called up Jennifer who handles public affairs for the Diamond A and asked if I could hike the Continental Divide Trail on their property. According to Jennifer, they’d love to have my company, but their lawyer advises against accommodating hikers due to liability.

John C. Malone, who owns land in Maine as well as New Mexico, has a solution for this problem. It seems that Maine has a law that completely absolves the property owner of any liability if a hunter, hiker, or other visitor is injured on their land. According to Malone, if New Mexico and other western states were to adopt an innocent right of passage law similar to Maine’s, it would make everyone happy by providing lawyer free access to private land.

So what is to become of Valles Caldera National Preserve? Well, now that Senator Domenici is retired, it looks like the public is going to eventually get public access to the land that they purchased fair and square.


My sincere appreciation to PJ Ryan for submitting this article to National Parks Traveler and thus provoking much thought and discussion.


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