A Golden Opportunity

A dormant super-volcano, Valles Caldera is one of the world’s most intriguing geological formations, yet private ownership and restrictive access have kept this marvel off-limits to most. But if it becomes a national park, all of that could change.


By Kelly Bastone


Standing on Rabbit Ridge, on the southern rim of the Valles Caldera, two worlds unfold below you. Gaze to the north and you see a stunning, 14-mile-wide volcanic crater: Ponderosa-covered mountains ring a grassy basin so vast, you have to turn your head to take in its immensity. No roads or buildings mar these meadows.

It’s a profoundly calming landscape, yet occasional bits of glassy black obsidian embedded in the boulders at your feet hint at the volcano’s cataclysmic past. Magma once exploded from this yawning mouth in eruptions that molded the New Mexico landscape for miles around—including 33,000-acre Bandelier National Monument to the south.

In fact, Bandelier’s boundary sits just steps away from this hike-to viewpoint. A signed fence on Rabbit Ridge delineates Park Service land from Valles Caldera National Preserve, two separately managed parcels that have something in common: The ash spewed in one of Valles Caldera’s eruptive fits created Bandelier’s tuff, the chalky stone that ancestral Puebloans carved into dwellings. You can’t discern Bandelier’s ruins from here, but you can admire big swaths of tuff that give the whole panorama a rosy glow.

For now, barbed wire separates the two properties, but advocates seek to close that rift by bringing Valles Caldera under Park Service management. Not only would its inclusion recognize this corner of northern New Mexico as a geological treasure, it would expand access to it—something would-be visitors have long desired.

More than a century of private ownership and ranching kept Valles Caldera off-limits to all but a few. Even after 2000, when it was purchased by the federal government and became public land, access was limited. Valles Caldera sees just 17,000 visitors annually, compared with 212,500 at Bandelier.

But Valles Caldera’s management structure is unique. An independent entity governed by a nine-person board of trustees (seven of the nine are presidential appointees), the Valles Caldera Trust is expected to generate its own operating expenses and become financially self-sufficient, like the private ranch it had once been—which has proven to be an unworkable mandate for public-lands management.

“The Trust has failed to provide adequate public access, and what access it does allow costs the public and the federal treasury 22 times more per visitor than nearby Bandelier National Monument,” wrote Tom Ribe, head of the watchdog group Caldera Action, in a letter to Congress that advocated for Valles Caldera’s designation as a national park unit. Ribe acknowledges the achievements the Trust has made over its ten years of management—namely, the management studies it has conducted to determine the land’s capacity to support livestock and visitor pressure. “But they’ve put recreation way down on the list,” says Ribe. “And that’s the beauty of the Park Service model. They create visitor facilities—restrooms, places to picnic—but they also preserve the land so that people who want to hike or fish can go deeper and do that.”

Management issues aside, Valles Caldera clearly merits Park Service status. Between its sweeping scenery and notable geology, this land is indisputably special. “It’s one of the most scenic areas in the state,” explains Jason Lott, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument. “In the caldera, you find silence, with few manmade intrusions. It’s almost like going back in time.” To understand what Lott means, visitors need only sit at treeline and watch elk emerge, with tentative grace, from the forest into the grassland.

Valles Caldera is sometimes called the “Yellowstone of the Southwest.” Both sites contain dormant super-volcanoes that once spewed massive amounts of magma over the surrounding landscapes (72 cubic miles at Valles Caldera, compared with 600 at Yellowstone). That was 1.25 million years ago, but, as in Wyoming, you can still see evidence of geothermal activity in the area’s many hot springs and steam vents. Although Valles Caldera may be smaller, its compact scale makes it easier to read geologic history, since its 14-mile ring is more visually obvious than Yellowstone’s sprawling, 44-mile-long crater.

The headwaters of the Jemez and San Antonio Rivers also converge here, so the caldera has immense value for area watersheds. And then there’s its link to the ancestral Puebloan dwellings preserved at Bandelier: Ancestors of today’s Jemez tribe built sacred sites on 11,254-foot Redondo Peak, the highest point on the crater’s rim. Obsidian formed here is of such high quality that spear points made from these quarries have been found as far away as Mississippi—suggesting their value to Indians far and wide. “Valles Caldera is the natural story that our cultural elements feed into,” says Lott.

But unlike Bandelier, Valles Caldera has no visitor center, no interpretive exhibits to help visitors appreciate its geologic and cultural history. There are no campgrounds, no picnic areas, and only sparse recreational information. The Rabbit Ridge trail guide is little more than a photocopied topographic map. No highway signs alert passersby to Valles Caldera’s existence; only a folding placard at the preserve’s entrance announces that it’s open.

That low profile suits some visitors just fine. Two sisters who had just completed La Garita, a six-mile round-trip hike to a broad panorama at Valles Caldera’s north rim, gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the preserve’s fee structure and regulations—especially after camping nearby at a crowded site in the Jemez National Recreation Area (which sees 98,780 visitors annually). “It keeps the riff-raff out,” said one of the visitors from Boulder, Colorado. Her sister from Santa Fe agreed. “There was litter at our campsite [in Jemez], and you don’t see that here at all.”

The women hurried down the old double-track—they had to hustle to catch a 3:05 shuttle bus—but their comments emphasize Valles Caldera’s unique relationship to its neighbors: Jemez National Recreation Area, Santa Fe National Forest, and Bandelier National Monument. Two-thirds of New Mexico’s population lives within a two-hour drive of these lands, which often see a crush of visitors as a result. On Memorial Day weekend, campers jam the shoulder along Route 126, filling every level and near-level spot between the road and the Rio Cebolla, where the banks are eroded from the constant pressure of trucks and tents. Fishing along the Jemez River is just as crowded, with overflowing parking lots and anglers standing shoulder to shoulder in their quest to catch trout. Witnessing that, you begin to understand why some visitors might consider high fees and rigid schedules a fair exchange for solitude.

No one denies that Park Service status will increase visitation to Valles Caldera, but that traffic and related tourism would become an economic boon to local communities. And, explains David Nimkin, director of NPCA’s Southwest regional office, solitude wouldn’t disappear under new management. “The Park Service will be able to manage visitation in ways that will protect the place but also help people love it,” he says.

Lott, who has seen the Park Service do just that at Bandelier, agrees. “Most visitors to the National Park System visit only the most populated areas,” he says. “At Bandelier and elsewhere, if you visit the backcountry, the solitude is intense.”

“I had jet-black hair when I started this job,” jokes Preserve Manager Dennis Trujillo, implying that all the silver in his salt-and-pepper coif came from the strain of running Valles Caldera. Responsible for its day-to-day operations, Trujillo wears a rancher’s work boots, a saucer-sized belt buckle depicting a bear’s snarling head, and a perpetually creased forehead.

“I can understand the frustration hikers feel,” he concedes. “Sportsmen are used to paying fees, but hikers are used to going out and doing things for free. They want to hike unrestricted.”

While current management under the Trust has frustrated some, Trujillo maintains that it’s also produced unique achievements. The preserve’s restricted access has served as a model for administrators at Pecos National Monument, who studied Valles Caldera’s crowd-management strategies and implemented them to disperse fishing pressure on its river. And the preserve has pursued extensive field research to understand factors that influence the ranch’s stream ecology and elk population.

But New Mexico’s senators are tired of chasing funding for Valles Caldera every year, and overall, local support for Park Service management has been enthusiastic. So this June, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced a bill requesting that it become part of that agency. “Transferring management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the National Park Service will be the best way to ensure the protection and enjoyment of the preserve over the long term,” Bingaman said in a speech to the U.S. Senate.

“It’s a great piece of legislation,” says Nimkin. “Sen. Bingaman and his staff worked tirelessly to reach out to Native groups, multiple land users, and local residents to understand their specific needs. The resulting bill strikes a wonderful balance between protecting Valles Caldera, supporting opportunities for enhanced visitor use, and protecting select traditional uses.”

Still, predicting the future of a pending law isn’t easy. “Passing any legislation requires a lot of heavy lifting,” explains Kristen Brengel, legislative director at NPCA. Even so, she says, its prospects look good. If the bill gets fast-tracked—and passes—it’s possible that the transfer could happen this year. Several New Mexico contingents, including the Los Alamos County Council, the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, and Jemez Pueblo, have endorsed the bill.

Instead of designation as a national park, Valles Caldera would remain a preserve under Park Service management, like Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, Mojave in California, Big Cypress in Florida, and many Alaska units. That means activities like hunting, fishing, and grazing would continue at Valles Caldera, but only in a way that’s balanced with resource protection and the visitor experience. By preserving what worked under Trust management—yet blending it with Park Service experience in site interpretation—the legislation appears to satisfy all parties.

Lott predicts that the fee structure and access policies will change under Park Service management, to allow for more visitors at a reduced cost. But anglers will continue to savor solitude on the preserve’s waterways. Hikers will still appreciate the power of grandiose landscapes, along with better signage and trail information. And elk will continue to migrate among the shadowy conifers and wind-blown grasslands. “Valles Caldera is worthy of national park status,” says Brengel. “And hopefully, within the next year or so, Congress will feel the public’s enthusiasm.”

Reverence and Exploitation: A Valles Caldera history

Native Americans were the first to cherish Valles Caldera. Following an oracle, ancient Puebloans traveled south from the Four Corners area, searching for the eagle that would reveal their new homeland. They spotted an eagle’s outline near the top of Redondo Peak, the highest point on the caldera’s rim, and settled in the Jemez Mountains. Today’s Jemez tribe continues to regard the 11,254-foot summit as sacred.

But in 1860, Valles Caldera became off-limits to nearly everyone—Native Americans and white settlers alike—when Congress deeded its 89,000 acres to the Baca family, who managed it as a private ranch. Ownership changed hands several times over the years, but the property continued to be known as the Baca Ranch and operated like most Western ranches: Cattle and sheep grazed (and sometimes overgrazed) its meadows, hunters paid top dollar to stalk its elk, loggers felled its timber, and public hikers were considered trespassers.

James Dunigan, however, had a different vision. After purchasing the Baca Ranch in 1963, he gave the exploited land a much-needed rest by halting logging and other extractive operations. Dunigan countered proposals by his investors to develop the land (ideas included a ski resort, a racetrack, and a luxury home development) and in 2000, 20 years after his death, Dunigan’s descendants honored his desire to preserve the property by selling it to the federal government, which established Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Thankfully, the land’s allure has prompted admirers to seek Park Service status for Valles Caldera since the 1930s, and the latest push may succeed where others have failed. New legislation, introduced in June 2010, promises finally to make Park Service dreams a reality.

Click here to see stunning footage of Valles Caldera and hear an interview with the preserve's director of science education.

Kelly Bastone is a hiker, photographer, and freelance writer based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

This article appears in the Fall 2010 issue.

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