A legislative clash regarding the future of the Valles Caldera has emerged in Washington as two bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would have starkly different outcomes for the Jemez Mountains: one would transfer the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the National Park Service, while another would entirely eliminate all federal appropriations for the Valles Caldera if it remains as part of the Department of Agriculture, placing the Preserve’s viability in immediate danger.
The first bill, reintroduced yesterday from the previous Congress by New Mexico’s U.S. Senators, Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, would dissolve the Valles Caldera Trust and designate the Valles Caldera National Preserve as a unit of the National Park system. The legislation, S.564, once again titled the “Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act,” was read on the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which Bingaman chairs.
The Bingaman-Udall legislation, which you can read by clicking here, is identical to the marked-up Valles Caldera-NPS transfer bill that was unanimously approved by the Senate Energy Committee last August after the committee held hearings. Last year’s bill died in December after it was inserted as the keynote item into a large omnibus public lands bill that never came up for a vote in that month’s lame-duck session of Congress.
If it passed, the Valles Caldera would not become a national park. Rather it would be America’s 21st national park preserve, a designation designed to give certain NPS units an exemption from the Park Service’s usual rules that prohibit hunting and fishing — traditional activities on the Caldera that are explicitly protected in the Bingaman-Udall legislation.
The second Valles Caldera-related bill introduced in the Senate this month — S.475, the “Enacting President Obama’s Recommendations for Program Termination Act,” introduced by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R), would halt all federal appropriations for the Valles Caldera Trust (among many other federal programs) immediately. The bill states that “no Federal funds may be expended for the Valles Caldera of the Department of Agriculture,” and “any funds appropriated to or unobligated by the program shall be rescinded and returned to the Treasury.” Bingaman and Udall’s bill would thwart Coburn’s bill in the context of the Caldera by removing the Preserve from the auspices of the Agriculture Department. Coburn’s bill has been read on the Senate floor and has been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Bingaman and Udall announced the reintroduction of their legislation in a joint news release yesterday:
The Senators today introduced legislation that directs the Park Service to take over management of the Valles Caldera in a way that protects the Preserve’s natural and cultural resources. Hunting, fishing, and cattle grazing would be permitted under the bill. Additionally, the measure strengthens protections for tribal cultural and religious sites and ensures access by pueblos to the area.
Bingaman and Udall first introduced their legislation last year, following a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that said the Preserve is at least five years behind schedule in the development of an effective management control system and that the requirement to achieve financial self-sustainability by 2015 is the Trust’s biggest challenge and will be difficult to achieve.
A separate National Park Service study, which was requested by Bingaman and Udall, determined the Valles Caldera meets the high criteria for inclusion in the National Park System as a National Preserve. In particular, the report highlighted the nationally significant geologic resources found in the area.
“The Valles Caldera is one of the most spectacular places to visit in New Mexico. I believe it belongs within the National Park Service, which has a long history of managing our nation’s most special natural resources,” Bingaman said.
“By utilizing the resources and skills of the National Park Service, I believe the Valles Caldera National Preserve will continue to prosper as a natural wonder full of significant geology, ecology, history, and culture,” Udall said. “Park Service management is the next critical step in preserving this national treasure for future generations. I look forward to working with Senator Bingaman and all the stakeholders who care about the Caldera to accomplish this important goal.”
The first calls to bring the Valles Caldera into the National Park System were in 1899. In four separate studies throughout the next century the Park Service found that the area was suitable for protective status under its management. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Bingaman, former Senator Pete Domenici and then-Representative Udall were successful in acquiring the property for $100 million. The law also established an experimental management framework where a Board of Trustees would manage the Preserve as a working ranch with public access, with the goal of becoming financially self-sustaining by 2015.
Last year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the legislation, clearing it for full Senate consideration. Unfortunately, there was not enough time in the session to consider it. The bill will once again be referred to the Energy Committee, which Bingaman chairs.
The newly-reintroduced Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act stipulates the following:
- Hunting and fishing “shall be permitted” under NPS management of the Caldera
- Grazing of livestock “may” be allowed to continue, “to the extent the use furthers scientific research or interpretation of the ranching history of the Preserve”
- Immediately upon passage the Secretary of the Interior will have sole management responsibility of the Preserve. Within 180 days of passage, the Valles Caldera Trust will be terminated, at which time the Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000 will also be repealed (but this 180 period can be extended if the Secretary of Agriculture “determines that the termination date should be extended to facilitate the transitional management of the preserve”). During the 180-day interim period, “the Preserve shall remain open to public use”
- The NPS “may coordinate the management and operations of the Preserve with the Bandelier National Monument”
- A comprehensive management plan (which has never been prepared by the Trust) will be produced within three years
- The preserve’s universally-acclaimed science and education program will be continued until the aforementioned management plan is prepared, at which time the NPS will establish a new science and education program
- The feasibility of creating a Caldera Rim Trail (inside only the boundaries of both the Preserve and Santa Fe National Forest — not on portions of the Caldera Rim owned by Santa Clara Pueblo) will be studied within three years of passage
- The NPS may establish a science and education facility outside of the boundaries of the preserve (enabling the continuation of the VCNP’s science and education center in Jemez Springs)
- No roads or motorized buildings will be allowed to be constructed, nor will motorized access be allowed, on the Preserve’s many volcanic domes above 9,600 feet in elevation or 250 feet below the top of the dome, whichever is lower, except for administrative purposes or emergencies
- The NPS will ensure the protection of traditional and cultural sites in the Preserve (as well as access to these sites by pueblo members) and may “temporarily close to general public use one or more specific areas of the preserve to protect traditional cultural and customary uses”
- The boundaries of the Santa Fe National Forest will be modified to exclude the preserve
- All Trust employees will be retained for at least 180 days after the passage of this legislation, at which time the NPS may hire them on a noncompetitive basis for comparable positions at the Valles Caldera or elsewhere in the NPS or Forest Service in New Mexico
Here are some links to news coverage of the Bingaman-Udall legislation:
Santa Fe New Mexican: “Local News In Brief — N.M. senators renew Valles Caldera proposal”
Albuquerque Journal North: “Senators Make Another Push”