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Thursday, October 2, 2003

A Visit to Valles Caldera National Preserve
(During the American Frontiers reunion over National Public Lands weekend, team memebers visited the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains north of Albuquerque. North Team member Stephen Braunlich rep[orts his impressions on this unique experiment in public land management.


The aspen leaves twisted and turned, shimmering green in the gentle breeze. While I tried to imagine the damage wrought by Hurricane Isabel back home I could not ignore the wonderland that is Valles Caldera National Preserve. I was in New Mexico for the first reunion of the American Frontiers Public Lands Journey, which had successfully crossed America entirely on public lands just one year ago. I was fortunate enough to serve as support for half of the adventure, on the north team, which had traveled by foot, boat, hoof and wheel from the Canadian border in Glacier National Park to the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah.
I was intrigued by the ideas being put to use in the Preserve because it seemed to present a solution for several of the problems facing our public lands. When this former ranch was placed in the public trust three years ago, there was debate as to its management. The eventual solution developed into a whole new land use designation--a national preserve that was also a not-for-profit government corporation with the mandate to become self-sustaining in 15 years and no longer receive any government funding.
Because it must be independent, the Preserve was given the leeway to finance itself, and try ways to solve a problem plaguing all our public land agencies – the shortfall of funding. The most significant way was to escape archaic 19th century laws that govern private use of public lands. Our public lands have long been used to help supplement private grazing, timber, and mining. However, these laws are long out of date and don’t respect the real market value of the land. As a government corporation Valles Caldera bypasses these regulations and is permitted to set its own rates, and terms of use. Although it has yet to engage in mining or timber harvest, grazing rates are kept close to market value.
The Trust operating the Valles Caldera can also limit the number of people who enter - one of the instances that a public land agency has been given the ability to close the gates on the public. Valles Caldera has used this privilege to place a cap on the number of visitors and require them to make advanced reservations. While this may seem unfair as the public has already paid for the land, it benefits us, the public, by saving the land from being “loved to death” by over-visitation.
Valles Caldera has also used its unique level of control as a creative means of fundraising. As home to one of the largest elk herds in the lower-48, Valles Caldera has instituted a policy of distributing most of its elk hunting permits via a national lottery system, and a handful by auction. The lotto has offered an opportunity to all and brought in revenue, while the auction provided more funding per permit. Beginning next year, a lottery system may also be used for fishing permits.
These limits on use allow visitors to better enjoy what they came for – nature. For example, if you win a fishing permit you will be the only person on a full mile of river. If you plan on hiking, you will not be jostled by hundreds of other hikers. It is simply the plants, the animals and you. That is an incredible, indescribable experience.
A final and perhaps most important difference between Valles Caldera National Preserve and other public lands is the way decisions are made. While every other public land has planning approved in Washington, D.C., Valles Caldera is run entirely by a local board of directors called the Valles Caldera Trust. Of the nine members, two are managers of neighboring public lands (Santa Fe National Forest and Bandelier National Monument), while the other seven are appointed by the President and represent local interests. These interests range from the Native Americans of Jemez and Santa Clara pueblos, to the cattle grazing associations to environmental groups. The important part, though, is that the Trust has a free-hand to run the Preserve, cutting them loose from some of the politics of public lands.
I do not suggest that Valles Caldera is the final solution to the problems plaguing our public lands. Whether or not a public land free of public funding can succeed has yet to be seen. Not all Americans can afford entry fees or have the means to purchase a lottery ticket, either, so some free public lands should remain. However, Valles Caldera does offer some interesting solutions that may be applicable in future public land purchases and decisions.--Stephen Braunlich


List of All Dispatches
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Thursday, October 2, 2003
A Visit to Valles Caldera National Preserve
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Saturday, September 20, 2003
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Monday, February 24, 2003
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Tuesday, January 28, 2003
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Monday, January 20, 2003
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Wednesday, January 15, 2003
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Wednesday, January 8, 2003
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Tuesday, December 31, 2002
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Friday, December 27, 2002
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Friday, December 20, 2002
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Thursday, December 5, 2002
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Wednesday, December 4, 2002
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Monday, December 2, 2002
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Monday, December 2, 2002
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Tuesday, November 26, 2002
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Monday, November 25, 2002
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Sunday, November 24, 2002
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Friday, November 15, 2002
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Tuesday, October 29, 2002
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Saturday, October 12, 2002
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Wednesday, October 9, 2002
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Saturday, September 28, 2002
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Wednesday, September 25, 2002
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Saturday, September 14, 2002
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Friday, September 13, 2002
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Thursday, September 12, 2002
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Wednesday, September 11, 2002
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Tuesday, September 10, 2002
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Friday, August 23, 2002
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Thursday, August 22, 2002
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Tuesday, August 20, 2002
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Monday, August 19, 2002
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Saturday, August 17, 2002
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Friday, August 16, 2002
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Monday, August 12, 2002
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Saturday, August 10, 2002
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Thursday, August 8, 2002
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Monday, August 5, 2002
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Saturday, August 3, 2002
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Saturday, August 3, 2002
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Friday, August 2, 2002
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Friday, August 2, 2002
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Thursday, August 1, 2002
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Wednesday, July 31, 2002
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Wednesday, July 31, 2002
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Saturday, January 1, 2000
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