I wonder what Stewart Udall would have thought.
On May 27th, his son Tom, along with Jeff Bingaman, both Democratic Senators from New Mexico, introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that transfers title to the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, located near Los Alamos National Laboratory, from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service.
This is big news because the intention of the original bill creating the Preserve, passed by Congress in 2000 and signed by President Clinton, was to maintain the formerly private property as a “working ranch.” Congress also created a nine-member Trust to manage the Preserve and charged it with the unprecedented mission of combining ecological stewardship with financial self-sufficiency.
It was an audacious and visionary experiment in public lands management – and quite controversial. To many, myself included, it looked like an intriguing step forward in the effort to confront the fiscal, bureaucratic and procedural gridlock engulfing the federal estate. To others, however, it was a dangerous step in the wrong direction.
Now, it looks like an experiment in danger of expiring prematurely.
To understand the novelty of this experiment, I want to refer to the Draft Framework and Strategic Guidance for the Preserve, published in 2003. According to the original Act that created the Preserve, the Trust had to balance and integrate six separate goals:
1. Operate the Preserve as a “working ranch” – which means creating an emphasis on stewardship that provides ecological and economic sustainability;
2. Protect the Preserve’s exceptional qualities so they can be passed on to future generations;
3. Multiple Use and Sustained Yield – which means managing resources for revenue generation in a manner that does not impair the productivity and health of the land;
4. Public Access and Recreation – i.e., provide opportunities for hiking, fishing, camping, skiing, and hunting;
5. Local Benefits, Coordination and Cost Savings – which means provide benefits to local economies, be sensitive to the diverse values of neighbors, and utilize their skills to save money;
6. Optimize Income – which means Congress instructed the Preserve to strive to become financially self-sufficient by 2015. It did not mean that the generation of income should take precedence over other goals.
This last goal was the most controversial. What did “financial self-sufficiency” on public land mean exactly? According to the Draft Framework, it meant being businesslike so that the Trust could eventually eliminate its reliance on annual federal appropriations. The Framework’s authors admitted this was a novel, untested, and complex goal.
“This opportunity is bestowed upon few, if any, other federal organizations,” wrote the authors, “and it is unique in the land and resource management arena.” That’s why it was imperative that the Trust view self-sufficiency as a means to achieve its primary mission, that of wise and measured stewardship, rather than an end to be achieved in and of itself.
There were two concerns among conservationists and others on this point: first, could the Trust resist the temptation to “optimize income” without overgrazing, overlogging, or overrecreating? And second, more philosophically, was it even ok to be businesslike on public land? Wasn’t that the reason public land existed in the first place – to protect it from the profit motive?
These were – and are – legitimate concerns, but it is very important to acknowledge that it’s not the 20th century anymore. Examples of sustainable management on private working ranches that maintain ecological integrity while providing financial self-sufficiency are widespread today. Also, the challenges of the 21st century – climate change, ecological services, local food production, alternative energy, water scarcity – require a new approach to public land stewardship, including a role for financial incentives.
Furthermore, in this era of massive federal deficits, the idea of financial self-sustainability on the federal estate is not a bad one!
I know that the implementation of the Preserve’s mission has been a rocky road so far. I have first hand knowledge because I was part of the team that grazed the Preserve with livestock in 2007. I also know that the Preserve is nowhere near financial self-sufficiency yet. But is the answer to these problems abandonment of the vision?
The bill introduced by Senators Udall and Bingaman, replaces the original Act entirely and eliminates the Trust. It also eliminates the vision. While it allows livestock grazing and hunting to continue on the Preserve, the bill uses the words “may allow,” in reference to grazing, meaning they’ll take place at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. And since livestock grazing is generally inimical to the mission of the Park Service, “may allow” will likely become “won’t allow” eventually.
I believe the transference of the Valles Caldera to the National Park Service is a step backward. That’s because the national park idea, whose roots extend back to the 19th century, is not well-suited the onrushing, global challenges of the 21st century. In contrast, the Valles Caldera National Preserve, under its current mandate, has the potential to keep testing an innovative model that addresses pressing problems. For this reason, I think the experiment should run for a while longer.
What would Stewart Udall say about the transfer? As a vigorous advocate for our national parks during his tenure as Interior Secretary in the 1960s, one might think he would have supported the transfer. But read this excerpt from an open letter that he wrote to his grandchildren in 2008. After warning them about climate change and fossil fuel depletion, he ends the letter this way:
“In the 1960s, when the carbon problem and the exhaustion of the world’s petroleum were still beyond our gaze, I advocated a new ethic to guide our nation’s stewardship of its resources. I realize now this approach was too narrow, too nationalistic. To sustain life on our small planet, we will need a wider, all-encompassing planetary resource ethic based on values implemented by mutual cooperation. This ethic must be rooted in the most intrinsic value of all: Caring, sharing, and mutual efforts that reach beyond all obstacles and boundaries.”
Author’s note: I stand corrected on Stewart Udall’s position on the Valles Caldera, and I apologize if I misconstrued his words. I wondered what he might have thought – and my question was answered!
Courtney White is the executive director and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition and the author of Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West as well as countless articles and essays on the region. His Along the Frontier column runs on NewWest.Net twice a month. Read more from Courtney at his Web site, www.awestthatworks.com.
You can read Courtney’s entire series of columns, which are presented as a sequence, on his New West archive at www.newwest.net/courtneywhite.
Correction: This story has been altered to clarify that in the bill’s text, hunting on the Valles Caldera “shall” be allowed.