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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.

A Step Backward: the Valles Caldera National Park

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,

You can read Courtney’s entire series of columns, which are presented as a sequence, on his New West archive at

Correction: This story has been altered to clarify that in the bill’s text, hunting on the Valles Caldera “shall” be allowed.

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  1. I understand your concerns, but I don’t believe it is working. People want to be able to visit, and they are not able to. We are spending much more per visitor in the current model than the NPS spends for much less access than one generally gets with the NPS. And ultimately, I believe the whole purpose of public lands is to protect it for the enjoyment of people and for its own sake. I think injecting the idea of making a profit off of the land is anathema to public lands. And my understanding is that the only reason it happened this way in the first place was that our then senior senator would not support it any other way, and I am happy we were able to save the Valles Caldera from wanton development, but I believe it makes much more sense to let an agency that is in the business of protecting and making public lands available to people than trying to reinvent the wheel.

  2. mountain hunter

    Valles Caldera will be far better off as a part of the National Parks than as an experiment that is not working.

  3. The Valles Caldera is a jewel that should be preserved. Valles Caldera is not a private game farm. Most of all, Valles Caldera is not a feed lot for cattle; most of our state has already been destroyed by grazing, we need to preserve all we can.

    To suggest that Stewart Udall would be against this managment change is one of the biggest lies I’ve ever heard; then again, that’s hardly uncommon among our kill-all ranchers, is it?

  4. Right, with the deficit in orbit somewhere past Pluto, you fellows are all ripping on Courtney because he has the temerity to suggest that “sustainability” also includes FISCAL sustainability.
    If you think that taking more and more land off the economic table, “rescuing” it from “profit” — or at least self-sufficiency — is a viable model, fine. You’re all entitled to your opionions and beliefs, no matter how profoundly wrong. But you are wrong.
    A shining example of proof is, yep, the National Park Service. I doubt there is a single NPS unit that is fiscally independent of continuing appropriations, of money taxed away from private (gasp) profit (gasp) and reallocated.
    These days, lots of us have had to reassess our discretionary expenditures, our luxuries if you will. And America as a whole needs to do the same. I opposed the purchase of the Caldera in the first place, it should have been left to the market for TNC or some such to buy free and clear.
    I still think it should be thrown back on the market. But if the choice is between keeping the current experiment and turning it over to the parkies….Bingaman is completely wrong. Perhaps a better approach would be to put a date certain and dollar certain on the current model. If it fails after 10 years, back on the block she goes.

  5. I appreciate all the comments, but I think the writers so far have missed the point of the essay, which is: How are we going to solve 21st century problems with 20th century thinking? The quick answer is: we can’t. We need to try something else; the old conservation paradigms are proving inadequate. That’s what I take from Stewart’s Udall 2008 letter. It’s a whole new ball game now.

  6. Above all, any park, preserve, monument, or any other public land that is elevated in protection status, should do two things: keep the land unimpaired to the extent possible, and offer public access. The current plan does neither, and so the status quo is not sufficient.

    Stewart Udall’s comments, while inspiring, are also vague, and for them to be used to oppose NPS taking over Valle is really a stretch.

  7. There is an error in this opinion piece. Courtney states that the bill says that hunting “may” be allowed and then uses scare tactics to say it will be phased out. This is entirely untrue. The bill says that hunting “shall” be allowed. There is also widespread understanding in the community and even among environmental organizations that hunting is necessary as a management tool (in addition to being culturally important) and it will always be necessary and desirable to have hunting.

    The real scare to hunting was the Trust management, which tried to price average people out of hunting on our own public land.

    This is a good bill.

  8. The Trust wanted to charge $12,000 for people to hunt, build a luxury hotel for the rich and reserve other parts of the Caldera for “glamping” programs. For those of you who do not read lifestyles of the rich and famous, “glamping” we learned from the Trust, is “glamorous camping” for the fabulously wealthy.

    It was a joke. In the meantime they were spending more taxpayer money than comparable public lands–way more. There was very little accountability. I appreciate the stars in your eyes, Courtney, but the reality is that transferring management to a professional agency like the park service will save taxpayer dollars. This “experiment” of running our public land by a federal government corporation was straight out of the deregulation, government is always bad, corporations are always good playbook of the times. You can call it visionary, I would call it naive. Not surprisingly it did not work.
    NPS management will save money and better serve the public.

  9. John C is correct and hits the nail right on. It sure looked, at least to me, like the real agenda of the current well-heeled, politically and industry connected Board of Trustees might actually not be to achieve “financial self-sufficiency” at all. I thought there was a good chance they really wanted to start the place down the road to being a rich private resort, use that strategy as a means to establish sufficient evidence that it wasn’t going to be financially self-sustaining, get the place sold as a result of the unwise provisions in that bad initial enabling legislation, and have a lot of the lush infrastructure already in place when the new private owners took over. Frankly, a luxury hotel for the rich and infamous and other parts of the Caldera reserved for “glamping” by the fabulously wealthy sure does fit with a lot of that aforementioned little band of Santa Fe dilittantes.

    It’s time to put an end to the intrigue and make the Valles Caldera National Preserve our next National Park and do it time for the NPS centennial.

  10. Frank,

    That “designate zones” language is just boilerplate language used in every bill for special designations on federal public lands. It is typically used to establish safety zones around campgrounds, visitor centers etc. You will find the same language in bills to protect the Valle Vidal in New Mexico (managed by the Forest Service) and lots of other places all over the west. The key language in the bill is that hunting “shall” be permitted by the Secretary in accordance with applicable federal and state laws.

    Also the National Preserve model is well established in other places with hunting permitted.

    Again, the real threat to hunting is the current management which has repeatedly tried to create a system where $7,500 hunts would price 90 percent of people out from hunting on our own public land.

    Also this is a good opportunity to continue to help the NPS see that hunting is an appropriate and necessary wildlife management tool.


  11. Not so fast, NMH.
    In “consultation with” NM FandW doesn’t necessarily guarantee that seasons will be in fact set by the state agency in the best interests of sportspeople. Administrative needs? Oh, we have too many hiker scaredy cats so we need to designate THIS zone, or THAT one.
    Flip it back. Someone wants to buy it and make it pay like it did before it was bought by the government, fine and dandy.

  12. This is a good bill that will actually reduce costs to tax payers. Currently the VC gets a $4 million annual earmark from congress and raises about $400,000 on it’s own, spending $3.6 million in tax-payer money, a cost per acre greater that what NPS spends on Yellowstone.
    Plus, this bill it will allow more public access and protect hunting and fishing. If you’re opposed to this, you’re not a sportsman and you probably have a key to the gate at the Caldera.
    Dave, I don’t believe you are even from New Mexico, so why don’t try to sell off some public land in your own state?

  13. The Preserve seems to have sowed the seeds of its evolution by providing far too little public access and in some eyes too little local input and benefit.