This blog is about hiking trips along the Valles Caldera Rim. For more information, see link for the Valles Caldera Rim Trail blog.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Part II: Ghost Ranch - Deriving Caution From Another National Natural Landmark

There are 12 National Natural Landmarks (NNL) in New Mexico. The one most developed, privately owned Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM, was chosen in 1976 as a NNL for its outstandingly well-preserved coelophysis fossils, a carnivorous dinosaur.

Its Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology offers education and outreach about coelophysis to 2000-3000 school children each year. In addition, as "an education and retreat center of The Presbyterian Church (USA)", it offers many educational courses on diverse subjects and groups can schedule "a conference or workshop or family reunion."

Ghost Ranch has modest overnight facilities which include "bed and breakfast" style accommodations and camping. Other developments are the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology, a gift shop, a dining hall, a snack bar, a library, and the Piedra Lumbre Education and Visitor center.

Activities include hiking, horseback riding, tours of the ranch (there is a winter cattle grazing program), tours of Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch home, a ropes course, and swimming.

The Director's Update May 2009 reveals that while doing well overall, they have made changes, due to both the economic downturn and the seasonal nature of visitation at Ghost Ranch. These included job cuts and downsizing of jobs. Other economic realities are that they are losing customers because they do not have enough single rooms to meet the demand. The Director says Ghost Ranch has years of deferred maintenance and facility improvements which need to be done.

Large groups grappling with their own budget restraints have canceled meetings at Ghost Ranch this year although others were found to fill the space. As of May 2009, Ghost Ranch was "...under budget in groups and meetings revenue." The Director says that Glorieta Baptist Conference Center has gone from operating year around to a summer-time only schedule. Ghost Ranch will try to attract bookings of groups that would have gone to Glorieta in the off-season.

Despite the reality of these economic times, the emphasis on development at Ghost Ranch has always been on service to people and community. Educational outreach is very much a part of this.The Director's Update mentions that school districts' budget cuts have meant less buses bringing school groups to visit their museums. But this has dissuaded Ghost Ranch not at all - museum staff now take their programs to the school children.

Ghost Ranch is a mere 21,000 acres compared to Valles Caldera National Preserve's (VCNP) 89,000 acres yet its smaller size does not make it immune from rebound effects of present economic crisis. Think how much harder it will be to make an 89,000 acre development financially self-sufficient in these trying economic times.

Alternatives D and E (VCNP PDF download of Overview Narrative) of 5 conceptual alternatives being presented in the Valles Caldera Trust's (VCT) Public Access and Use Plan (PAUP) are quite costly over a 10 year period in capital investment needed. Each require an investment of $143 million spread out over the next 10 years and each need $12 million in annual operating costs. Even alternative C would need $88 million in capital investments with annual operating costs of $10 million. Is this the right economic climate in which to begin a costly development centered around people traveling long distances to visit and stay overnight at the Preserve?

Please visit the VCNP website for information about the different ways you can submit comments on development at the Preserve. If you feel that the comment page they have set up is daunting and can't attend either of the two public workshops (VCNP PDF download of public workshops flyer), then please email or snail mail your comments to the VCT (comments@vallescaldera.gov or surface mail to Valles Caldera Trust, P.O. Box 359, Jemez Springs, NM 87025).

The VCNP's online comment page will be up at least through the end of September and maybe until mid-October, depending on public interest. After that, the 5 development alternatives will be narrowed and refined based on public comment received. Then, the revised alternatives will be analyzed on the VCNP website.

To be kept apprised of the planning process that will determine how the public will be able to access and use the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the future, please sign up for the Mailing Lists on the VCNP website.

If you absolutely have no time for commenting but want to see reasonable and fair access by the public of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, at least consider joining Caldera Action which will tirelessly advocate for better management and protection of the VCNP on your behalf. If you believe, as Caldera Action does, that the Valles Caldera National Preserve should be managed as a National Park Preserve, please let your congresspersons know of your concerns (Senate; House of Representatives).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Part I: Valles Caldera National Preserve - Do Not Overdevelop This National Natural Landmark

Valle Grande of Valles Caldera National Preserve from Pajarito Mountain Ski Area

The Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) is a National Natural Landmark (NNL) designated in 1975 when it was then called the Baca Location No. 1. The NNL program is administered by the National Park Service (NPS).


Quoted information about the program from National Natural Landmarks Program brochure :

The National Natural Landmarks (NNL) Program was established to encourage and support the voluntary conservation of sites that illustrate the nation’s geological and biological history, and to strengthen the public’s appreciation of America’s natural heritage. The program offers participants the opportunity to share information, solve problems cooperatively, and conserve important natural areas. Since 1962, the NNL Program has involved private, municipal, state, federal, and other landowners working together to conserve natural resources. Land acquisition by the federal government is not a goal of this program; NNLs are owned by a variety of land stewards, and participation in the program is voluntary.

National Natural Landmarks are selected for their outstanding condition, illustrative value, rarity, diversity, or value to science and education. NNLs include public land and private lands with a wide variety of uses.

Ongoing Partnerships are Key to Conservation Success:
The primary goals of the National Natural Landmarks (NNL) Program are to recognize landmark resources and support their conservation. To meet these goals, the NNL Program staff assists with grant applications, publishes an annual report on the status of landmarks, and may identify specialists to advise landmark owners on how to care for their sites. While providing funding for NNLs is not the norm, the program staff has been very successful in helping NNL owners obtain grants to fund conservation work and outreach projects. Recently funded and completed projects include interpretive walkways and exhibits, mapping of significant resources, videos, books, and eradication of non-native plant species. These projects help to conserve landmark resources as well as educate people about our country’s diverse natural history.

Quoted information from Pacific West Region, National Natural Landmarks Program brochure:

Program Management:
The National Natural Landmarks Program does not place any land use restrictions on property as a direct result of federal designation. The NNL Program simply recognizes and encourages the voluntary, long-term commitment of public and private owners to protect an area’s outstanding values. In fact, designated sites do not even have to be open to the public. Conversely, national natural landmarks can be commercial ventures, if the integrity of the natural feature is maintained.

Concerning potential benefits to landowners, the National Park Service can provide technical assistance by advising owners on conservation practices, if so requested. In addition owners, who voluntarily agree to protect their landmark property, are eligible to receive a certificate and wooden plaque for appropriate indoor presentation or a bronze plaque for outdoor display at the site. In the case of federal ownership, agencies should consider the unique properties of natural landmarks in assessing the effects of their actions on the environment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Depending on land ownership, national natural landmark designation can in fact enhance potential funding opportunities in some instances.

This quote is from the National Registry of Natural Landmarks June 2009 and briefly explains why the Valles Caldera was chosen as a NNL:

The Valles Caldera is a large circular depression, 12 to 15 miles in diameter, with scalloped walls rising from a few hundred to more than 2,000 feet above the present floor. Located primarily within the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the site is one of the largest calderas in the world and is an excellent example of a caldera advanced in history but still retaining the essential structures. Designated: 1975. Ownership:
Federal.

The Valles Caldera is a relatively young, 1.2 million years old, well-preserved volcanic caldera which holds great geologic significance. It's diverse because in addition to the caldera, there is a resurgent dome,
ring fracture domes and geothermal activity (PDF download from Geo-Heat Center Bulletin, December 2002).

Federal agencies contemplating any development that will affect a NNL must be careful that the significant features of the property are not degraded. In the case of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the significant features would be the geology of the Valles Caldera, including its resurgent dome, its ring fracture domes and geothermal features.

The National Natural Landmark designation carries no restrictions on what development can occur but the NNL status may be lost if the significant attributes of an NNL site are degraded. An NNL designation often makes a property more attractive to visitors which could translate into increased visitation at the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The federal government is available to help advise NNL property owners on how best to protect and preserve the property. Owners of NNLs can obtain Challenge Cost Share Funding to help protect and interpret its significant attributes - in this case, the uniquely intact geology of the Valles Caldera.

With the Valles Caldera Trust now actively engaging the public in a pre-scoping dialogue about different conceptual alternatives of access, activities, capacity, development, financing and values surrounding proposed development of the VCNP, maybe the question to be asked is if the Valles Caldera National Preserve was under different management, such as the NPS or the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and financial self-sufficiency was not a requirement, would the new land managers approach development and public access and use of the land differently? What parts of these conceptual development alternatives would land managers who were not expected to make a buck discard and which would they keep? What would they consider more important - protecting and preserving the Valles Caldera, while allowing reasonable public access and use, or becoming financially self-sufficient?

In the case of the Valles Caldera, this spectacular geologic treasure of the Jemez Mountains, the primary consideration should not be the almighty dollar but how best to protect and preserve the Valles Caldera, which bewitches all who see it, and to both educate the public about the Valles Caldera and study it to
benefit future mankind (PDF download from official VCNP website regarding climate change study in Valles Caldera).

The focus of any development should befit the Valles Caldera's designation as a National Natural Landmark and should heavily emphasize science and education. Public Access and Use Planning (PAUP) (PDF download from official VCNP website of all conceptual alternatives for development) on the Preserve should occur only insofar as the natural landscape of the Valles Caldera is not degraded. Development that occurs should further appreciation, understanding and scientific study of the geological wonders and natural landscape that comprise the Valles Caldera.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Valles Caldera Trust Public Scoping Information Document

The Valles Caldera Trust today posted on their website a link to the all in one file (PDF download from official
Valles Caldera National Preserve website) of the Public Scoping Information document for the Trust's "online collaboration" to involve the public in planning for public access and use of the Preserve.

You can simply download this one file which has everything you need to make your comments during this scoping period which is leading up to the issuance next year of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The 5 alternatives for development that are presented on the NEPA Master Page are not yet set in stone. It's during the scoping period that the alternatives will be refined based on public comment.

All this planning must be done by the Trust to make sure under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that any development for public access and use at the VCNP conforms to laws that protect the environment. The EIS will provide the legal framework for future development at the VCNP. Ever since the public's admittance to the VCNP in 2002, all public programs have been interim ones because permanent programs couldn't legally be put in place until an EIS is completed.

If you go to the NEPA Master page and register, you can read comments that folks like you have already left and you can leave your own.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

New VCNP Hike: South Mountain!

Just yesterday, a friend emailed me that the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) has a new hike called South Mountain. It's offered every day that the VCNP is open. No reservation is required. It only costs $5 and doesn't include a van ride. It costs an additional $5 if you want a van drive along VC01 to the trailhead on VC02. Otherwise, you have a bit of a trek. I'll save the $5 and see the scenery along the way.

To get to the Valle Grande Staging Area (VGSA) where you'll park your vehicle, drive into the Valle Grande entrance off NM4. Go in 2 miles on a graded, gravel road to the VGSA and park your vehicle. Pay your money and get trekking!!

The routes up South Mountain are on old logging roads. Last year I got a peek at them when I helped out Sam Beard and the NM Cross Country Ski Club group do some trail maintenance in preparation for that season's cross country skiing. (Beard and his group are very strong skiers and routinely ski to the top of South Mountain!) I was the "lopper" - snipping off aspen saplings.

The VCNP write-up of this 8 mile or so hike says, "Once on South Mountain, hikers have a myriad of trail choices." It would be a good idea to print out the map the VCNP provides on their website (a PDF download), check the area on Google Earth and bring the Redondo Peak topo map (purchase here), compass and GPS (if you have one).

It's gratifying to have this hike appear on the VCNP calendar and most fortuitous that it occurred just after I had written this letter to the editor on Monday in response to an opinion piece by Ed Tinsley that had recently appeared in the Albuquerque Journal and Los Alamos Monitor. I have since rescinded my letter but reproduce it here for your amusement:

Give Me Freedom to Roam

Dear Editor:

Vice Chair Ed Tinsley of the Valles Caldera Trust recently presented an invitation to look at the "list of activities at http://www.vallescaldera.gov/comevisit/ and the daily calendar of attractions at
http://www.vallescaldera.gov/calendar/ViewCal.html" He intimated that people who complain of lack of public access really don't know what they are talking about because public access is plentiful at the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP).

I'm a hiker who took his challenge and looked on the Preserve website for unguided hikes of more than a few miles. For the remaining weeks in August, I saw 2 unguided hikes listed and for September, I saw none.

If the Valles Caldera National Preserve doesn't offer me what I want, they are in effect offering me no access. It's not like I'm able to buy an annual pass and make up my own hikes in the Preserve. No, I'm offered a menu of recreation opportunities but they are not the ones I want. I'll keep my money for the meantime!

This week, I walked up Pajarito Mountain Ski Area's jeep roads to the top (a free activity!) and I looked longingly over the VCNP boundary fence at all that land I'd love to hike and explore but am not allowed to. Hiking opportunities in the Preserve are of their time and choosing.

Sincerely,

Here is a link to Ed Tinsley's piece in the Albuquerque Journal. Let me know if it doesn't work. It's sometimes difficult to link to newspaper articles because the links may change as time passes. Click on Trial Premium Pass (FREE!), watch the brief commercial and then enter the Albuquerque Journal website to read Ed's opinion piece. (It also appeared in the Los Alamos Monitor but their website archive is extremely problematical to search and I wasn't able to find the article.)

This new hike addition has me excited and eager to give the VCNP my money!!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Website Launch: Valles Caldera Trust Public Access and Use Planning

View into Valles Caldera National Preserve from Pajarito Mountain Ski Area

The notice below was emailed to me yesterday, August 13, 2009, via the Valles Caldera National Preserve's (VCNP) email lists that anyone can sign up for. The two public meetings will be on Monday, September 14, in Albuquerque, NM, 5:30-8:00pm, at the Hilton Garden Inn on 5320 San Antonio Dr. NE and Tuesday, September 15 in Santa Fe, NM, 5:30-8:oopm., Santa Fe Community College, 6401 S. Richards Ave.. For directions, either contact the Preserve or try any of the free online map services.

In the email notice below, the Trust makes it clear that you can comment in many ways - at the two public workshops, on the Preserve's NEPA Master Page, via snail mail or email. Please explore the links in the email below to decide which way you would like to comment.

The Trust says there is a way to download all the documents at once but I have not been able to find it. I ended up individually downloading a total of 25 files, including commenting guidelines, a glossary, movies, maps, an overview summary of the five alternatives and detailed explanation of each alternative. This seems excessive to expect the public to do this in order to become informed about the future direction of public access and use of the Preserve.

Regardless - this process is important to participate in because this is the official beginning of the National Environmental Policy Act process for the Trust's planning for public access and use of the Preserve. The comments you give now in this scoping process will determine what alternatives will be seriously considered in the official NEPA Environmental Impact Statement that will surely affect and alter the future of the Preserve and your access to it. In otherwords, the Environmental Impact Statement that the Trust will prepare is not created in a vacuum and your comments have huge potential to influence the future of your access to the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

If you don't comment, your voice regarding the various alternatives won't be heard. Hint - if you like horses a whole lot, you'll like two of the Alternatives, C and D, that provide for a focus on equestrian activities, including a developed equestrian center. (I wonder if they did a market study to determine how many equine enthusiasts there are in the surrounding areas before they devised this alternative? Perhaps there are a lot and this would be popular.) This is just one example of something you may want to provide your input on. There are others like Alternative D that includes "luxury lodging, restaurants, a bar, snack bars, a conference center, and an RV Park". The clever strategy used by the VCNP is that the maps of the various alternatives are filled with symbols denoting the location and type of the various developments planned. No narrative is provided on the map. You need to read the separate narrative to fully understand the full scope of development of each alternative.

Unless you take the trouble to become part of this process at some level, your voice WILL NOT BE HEARD:


Valles Caldera Trust
Public Access and Use Planning

Website Launch August 13, 2009

Dear Friends,

We are very excited to announce the Public Access and Use website launch and two upcoming public workshops (PDF download from official Valles Caldera National Preserve website)to support collaborative planning and decision making on the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Planning for public access and use of the Preserve will be the first effort to engage stakeholders in an online collaboration. Be aware - this planning effort considers developing permanent facilities and infrastructure as well as access to and through the Preserve. It is an extremely important planning effort and quite complex. Reviewing the available information and providing substantive comment may require an hour or more.

This phase of our planning is considering alternative levels of development. Elements being considered include: Access, Capacity, Activities, Development, Financing, and Values. The website uses detailed narratives, maps, and videos to provide you with an understanding of these elements and the alternative levels of development for each.

After you review the narratives and maps, open the element tables. These pages present a graphical summary of each element as a reference for providing your comments and feedback. You will also be able to view and reply to the comments of others in our collaborative forum (you must register under the "Register" page before entering your comments in the forum).

This online collaboration is being supported by two public workshops (PDF download from official Valles Caldera National Preserve website). Your online and in person contributions will be used to formulate a range of alternatives for the development of infrastructure, facilities, and programs for public access and use of the Preserve.

If navigating websites or attending a workshop is not your thing - not to worry! You may download all the information as a single document and send your comments by email: comments@vallescaldera.gov, or surface mail: Valles Caldera Trust, P.O. Box 359, Jemez Springs, NM 87025.



Marie E. Rodriguez
Natural Resource Coordinator
Valles Caldera Trust
"An Experiment in Public Land Management"



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Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States