Valles Caldera National Preserve offers some of the finest hunting and fishing in New Mexico, but current management gives preferential access to those with the most money.
And those who now call for no change in Valles Caldera management — or worse yet, having our State Game Commission take it over — are actually arguing for even less access for the average, blue-collar hunters and fishermen of New Mexico.
The experimental management at Valles Caldera in place since 2000 puts a federal government corporation in charge, with a mandate from Congress to be financially self-sufficient. As a result, the preserve charges over $1,000 for some of its turkey hunts and has charged access fees as high as $15,000 for an elk hunt — exorbitant prices that prevent the average family from using this public lands treasure. High access fees to fish there also discourage: The cost for a family of four to enjoy a few hours of fishing on a weekend has run from $80 to $100.
Public lands have always been for all of us. Not surprisingly, thousands of New Mexico hunters and anglers have lent their support to legislation first introduced three years ago by Sen. Tom Udall and then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman that would put an end to this elitist system and give equal access to all citizens for reasonable fees.
This legislation would put the National Park Service in charge of managing Valles Caldera as a national preserve. A key part of the bill would require that hunting and fishing be allowed. It is a proven model in place at nearly 20 national park preserves across the United States, including Great Sand Dunes National Preserve across the border in Colorado.
In June, that legislation, Senate Bill 285, passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with a strong bipartisan show of support. Of particular importance for hunters, the legislation was amended to give even stronger guarantees that hunting will continue in perpetuity.
Yet our State Game Commission suggested last Thursday that the American people should give the Valles Caldera to them. In return, they pledged to reduce visitor numbers and potentially reduce cattle grazing. As a hunter and fisherman myself, I’m embarrassed by the Game Commission’s actions.
The idea is not only arrogant but preposterous. Game and Fish manages wildlife, not land or people, and certainly it isn’t equipped to manage the cultural treasures and sacred sites within the preserve. The department says it could raise operating funds by increasing the number of cattle grazed from 750 now to as many as 3,000 head and allowing off-road vehicle use.
And for those who think access is difficult now, Game and Fish says it would cut back on the number of visitors.
Even if the Game Commission recognizes what a foolish idea that would be, they are on record supporting the status quo at Valles Caldera — no change. Commission members don’t fully understand that change is coming to the Valles Caldera whether they like it or not. If Senate Bill 285 fails to pass, the Valles Caldera will become just another part of the chronically underfunded Santa Fe National Forest, without adequate law enforcement or staffing to maintain the unique character that makes it the “Yellowstone of New Mexico.” What’s more, a 2011 economic study found that Park Service management would pump $1 million more per year in sales and 50 additional jobs into the local economy over management by the U.S. Forest Service.
The Valles Caldera is a jewel that belongs to all of us. It should be transferred to the National Park Service and managed as a National Preserve — a proven model that will create jobs, improve economic vitality in the Jemez region and provide better access for all.
Frank Gallegos is an independent businessman, real estate developer, avid hunter and angler. He resides in Santa Fe.