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Outdoor enthusiasts, hunters and others voice competing interests in Valles Caldera's future

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SANTA FE, New Mexico — The National Park Service has a challenging task ahead as it transitions into management of the sweeping 88,900-acre Valles Caldera landscape in the Jemez Mountains.

Just how challenging became clear this past week as hundreds of hunters and cattlemen, anglers and equestrians, and other outdoor enthusiasts from across New Mexico voiced competing interests in the future of the Valles Caldera Natural Preserve during a series of public meetings across the state.

Tom Ribe attended the sessions in Jemez Springs and Los Alamos as executive director of the citizen group Caldera Action. He said he was amazed by the level of public engagement.

"Everyone wants the preserve to be their place," he said. "I feel for the managers because they have all these people coming to them now, saying they want their cows to graze everywhere, or they want to be able to ride their bikes or their horses everywhere."

Others wanted to be sure people with impaired mobility will have opportunities to access the caldera's wilderness. One person even urged the government to build a new highway through the preserve to create a more direct route from Cuba, New Mexico, to Los Alamos.

"Some activities like hiking and cross-country skiing aren't that destructive, but others have a really big impact," said Ribe, adding he was encouraged by Park Service officials' assurances that their management approach would include strong law enforcement presence to keep out wayward cattle and trespassing dirt bikers.

Caldera Action members spent years advocating for National Park Service management, Ribe said, "because we wanted it to be preserved and protected and not just treated like a piece of multiple-use land where you have off-road vehicles and cows and litter. . We really wanted it to have a higher standard, and I think most people around here agree with that."

Ribe said his group also stressed the importance of science-based management of the preserve. "They got that better at the (Valles Caldera National) Trust than anywhere else in the U.S. that we know about, and using ongoing science to change management practices is really unusual in any agency."

A requirement to draw upon ongoing scientific findings as a basis for managing the caldera's resources was written into last year's congressional legislation, but Ribe said he and others will continue pushing the Park Service to make that a reality, especially because ongoing scientific research isn't explicitly required for the management of other national preserves.

Also among the throngs eager to offer input was Joel Gay, communications director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. His group advocates for public land access on behalf of sportsmen. "It's incumbent on all of us who use the Valles Caldera to get involved and make sure that the management under National Park Service is exactly what we want," Gay said.

For sportsmen, "that means better access to hunting and fishing opportunities they provide," he said. "Luckily, (the trust has) already started down that road and made a couple of changes that were really good. They've increased access that allows more people to fish, and they changed the elk (hunt) lottery last year." Gay said he and other representatives from his organization urged officials to establish an advisory committee comprised of fisherman and hunters.

The enactment of federal legislation late last year established the Valles Caldera National Preserve as a new unit of the National Park Service system. Charles Strickfaden is acting superintendent of the preserve and responsible for managing the transition period during which the Valles Caldera National Trust, the preserve's management board since 2000, hands over the direction of operations, resource protection and visitor access.

Another top priority for the Park Service, Strickfaden said, will be building partnerships with tribal and pueblo communities that consider the Caldera a sacred place.

The National Park Service depends on public input as it draws a delicate line between public use and the preservation of the caldera's land, water, plant and animal life, he said. "We're going to be very careful that new uses and existing uses to provide opportunities to reduce conflict between users and ensure that this landscape remains in the great condition that it's in."


Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com

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