It is no secret that some state legislators in the West want to boot federal land management agencies from their states. They argue that agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service cost too much and are too detached from local values, and that states could make money by running our vast open spaces like a privately owned business.
The Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank, is of that opinion and has developed models to replace federal agencies with private interests. What many people don’t know is that Congress implemented one of the Cato Institute’s ideas in 2000, on the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. For some critics of the federal government, this was the experiment in land management that would signal the end of the BLM and Forest Service in the West.
The Cato experiment in New Mexico, however, failed, chewed up by the friction between monetizing the “services” that landscapes provide — recreation, timber, grass, wildlife — and fulfilling citizens’ expectations for public access and protecting natural resources. For example, New Mexicans had very little tolerance for paying high fees to visit public property that had already been paid for using federal Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars.
The Valles Caldera experiment began after a Texas oil family expressed interest in selling its large property atop a dormant volcano near Santa Fe. A reluctant Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., agreed to federal ownership, but only if the property was not managed by traditional federal agencies. The Valles Caldera Preservation Act, which was passed in 2000, was designed to create an alternative model of management.
Under this act, the Valles Caldera National Preserve was managed by a “Trust” and mandated to become “financially self-sufficient” by 2015. The Trust was authorized to replace federal appropriations with income from recreation fees, resource extraction, and any other means that could be found. A mostly private-sector “board of trustees” made decisions and supervised the staff.
At first, Congress instructed the Trust to pay for all wildland fire operations at the preserve out of its own budget. A later congressional amendment made firefighting once again the responsibility of the Forest Service. Soon after, two large fires burned 53,000 acres in the preserve and cost the federal government $56 million dollars in suppression costs alone.
Despite the efforts of many trustees and the staff for 14 years, the preserve never managed to earn enough money from hunting, grazing and tourism to pay even a third of its bills. Heavy logging and overgrazing had depleted forests and grasslands well before the preserve became public land. High fees and restrictions on public access kept the income from recreation low, and to a large extent, the public continued to perceive the preserve as private land. Elk hunting paid well, but the preserve broke even on cattle grazing only by charging ranchers more than seven times what other federal agencies are charging.
Privatization supporters may say that if Congress had waived all federal natural and cultural resource protection laws for the Trust — as Sen. Domenici had urged back in 2000 — the staff could have been a fraction of its size, and the Trust could have made money developing lodges and putting thousands of cattle on the high-altitude meadows without public review or bureaucratic process.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., however, refused to excuse the Trust from environmental laws. The National Environmental Policy Act, for example, requires federal agencies to study the impacts of proposed development and to consult with the public before decisions are made. Complying with these laws may be expensive, but without them, publicly owned land is public in name only.
For more than a decade, the Trust labored at becoming solvent before it admitted to Congress that it would never achieve “financial self-sufficiency.” For many critics of the experiment, the statement was a long time coming.
“We just wanted to access our preserve without all the restrictions and fees and without being called customers,” said Monique Schoustra, who works with a group called Caldera Action.
Ultimately, many factors led New Mexico’s congressional delegation to dump the “experiment” last December and transfer the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the National Park Service. What have we learned from this failure of privatization? For those who want states to take-over federal lands, there are certainly questions that must be answered first: Will states shoulder the costs of fighting large fires? Will states obey the wishes of ranchers and continue to subsidize ranching? Will states charge the public to visit once-public lands, and will states protect and restore archaeological sites, watersheds and wildlife habitat?
Then there’s the real question: How will states manage the public frustration of Westerners who live in a region where our public lands are at the heart of our cultures and economy?
Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a writer, fire manager and outdoor guide based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Not more than a million years ago, in the spring of 2001, I wrote my first story for Field & Stream about the movement to privatize America’s public lands, chiseling the words onto an old granite slab by the light of a buffalo fat candle.
The land grabbers seemed to have the world by the tail then. Gale Norton, a veteran of the anti-environmental law firm Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), had been appointed the Secretary of the Interior. (James Watt, Reagan’s controversial and short-lived Interior Secretary, best remembered for his dislike of the Beach Boys, had been Norton’s boss at MSLF.) Norton’s colleague, Terry Anderson, had published his 1999 study “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands.” Anderson had also been an advisor to George W. Bush on public lands issues, which was a bit like hiring a fox to consult on chicken coop management challenges.
For those who had their hopes pinned on public land profiteering, 2001 was a heady, optimistic time, and much was accomplished--if not actual privatization, then at least the near-wholesale conversion of some of the West’s public lands into single-use energy fields, with exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and from regulations meant to protect wildlife.
The privatizers had been fairly quiet during the Clinton years, after raising a ruckus during the 1980s. The Sagebrush Rebellion burned hot and then fizzled out during the Reagan years when the leading rebels, faced with possible success in their goal of privatizing public lands in Nevada, suddenly realized that they were not the ones who would be buying or being given the lands; in fact, many of them were about to exchange self-employment based on one of the world’s cheapest grazing rates for a quick ticket to a scary job market, and a much smaller landscape on which to air their grievances against the “feds.”
The anti-public lands movement has never been about giving average American citizens more land or more access or more timber or gold or grass. From day one--as soon as the first lands were set aside—the movement has been about getting as much of the commonwealth as possible into the hands of the best connected and the most well heeled. But the land grabbers have learned a lot since the Sagebrush Rebellion and Anderson’s how-to paper on privatizing public land. It’s a high-stakes chess game now, where nobody says what they really mean, a game ruled by sleight-of-hand tactics backed with more money (some of it probably yours) https://www.hcn.org/articles/the-taxpayer-money-behind-local-control-dem... than ever before.
The latest tactic is a smooth bit of word-jujitsu: “We would never sell your lands to the Chinese or to these software billionaires that fund our campaigns,” they assure anyone who will listen. “We just know for a fact that the states can manage these lands better than that big awful federal gubmint that we all hate so much. Now, isn’t that right?” It’s a good move, one that resonates with a lot of people who don’t have a lot of time to really think about it. So let’s take a few minutes and see how that would play out. We’ll leave out the fact that such a transfer would require a majority vote by Congress to divest the American people of their holdings once and for all (which those rascals did, just a month or so ago) and would open up a Pandora’s Box that would fundamentally change our nation. Let’s pretend that the grabbers are sincere, and really do want the land to remain in the hands of the states. What would change? Luckily for us, the National Wildlife Federation took on the task of analyzing that very question, basing the answers on current state land management. Here is a link to the report, which is illuminating.
Among the findings:
• In many Western states, state lands are not considered public lands at all.
• In Colorado, 82% of existing state lands are completely off limits to hunting, fishing and camping.
• In Idaho, recreation is allowed, with a permit, as long as it does not interfere with revenue generating activities.
• In New Mexico, camping on state lands is allowed only with written permission from whoever is leasing them.
• Firewood cutting is prohibited in state lands in New Mexico and Montana.
• Access to state lands in Montana, Arizona and New Mexico requires the purchase of a permit.
• Montana requires a special-use permit for trapping, or to camp for more than two nights.
Western states have been selling their lands since they were awarded them at statehood. New Mexico has sold off 4 million of its original 13 million acres. Nevada, awarded 2.7 million acres at statehood, has 3000 acres left. Montana has sold 800,000 acres of state lands so far. Idaho has sold 1.2 million acres. Colorado has sold 1.7 million acres. Arizona has sold off 1.7 million acres.
The report also compares the current management of federal public lands with the management that can be expected if the lands were under state control. And when you read it, you will see that the difference is very similar to the difference between being a citizen and being a subject (with a nod to Machiavelli, who allegedly uttered the truism that the armed man is a citizen and an unarmed man is a subject).
Right now, we Americans own one of the most valuable assets on the planet. We are free to argue about their management, while we luxuriate in freedoms that most people on the planet can only dream of. In my 2001 Field & Stream story, I wrote this, about the conflict over public lands management: “As when toys are taken away from children who won’t stop fighting over them, there are plans afoot to solve the conflict over the public lands by simply getting rid of them.”
The debate today sounds just like it did back then, only much louder, and more the sound of a flood building upstream in a canyon. But the more things change--we’ve added 34 million people to the U.S. population since I wrote that story--the more they stay the same. Right?
Wrong. When citizens forget what it is they fight for, things do change. They change big time, and for the worse. Transfer of America’s public lands to state control will be awful for hunting and fishing and access, not to mention the end of federal water and grazing rights for Western farmers and ranchers. It will be the short prelude to privatization. And that, my fellow American outdoorsmen and women, is the ultimate goal of some very unpleasant characters in our world today. That much has not changed since the very first day President Benjamin Harrison set aside the first forest reserve in 1892.
Nat'l Park Service to take over management of Valles Caldera Preserve
Albuquerque Journal By T. S. Last / Journal Staff Writer PUBLISHED: Friday, December 19, 2014 -
With a stroke of the President’s pen, management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve is expected to soon shift from a trust that has been overseeing the preserve since it was created by an act of Congress in 2000 to the National Park Service.
But will the change make any real difference to the visitor?
Supporters say yes, contending it will bring more attention and better programs while safeguarding preservation of the 89,000 acres of high country in the Jemez Mountains.
Critics are more skeptical, especially those who want to be assured of hunting access to the property, which is rich in elk and other wildlife. Mountain streams also attract anglers there.
The management change is part of a Congressional compromise, embedded in the defense spending bill that has passed both chambers and awaits the President’s signature.
The bill also designates the Columbine-Hondo area within the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico as wilderness, and establishes the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Los Alamos and other sites.
The package has been pushed by New Mexico’s Democratic delegation.
Sen. Martin Heinrich said in a news release that it “will help grow our economy in the energy, tourism, sporting and recreational sector.”
Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall sponsored the bill to shift authority of the preserve to the Park Service, picking up on an effort initiated by former Sen. Jeff Bingaman before he left office.
Not only does the act transfer the management of Valles Caldera from the trust to the Park Service, but it also assures hunting and fishing will be maintained (a huge concern for sportsmen), along with grazing rights for ranchers.
While Jemez Pueblo still lays claim to the land, the property was given to the Baca family in return for a terminated land grant in 1876 and, for more than a century, was known as the Baca Ranch. It changed hands several times before the federal government bought it in 2000.
In recent years, the Valles Caldera has offered recreational opportunities, such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and mountain biking, and has hosted tours, workshops and special events, drawing about 100,000 visitors a year.
People stop along N.M. 4 to take in some of the views of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Smooth transition promise
The Valles Caldera Trust said in a statement last week that it was committed to a smooth transition to the Park Service, an event that will take place within six months of the President signing the bill.
Jorge Silva-Banuelos, executive director of the trust, said he was proud of what the trust accomplished in the face of budget cuts and recovery from two major wildfires. The trust’s management was set up under 2000 legislation to be financially self-sustainable within 15 years, or come up with a solid plan to do so, which Silva-Banuelos said was probably an untenable goal from the start.
“That being said, I think the trust’s legacy will set the stage for the Park Service to come in and build on our successes,” he said, pointing to science and education programs, and forest and watershed restoration projects. “I think we’re handing it off in much better shape than we received it.”
Though the original act included a sunset provision that opened the door for the U.S. Forest Service to take over management of the preserve in 2020, a spokesperson with the Santa Fe National Forest said there were no hard feelings.
Julie Anne Overton said, “The Santa Fe National Forest’s working relationship since the ranch was purchased has been really positive. We plan to continue that positive relationship, both assisting with the transition to the National Park Service and after the transition, as well.”
Silva-Banuelos expressed hope that most of the trust’s 50 or so staff members would keep their jobs.
“Generally speaking, the trust employees work at Valles Caldera for a reason: They are passionate about it and want what’s best for the preserve,” he said.
James Doyle, chief of communications and legislative affairs for the intermountain region of the National Park Service, said staffing levels have yet to be determined. That is among a number of unanswered questions that will be decided in the coming months.
“This legislation was just enacted Friday and there are a lot of moving parts,” he said. “All the affected parties are still trying to understand what all this means to them.”
Doyle noted that the appropriation bill keeps operation of the preserve in the hands of the trust through fiscal year 2015.
Until then, “we’re working in collaboration with the trust and the Forest Service,” he said. “We’re all kind of working frantically to figure out how this transfer will occur. I can tell you it’s not something that will happen overnight.”
The Valles Caldera National Preserve is expected to become part of the National Parks. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Not everyone happy
Not everyone is thrilled with the Park Service takeover.
Kerrie Romero heads the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides, a nonprofit groups she says works on behalf of the 250 outfitters and 1,500 guides working in the state, as well as the interests of 25,000 hunters and anglers.
While there are those among them who support the transfer to the Park Service, Romero said the majority don’t.
“From our standpoint, we want to see the hunting and fishing remain intact,” she said. “While the Park Service does many other beneficial things across the country, they have not always been super-supportive of hunting.”
Romero said she is grateful that hunting will remain intact for the foreseeable future, but “the concerns I have are things that have taken place in the Grand Teton (National Park) – ammunition restrictions, the whittling down of hunting opportunities and generally more stringent restrictions.”
She said as many as 25 sportsmen organizations went on record with a letter to Congress expressing opposition to Park Service management.
The state Game Commission also opposed the Park Service taking over management of the preserve, making its own bid to do so.
The Game Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, presented a plan it said would turn an annual $2 million to $3 million deficit into positive revenue of up to $1 million per year.
The commission, which sets policy for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, expressed concern that language in the Heinrich-Udall bill could negatively affect wildlife management, as well as hunting, fishing and trapping opportunities on the preserve.
In response to the concerns of sportsmen groups regarding hunting, Silva-Banuelos said, “The legislation mandates that hunting, fishing and grazing continue, and the National Park Service has a pretty good record for hunting at these preserves.”
Ducks take off from a small pond on the Valles Caldera National Preserve on December 16, 2014. The Preserve is expected to become part of the National Parks System. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Everyone wants what’s best
One group that is happy about the switch to the Park Service is Caldera Action, a citizens group advocating for the long-term protection of the preserve.
“This is exactly what we wanted,” Tom Ribe, the group’s executive director, said. “It’s good for the place and it’s good for the New Mexico economy.”
Ribe, himself a guide, said the preserve can probably expect an increase in visitors under Park Service management.
“When you see something that’s managed by the Park Service, you know it’s special and worth a visit,” he said.
Its proximity to Bandelier National Monument, one of the top tourist attractions in the state, should stimulate tourism at both sites, he added.
Ribe pointed out that Valles Caldera would become the 19th preserve managed by the Park Service.
“The Park Service is experienced with managing places like this,” he said. “I would say the biggest thing from my perspective is the Forest Service is a multi-use agency, dealing with grazing, logging and mining. It’s utilitarian about using resources, whereas the Park Service has a tradition of valuing cultural properties and the landscape.”
Ribe pointed to a 2011 study by Harbinger Consulting Group that concluded: “The National Park Service is more likely than the U.S. Forest Service to maintain a high and consistent level of funding, staffing, visitor service, and resource protection.”
Ribe said he doesn’t expect hunting opportunities to decline. One of the current issues, he said, is the elk are staying in the high country and feeding off aspen shoots, stunting regeneration.
“The Park Service wants to see that area recovering and the best way to do that is reduce the elk herd,” he said.
Time will tell what impact the Park Service taking over management of Valles Caldera National Preserve will have. What’s sure is everyone is hoping for the best for one of New Mexico’s treasures.
“… I think that sportsmen and environmentalists agree it’s a special place and neither one of us wants to see anything negative come of it,” Romero said.