Today we are offering a guest perspective on management issues at the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The author’s views are not unique to her as many people share her concerns. She discusses safety and access issues that arise from the management led by Superintendent Jorge Silva-Banuelos. She asked that her name not be published.
My letter is going to focus on access to what management calls the ‘backcountry’ and safety for all visitors. I do not agree with calling a well-maintained road ‘backcountry’ and feel that management uses this term to get away with limiting access as much as they do. In the outdoors, backcountry refers to areas away from roads and human development. When I drive the dirt road in the Valles Caldera, I see hunters, logging operations, and trespass cattle, which are not characteristics of ‘backcountry’.
Current access issues to the Preserve include an unsafe gate placed right at the highway, very limited hours, lack of disability access, and a dark sky designation with zero nighttime access. Now the Preserve management wants to make it even harder to access the Preserve, which I will address in a later part of this letter.
My biggest concern every time I visit the Valles Caldera, and even when I am driving by the entrance to go elsewhere in the Jemez Mountains, is the closed gate right on Highway 4. Since the Preserve does not open to any vehicular traffic until 9 AM, year-round, there is frequently a line of cars on both sides of the gate and on both sides of the highway, sometimes forming hours before the Preserve opens. There is not much of a shoulder and the cars stick out onto the road, and people get out of their cars and walk around on the highway. The speed limit is 55 mph at this spot, and it is located on a curve; this is an incredibly dangerous situation.
I have pulled over several times to take a picture of the lines and sent it to law enforcement at the Preserve, who was very concerned as well and forwarded the pictures and concern to Valles Caldera management, with no response from management. I have sent these pictures to the Regional NPS office, and they have discussed it, but again to no actual solution.
I have proposed a reasonable solution, which is to remove the gate at the highway, and let visitors drive into the contact station two miles from the highway where there is an ample parking lot. The management has said this is not a solution, because people will drive off the road into the grass of the caldera if staff is not present. There is no precedent for this idea. People are not frequently driving off road in the Jemez Mountains, and many if not most National Park Service units are open at least to the visitor center 24/7 and don’t have people driving off road at night. Nearby Bandelier National Monument allows people to drive in from dawn to dusk, when there is no staff present at the fee booth or visitor center, and allows 24/7 access to the campground, and does not have people driving off road. This is a nonargument used by the management to deny public access and create an unsafe situation.
Banker’s Hours Don’t Work for a Big Preserve:
The limited hours of the Preserve (9 AM to 5 PM year-round) are not only frustrating in limited hours of recreation, they also pose a safety hazard. In addition to the backup at the gate at the highway, not being able to start recreating until after 9 AM in the summer in northern New Mexico is dangerous due to the monsoon season. Storms frequently roll in around 11 AM- 1 PM daily from late June through August. It is best to have descended from any ridgelines by 11 AM to avoid any danger. With the gate at the highway not opening until 9 AM, and the back of the caldera access being about an hour drive after waiting in line for a permit, a hike cannot reasonably be started before 10:30 AM in that area.
The Preserve website lists the La Garita summit trail, at the back of the Preserve, as taking 3-5 hours to hike. There is no way to safely do this trail unless one can start before 9 AM, preferably earlier, but the trail is not accessible before then. This is just one of the many longer trails that accesses the Valle’s rim that most visitors are not able to do since they cannot access the trail early enough in the day due to the Preserve keeping banker’s hours for vehicular access.
These hours also limit visitors’ ability to see wildlife, fish in the best part of the day, and even do shorter and less strenuous trails in the cooler part of the day. Even the people who park in pull offs on the highway and access the Preserve at dusk through pedestrian cut-throughs are put in hazardous situations, as the pull offs don’t have designated parking, so cars end up parked at various angles, making getting out of the pull off when they return difficult if a car is blocking their line of sight or causing them to have to make a multi-point turn next to a 55 mph highway.
No Handicapped Access
The Preserve has poor disability access. The contact station and ranger station have difficult to navigate ramps into the visitor center. The ‘backcountry’ gate needs to be unhooked and rehooked when accessing, when an automatic gate or no gate would be safer. Only allowing 35 vehicles per day limits people’s ability to experience the Preserve in their vehicle, which is the only way many people can experience the Preserve. Not everyone can walk on uneven trails or ride a bike for hours. Current parking lots are not ADA accessible. There is no trail that is ADA accessible. The Preserve has some plans to improve access just to one area of the Preserve, the cabin district. However, the Preserve is 89,000 acres and people deserve access to more than just the first 4 miles of road.
Dark Sky Access?
Valles Caldera National Preserve has an International Dark Sky Park designation and NO dark sky access. The Preserve is only accessible from 9 AM to 5 PM with a vehicle and pedestrian/bike access is only from dawn to dusk, made clear at every pedestrian access site. Management says that visitors can use the pull-offs along Highway 4 to see the night sky in the Preserve. These pull offs are not owned by the VCNP and are polluted with light from traffic headlights.
The very first criteria for being a designated International Dark Sky Park states, “the Park must provide the opportunity for public nighttime access, with or without supervision. A portion of designated land may meet this requirement, or access must be available for a fraction of the length of the night.” VCNP is violating this by not allowing visitors to even drive into the contact station after 5 PM, which I stated earlier would also solve a major safety issue.
The Preserve’s Superintendent Jorge Silva-Banuelos cites the Preserve’s ‘sensitive resources’ as a reason for denying access. Meanwhile, hunters do not adhere to the same rules as visitors. They are allowed to access the Preserve 24/7 during hunting season, they are allowed to camp in the Preserve, take horses wherever they please, bring dogs, and drive roads that are not open to the rest of the public.
There are active thinning operations in the Preserve that often take up some of the pull-offs in the ‘backcountry’, create noise pollution, and sometimes create new roads in the Preserve. The Preserve operated as a working ranch for over 100 years before it became public land, and there are trespass cattle remaining all over the Preserve. Why do hunters and thinning crews have more access and rights than sightseers and hikers/bikers? Why are only 35 carloads of people at a time allowed to access the majority of the 89,000 acres? I do not see a precedent for this. I cannot find another NPS unit that limits access to the majority of the unit this extremely.
Next door, Bandelier National Monument has 33,000 acres, receives more than 250,000 visitors per year, and has much more sensitive cultural resources (Native American dwellings and artifacts), yet allows access from dawn to dusk with no permits. Bandelier allows overnight camping within sight of actual backcountry archeological sites. Why can’t the visitors of the Valles Caldera be trusted like the visitors of Bandelier?
The road has pull-offs and parking to allow for more than 35 vehicles at a time at the Caldera. Many visitors drive the road simply as a scenic drive and do not pull off to hike or wander around; this may be the only way that disabled visitors can experience more of the Preserve than the first 2 miles. The Preserve also closes the road when there is no good reason to. This year the road was closed on November 15th but there was no snow for weeks afterwards. The neighboring Forest Service waits until the first large storm is forecasted to close their dirt roads and gives the public a few days of notice. The roads are monitored and reopened when they are reasonably passable. Why doesn’t the VCNP follow the example of its neighbor?
Further Restrictions to Public Access Planned
Much to my alarm, I have learned of the VCNP’s plan to limit access even further. The Preserve now plans to open reservations for the backcountry permits, using recreation.gov and charging a $2 fee to reserve either up to 3 months in advance for a set number of permits, or up to 1 month in advance for the remaining permits. This will result in visitation to the ‘backcountry’ dropping significantly. This plan will limit the number of vehicles to 35 per day, not 35 at a time. This will require people to plan their trip 1-3 months in advance for getting one of a nonsensically small number of permits. Many people who reserve permits in parks do not show up to their reservation.
If the Preserve insists on permits, there needs to be several of them that are available day-of, as many large parks do. I also cannot fathom how VCNP is popular enough to justify a reservation system to drive into most of the Preserve. For 89,000 acres, the Preserve received 76,000 visitors in 2021. This is compared to next door Bandelier’s 270,000 visitors for its 33,000 acres in 2021. Approximately only 10,000 visitors went past the contact station in VCNP in 2021. Why does VCNP feel the need to limit access even more?
There should not be a permit system at all to drive to the back of the Preserve until VCNP can prove that visitation would cause safety problems or cause harm to the resources, which I have not seen evidence of in their management plan. The Preserve should be doing away with permits and allow more access to the Preserve, not making it harder. The plan for the permits is also to only allow 5 hours of access to the Preserve. This will make nearly every hike in the back of the Preserve physically impossible! If a hike takes over 3 hours and takes an hour to drive to from the permit station, it will not be possible to complete. This proposed permit system, and even the current system, make accessing so much of the Preserve not physically possible, even for the lucky few who get a coveted permit.
Maybe We Need New Leadership
The regional NPS office is aware of these issues and is unhappy with the Preserve’s Superintendent but seems to refuse to take action to make the Superintendent allow the access a NPS unit is obligated to provide to the public. Despite being a long time local, and having a great interest and passion for Valles Caldera, I do not feel like it is my public land. I feel like management wants me to stay away like it is still their own private Trust land.
The Superintendent is a former employee of when the Preserve was run as a private Trust and continues to act as though it is private, and people should stay away. This is not the mission of the NPS and it is so disappointing to see New Mexicans turned away from a wonderful geologic and natural resource every day because of one individual mismanaging it and nobody above them taking action.
I am asking my federal elected officials to use their influence to give the citizens they represent access to this beautiful place. New Mexicans deserve to see wildlife and go fishing early in the morning, hike before the monsoons and/or heat roll in, explore more than 2,500 acres of an 89,000 acre Preserve, experience the night sky in a designated International Dark Sky Park, and enjoy the Valles Caldera safely. #
Take action. Contact:
Superintendent Jorge Silva-Banuelos: firstname.lastname@example.org
Senator Martin Heinrich: https://www.heinrich.senate.gov/contact/write-martin
Senator Ben Ray Lujan: https://www.lujan.senate.gov/contact/contact-form/
Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez: https://fernandez.house.gov/contact