Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Proposed Valles Caldera Rim Trail by Dorothy Hoard

When geologists describe a geological feature, they identify the location at which they conducted their work, called the Type Site.  The Valles Caldera is the type site for resurgent dome calderas.  It is also a young and relatively small caldera, with its rim well intact.

In 2000, when the federal government purchased private land that occupied approximately half the caldera, a trail around the rim became an attractive possibility. From 2006 into 2010, a group of interested hikers performed a series of reconnaissance trips around the rim.  They documented their findings in reports which are linked to here.  The reports are divided into the north rim, east rim, south rim and west rim.  This blog discusses changes since those reports were written. 

In 2011, the Las Conchas wildfire devastated almost 160,000 acres of the eastern half of the Jemez Mountains.  About half the caldera rim burned, much of it severely.  The question then becomes, is a rim trail still a desirable or even feasible idea?  The answer is “yes.”  The rim occupies some of the highest points in the Jemez range, much of it above 10,000 feet.   The views both into and looking outside the caldera are truly world class.  Dense forests on the rim obstructed the views, but those trees are mostly gone now. Aspen groves and grasslands will gradually replace them.  A rim trail could be truly splendid.

The Valles Caldera Rim is federally owned, with Santa Clara Pueblo and the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area bordering short sections of the rim.  Creation of a new trail on federal land is a long, arduous, and expensive process, one requiring agreement among various agencies and an environmental impact statement.  It becomes a political process long before a stone is turned for an on-the-ground trail.

Here in autumn 2012, is the political status of a Valles Caldera Rim Trail:

In 2010, U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman introduced a bill in Congress to transfer the preserve to the National Park Service.  In his bill, he directs the park service to study the feasibility of a rim trail.  Unfortunately, the bill never came to a vote in 2010 or again in 2011.  He has reintroduced the bill in 2012, but is not optimistic about its passage.  Senator Bingaman retires at the end of this congressional session.  It is not clear if the remaining New Mexico congressional delegation is interested in carrying on the arduous task. No one can predict the actions of Congress in these tumultuous times.

The problem is not with Bingaman’s bill per se, although a congressional contingent is opposed to any new expenditures of funds.  The Valles bill would have some upfront cost of transfer but operating cost would be the same and the preserve’s recreation programs are self-supporting. However, this bill goes into a Public Lands Omnibus Bill with some 50 other small public lands bills from over the country.  The biggest obstacles are bills that would allow logging in Alaskan forests currently included in the National Wilderness Preservation System.  Passage of such bills would set a precedent for all units of the wilderness system.

An independent board of trustees, the Valles Caldera Trust, manages the Valles Caldera National Preserve; each board member has a four-year term.  Since establishment of the board in 2001, members have been overly protective of the preserve by severely limiting public access. This attitude prevails to this day. There is currently no point on the rim under the control of the board that is open to the public.  This situation is especially sad because, by and large, the forest service has unlimited public access to their rim while the best views into the caldera are from the preserve’s rim.  The preserve recently put out a Public Access and Use Environmental Impact Statement that denigrates the concept of a rim trail.

Here in autumn 2012, is the physical status of a Valles Caldera Rim Trail:

The 2011 Las Conchas Fire burned from Los Griegos counterclockwise eastward, northward, and westward to the Garita Gate around the rim.  Like most forests in the United States, the fire management strategy for a century was full suppression of any fires.  As a result, the forests accumulated massive amounts of deadfall fuel load.  In June 2011, after a decade of drought years and with uncharacteristically severe winds gusting to 70 miles per hour, an aspen tree fell on a power pole and sparked a fire in the dry tinder.  The fire truly roared through the trees, consuming for a time an acre of forest per minute.  The resulting landscapes looked as dead as the surface of the moon.

The New Mexico monsoon season typically begins in July; subsequent rains quickly brought out grasses, wildflowers, and aspen sprouts in many of the burned (though hardly all) areas.

Parts of the Valles Caldera Rim affected by the 2011 Las Conchas Fire are shaded in gray.

From 2005-2009, reconnaissance trips were taken around the Valles Caldera Rim.  These reports are linked to here.

We would appreciate hearing of other Valles Caldera Rim Trail trip reports, especially those in the sections of the rim burned by the Las Conchas wildfire.

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