Activists offer cash to keep cows off NM ranch preserve

Mar 23, 2012

Managers of the scenic Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos, NM, have given the green light to leasing animal unit months (AUMs) on the preserve to New Mexico State University (NMSU) and Jemez Pueblo for the 2012 grazing season, turning down an offer of $35,000 from Santa Fe-based group WildEarth Guardians to keep stocking rates at zero.

Though the move has been welcomed by local cattle producers, grazing opponents are frustrated with what they see as a failure to restore the preserve’s ecological resources following last year’s record-setting Las Conchas wildfire.

“[P]utting cows back onto the magnificent valleys will only be more destructive,” stated Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians in a press release. “This incredible landscape needs some time to fully recover from the fire.”

Located high in the Jemez Mountains and encircled by Santa Fe National Forest, the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve represents an innovative, and at times controversial, experiment in public lands management. Previously the privately-owned Baca Ranch, the property was acquired by the government in 2000 for $101 million to be a working landscape which would preserve and protect the “scientific, scenic, historic and natural values” while maintaining it as a working cattle operation.

Ranch foreman Tim Haarmann explains that the preserve also has a mandate to work with local cattle producers and provide a facility for scientific research. This has led to important opportunities for locals to use the preserve as a grass bank, particularly in the current drought and following fire. The preserve also hosts NMSU’s high altitude bull testing program.

Although the preserve falls under the oversight of USDA, it is not managed by the Forest Service but rather by the Valle Caldera Trust. Independent of both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the Trust operates as a government-owned non-profit corporation.

The preserve is also unique in that its charter requires it to eventually be economically self-sustaining, unlike national parks, which operate at taxpayer expense. Twelve years into the experiment, trustees are still struggling to achieve financial independence.

Not surprisingly, the unique status of Valles Caldera as both a working ranch and a preserve has generated ongoing debate over how this prize landscape should be managed.

The current issue is over the impacts of the June 2011 Las Conchas fire. The blaze consumed nearly 30,000 acres of the preserve, including two pastures used for grazing. Yet according to preserve scientists, the range has rebounded remarkably well following the fire; in many cases, the fire actually benefitted the range by removing years of accumulated dead litter. Close monitoring indicates that total vegetation coverage and grass coverage for the present year will equal or even exceed most normal years.

Bob Parmenter, chief scientist on the preserve, pointed out that the quick recovery of the range makes sense, given its high elevation and unique climate.

Situated between 8,500 and 11,000 feet, the mountain valleys of the Valle Caldera are far more comparable to the climate of Yellowstone National Park than to the arid rangelands typical to most of the Southwest.

“It’s some of the best perennial grass grazing lands in New Mexico,” Parmenter pointed out.

Haarmann noted that although the fire was widespread, it did not burn hot enough to kill the grasses.

“It’s the best thing that could have happened on our pastures,” he observed.

Despite warnings from WildEarth Guardians that returning cattle to the preserve would also damage recovering riparian zones, Parmenter was confident that stream-side areas would not suffer, pointing out that in 2009, all cattle grazing was relocated to upland pastures where riparian zones are nearly nonexistent.

“We’ve taken riparian issues off the table in terms of operation,” explained Parmenter.

This is not the first time that WildEarth Guardians has bid on grazing leases to keep cattle off the preserve. The group first attempted to outbid ranchers in 2008 with a $35,000 offer that was eventually turned down. In 2009, Guardians upped the ante with a $50,000 bid and a proposal to graze three to five token head of cattle on the sprawling landscape. This, too, was unsuccessful.

Clearly, the obstacle frustrating Guardians’ efforts is that Valles Caldera was intended by Congress to be maintained as a working ranch to preserve the culture and history of the landscape. Though grazing numbers have dropped radically from when the ranch was privately operated—Baca Ranch once grazed 6,000 yearlings, while now 2,950 pairs is considered the absolute maximum—grazing is still considered an integral part of the preserve. And although the board could benefit economically from accepting Guardians’ offers, managers claim it would not be consistent with the preserve’s mission.

“The board of trustees has declined those very lucrative offers of not grazing in favor of doing a relatively conservative livestock grazing operation because the mission of the preserve is to operate as a working ranch,” stated Parmenter. “That was the direction from Congress.”

WildEarth Guardians has countered that the trustees are taking too narrow a view of the concept of a “working ranch.” More ranches are focusing exclusively on wildlife, they have claimed, implying that simply managing the preserve’s herd of 2,000- 3,000 elk would satisfy Congress’ directive. Trustees disagree, and tensions over the preserve’s best use have continued to simmer.

“In this case, I think the rejection of our bid under scores the need for Congress to revisit the mission of the preserve itself,” Bird told the Associated Press in 2009.

For the coming season, Haarmann anticipates 800 AUMs per month will be available to lessees. Keeping cattle numbers comparatively low has contributed to the grazing program’s difficulty in covering its own costs. Yet with competitive bidding driving prices up around $8-10 an AUM, the program—now earning between $10,000- $20,000 per season—is running in the black.

“It’s turning out to be profitable now; it has been for the last three years,” said Parmenter.

Little will appease the WildEarth Gardians. A December blog post on their website left little room for doubting the group’s overall objective: “The valleys and forests of the Preserve are simply too valuable to put at risk with a domestic livestock grazing program.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent