Preserving a Grand Landscape in New Mexico

The most sublime place described in this Sunday’s New York Times Travel Section is, of course, in New Mexico.

Less than four years ago, Congress paid $101 million to buy an 89,000-acre ranch in northern New Mexico of such grandeur and scientific richness it’s been called the Yellowstone of the Southwest. The nation’s backpacking cognoscenti laced up their hiking boots in anticipation. Here, finally, was the chance to tramp across a landscape so iconic of the American West that it appeared for years in Marlboro Man ads and on Stetson hatboxes.

Then the government promptly locked the gates. Managers of the newly renamed Valles Caldera National Preserve needed time to create a plan to safeguard the place from the surge of interest that was sure to come. (When a few “sneak peek” hikes were announced in September 2000, 50,000 people telephoned in one day to snare the 1,500 spots.) But the managers also needed time to digest the mandate Congress had handed them. The preserve is “an experiment in land management” that is run neither by the Forest Service nor the National Park Service but by a trust that is governed by presidential appointees. Valles Caldera is to remain a working ranch while also protecting the environment and accommodating hikers, hunters and other users. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, Congress asked the preserve to try to become financially self-sufficient by 2015, whether by charging fees for cattle grazing and recreation or perhaps even permitting some logging. It is a complex, at times contradictory charge and one that makes Valles Caldera a good symbol of the many issues the nation’s public lands grapple with today….

Some of the West’s great vistas thrust themselves on you with a beauty that is almost oppressive. Valles Caldera is not one of these places. Beyond the windshield, steamship clouds dragged their shadows across Valle Grande, a treeless, harvest-colored valley that ran to a horizon of ponderosa and green peaks. A bull elk lounged in the valley with his harem, his chandelier of a rack rising above the grama grass. This is not the awe-demanding West of Albert Bierstadt but the welcoming West of an Aaron Copland score – a big-hearted landscape, heroic, promising, completely American. Seeing it, you realize that you know Valles Caldera from billboards and ads and untold westerns. You feel at home.

As with the two articles below, those who love the west will enjoy reading the whole essay.