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Update on the Federal Acquisition of the Valles Caldera (7-25-00)

The Jemez Mountains, a dormant volcanic complex covering more than 1,000 square miles, is located in the north-central part of New Mexico. Near the center of the range lies Valles Caldera, a resurgent caldera or enormous depression created by a massive volcanic eruption millions or years ago, that measurers more than a half-mile deep and close to 15 miles across.  Most of the Jemez Mountains are in public hands, either as part of the Santa Fe National Forest or the Bandelier National Monument.  But the Valles Caldera is primarily within a privately held ranch known as the Baca -- or more officially the Baca Location No. 1.  In recent decades, there have been several other offers for the government to buy the land over the last decades that did not pan out.  This time the Baca has been offered to the federal government for a price of $101 million.  The last attempt to sell the Baca in 1997 ended when the Dunigan family, who own the ranch, decided against selling it.  Once again, the Dunigan family and the federal government, with great support from Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), are in the process of settling on a fair-market price and an appropriate governing board system for the Baca.  On November 9, 1999, Sen. Domenici and Sen. Bingaman -- who wrote an article on the caldera for the April 1998 issues of Geotimes -- introduced S. 1892, the Valles Caldera Preservation & Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, authorizing the acquisition of the Baca and "to provide for an effective land and wildlife management program for this resource within the [Forest Service within the] Department of Agriculture."


Most Recent Action
President Clinton signed S. 1892, the Valles Caldera Preservation and Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, into law on July 25th. The President's statement is available from the White House web site.  An accompanying White House press release states: "Under an innovative arrangement, the new preserve will be managed in a way that allows for sustainable resource use while ensuring public access and full protection of the ranch's extraordinary natural assets.  The legislation signed today also allows transfer of 5,000 acres of the ranch to the Santa Clara Pueblo to protect the headwaters of Santa Clara Creek, the pueblo's water supply."  The House passed the bill on July 12th in a 377-45 vote.  Previously, the House Resources Committee had held a hearing on H.R. 3288, the House companion bill to S. 1892, and reported favorably on the identical bill (H. Rept. 106-724).  On May 24th, the committee passed the bill and placed it on the House calendar for floor debate.  The Senate passed S. 1892 back in April 2000 by unanimous consent.

Prior Action During the 106th Congress
Last October, the Baca Ranch owners and the U.S. Forest Service completed and signed a purchase agreement for the ranch that expires on April 30, 2000.  The Baca ranch quickly came back into the limelight last fall during the last-minute budget negotiations between the Administration and Republican leadership on fiscal year (FY) 2000 appropriations.  Two sections of the omnibus bill included language allocating funds to the US Forest Service for acquisition of the Baca Ranch.  The omnibus bill provided a total of $101 million to cover the purchase price agreed to in the October purchase agreement.  One catch to the agreement was that the expenditure is contingent upon passage of authorizing legislation and the submission to Congress of an appraisal of the property by the General Accounting Office (GAO). Identical House (H.R. 3288) and Senate (S. 1892) versions of the necessary authorizing legislation were introduced on November 9th by Reps. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Tom Udall (D-NM) and by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), respectively.

So far, action on S. 1892 has been confined to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- both Domenici and Bingaman are members.  The legislation has gained the support of many members of Congress who normally oppose federal acquisition of lands, especially in the western states.  Unlike other land acquisition legislation in which the federal government exchanges either money or other land for a particular plot of land that is then governed by a federal agency, the Baca legislation would establish a Board of Trustees to govern the activities of the preserve as well as require the Department of the Interior (Bureau of Land Management) and the Department of Agriculture (Forest Service) to "sell land identified for disposal under its land planning" as authorized under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

Title I of the bill, entitled Valles Caldera National Preserve and Trust Act, spells out the unique balance of activities that currently occur on the Baca ranch.  "The careful husbandry of the Baca ranch by the current owners, including selective timbering, limited grazing and hunting, and the use of prescribed fire, have preserved a mix of healthy range and timber land with significant species diversity, thereby serving as a model for sustainable land development and use."  Under the legislation, the Forest Service would have jurisdiction over the Baca Ranch, but the bill clears states that "except for the powers of the Secretary [of Agriculture] enumerated in this title, the [Baca National] Preserve [and Trust] shall be managed by the Valles Caldera Trust" and Board of Trustees.  The Board of Trustees will consist of nine members from a range of backgrounds.  According to the legislation, the members would include the Supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest, the Superintendent of the Bandelier National Monument and seven members appointed by the President in consultation with the New Mexico congressional delegation.  The seven appointees must represent experience in livestock management, "game and nongame wildlife and fish populations," sustainable forest management, financial management, cultural and natural history of the region, as well as a representative from a nonprofit conservation organization focused on US Forest Service activities and a trustee who is active in either state or local government "with experience in the customs of the local area."

The federal government holds nearly 650 million acres of land, primarily in the western states, that is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.  This legislation would require these agencies, especially the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, to review the current system of management as well as review tracts of land identified as either for disposal or desirable for acquisition.  Once they have reviewed these aspects, the legislation would strongly support "the sale or exchange of land identified for disposal and the acquisition of certain non-Federal land from willing landowners."  The exchange of land would allow for better management and more efficient management practices -- primarily in cases where formerly scattered tracts of land can be consolidated into one large tract.

On March 10th, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management held a hearing on S. 1892 to discuss a General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the fair-market value of the Baca ranch and the unusual proposed governing board for the Baca -- many western senators who often do not favor increasing the federal lands arsenal are intrigued with the Baca proposal.  Present at the hearing was an array of full-committee members -- Frank Murkowski (R-AK), Pete Domenici (R-MN), Larry Craig (R-ID), Slade Gorton (R-OR), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Daniel Akaka (D-HI).  Sen. Craig, Chairman of the Subcommittee, began the hearing by expressing his interest in the governing board structure -- a nine-member board consisting of the Supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest, the Superintendent of the Bandelier National Monument and "seven individuals, appointed by the President, in consultation with the congressional delegation from the State of New Mexico" with "specific expertise or represent[ing] an organization or government entity."  Craig also voiced a concern shared by many of the members present about the discrepancy between what the GAO has reported and what an independent appraiser have given as the fair-market value for the property.  Sen. Murkowski addressed skepticism as to the ability of the US Forest Service to properly manage the Baca because of the differences between current Forest Service management regulations and the proposed Baca governing board system.  The first panel included Representative Tom Udall (D-NM), who represents the northern district of New Mexico that includes the Baca, and Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM) who are the co-sponsors of the House version of the Baca legislation (H.R. 3288).  Other panels included representatives from the US Forest Service, GAO, Bureau of Land Management, and the government of several local pueblos surrounding the Valles Caldera.  A complete list of witnesses and links to their written testimonies are available off the Senate Energy and Natural Resources website for this hearing.

The committee released their report (S. Rept. 106-267) on April 12th, which included an amendment in the form of a substitute. According to the committee report, the "amendment includes the following substantive provisions: (1) Land acquired by the Santa Clara Pueblo pursuant to section 104(g) will be placed into trust status and development of the underlying mineral estate (if acquired by the United States) will be prohibited unless agreed to by the Pueblo and the Secretary; (2) In order to protect significant Native American cultural sites, the construction of new roads, structures, or facilities above 10,000 feet in elevation on Redondo Peak is prohibited (section 105(g)); and (3) The Trust is provided with exclusive right to use the words ''Valles Caldera Trust'' and any seal, emblem, or other insignia adopted by the Board of Trustees, similar to authority recently granted to the Presidio Trust."

On April 13, 2000, the Senate passed S. 1892 by unanimous consent -- one of several land trade and water project bills before leaving for the Spring Recess.  After holding a hearing on the acquisition of the Baca Ranch on March 10, 2000, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee favorably passed S. 1892.  According to Environment & Energy News, the only vote against the bill came from Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL), who believes that the US Forest Service is overpaying for the property (as reported in the General Accounting Office report released at the March hearing).  The bill was sent to the House for consideration.

The House Resources Committee held a hearing on May 11th to hear testimony regarding H.R. 3288, the Valles Caldera National Preserve and Trust Act.  Because of the fires sweeping across north-central New Mexico and the broad bipartisan support for the bill, the hearing was succinct to allow witnesses and the New Mexico congressional delegation to return to the region.  Bill sponsor Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) noted in her opening statement that the New Mexico delegation would like to see S. 1892, the Senate companion bill that has already been amended and passed by the Senate, move quickly through the House.  Originally, the current owners provided an April 30, 2000 deadline for closing on the property, but, at the last moment, extended the contract to June 30, 2000.  It seems clear that the goal of the delegation and bill supporters is to keep the Baca bill on the fast track.  Witnesses at the May 11th hearing included: James Lyons, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Larry Finfer, Assistant Director for Communications, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior; Jeannette Wallace, New Mexico State Representative, Los Alamos, NM; Robert Gibson, Los Alamos County Councilor, Los Alamos County, Los Alamos, NM; and Palemon Martinez, Secretary/Treasurer, Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association, Santa Fe, NM.  All the panelists were in support of the bill and want to help make sure that the Baca ranch is preserved for future generations under the current multi-use management.  Written testimony of the panelists is available on the House Resources May 11th hearing website.


Sources: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee website, hearing testimony, House Resources Committee website,  Environment & Energy News Publications, Thomas Legislative Information Service, and Greenwire.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Contributed by Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs

Posted May 15, 2000: Last Updated July 25, 2000.


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