Baca Ranch: The Southwest's Yellowstone

For years, hikers have dreamed of trekking in Baca Ranch's untouched, wildlife-thick backcountry. You'll soon get your chance.
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For years, hikers have dreamed of trekking in Baca Ranch's untouched, wildlife-thick backcountry. You'll soon get your chance.

I have died and gone to elk heaven.

On prior hikes, in places like Colorado and Montana, I've watched cohorts slobber all over themselves at the sight of an elk in the wild. And I'll admit, it is a grand sight that triggers a rush of adrenaline, which is why I'm having a hard time maintaining some sense of self-control here in Valles Caldera National Preserve—also known, before the federal government bought these 89,000 spectacular acres in July 2000, as Baca Ranch. Hereabouts, under a northern New Mexico sky bluer than blue, where the autumn breeze hints of winter and the musky smell of elk in rut lingers among the pines, the elk to human ratio is 5,000 to one. This is an ungulate lover's paradise.

But at the moment, I'm focused on a single wapiti (the elks' Native American name): the cow just 5 feet in front of me, bigger than a horse and leaning against a tree sound asleep. It's rutting season, and last night must have been a long one for her. I stand still, waiting to see what will happen next. After a few moments she opens her eyes, looks at me, then nonchalantly ambles away, clearly unafraid.

There's good reason she isn't alarmed by my presence. For decades, people who fancy sublime terrain have stood outside the barbed wire fence along NM 4, drooling over the wildlife and scenery within the Baca. It seemed almost too good to be true: high grassland valleys surrounded by 11,000-foot peaks, 30 miles of prime trout streams, the headwaters of two fine rivers, hot springs, Native American cultural and religious sites, one of world's best examples of the geological phenomenon called a caldera (a collapsed volcano), plus the largest elk herd in the Southwest. What was even harder to believe was that this inholding in the Santa Fe National Forest, a crown jewel long described as the "Yellowstone of the Southwest," had somehow slipped through the fingers of our national park system. It was private property with no history of heavy human influence; in other words, the critters hadn't learned to fear two-legged or four-wheeled intrusions.

In recent years, when the Baca's owners decided to sell the place, real estate appraisers tagged it a "trophy ranch." Huge, undeveloped, never subdivided, and almost virgin by comparison to other western ranches, the Baca looked set to become a billionaire's private playground. CNN founder Ted Turner considered buying the ranch, but decided against it because the high grasslands couldn't support the buffalo he would import in winter.

After many rounds of haggling and slicing through red tape, the Baca is at last owned by the American people. But deciding how we should use the spectacular, unpeopled expanse isn't going to be easy. As an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper pointed out, opening the Baca to the public "involves more than just unlocking a few ranch gates and letting the Winnebagos roll in." Everybody wants a piece of the place, from snowmobilers to hunters to backpackers. Over the next year, the destiny of the Baca will be determined through a unique arrangement lawmakers have described as an "experiment" in public-lands management. Unique, indeed. The preserve will be run by a board of private citizens rather than a government agency.

All this, of course, is of absolutely no consequence to the elk. That is, as long as what we humans do doesn't interfere with their midday naps.

From the top of the Baca's bowl-like caldera, I look down on the 8,000-foot-high golden grasslands of the Valle (valley) Grande and Valle San Antonio, which are cut by silvery, snaking streams. Viewing this pastoral panorama, with elk ambling about, trout hopping in the streams, and hawks circling overhead, it's hard to imagine the Baca's geologically violent past. About 1.2 million years ago, a volcano rising from the Jemez Mountains erupted and then collapsed on itself, leaving the 15-mile wide crater that's now filled with some of the most fertile land in northern New Mexico.

This may be elk heaven, but it's also my idea of a backpacking paradise. Since I'm the first Jane Public Person to hike on the Baca since the "Private Property—No Trespassing" signs came down, the land is literally untracked. The terrain is gentle and water is plentiful. It's a place made for moving from one grassy meadow to the next and snoozing an afternoon away under the cloudless sky. The vegetation, the abundant ungulates, the hot springs, and an occasional smell of sulfur all make me feel like I am indeed in Yellowstone's central plateau (also a caldera). The difference, of course, is that I'm not having to share it with hordes of tourists. Another difference, one that irks environmentalists and some federal employees, is that the Baca isn't a national park.

The Forest Service and National Park Service had been negotiating with Texas rancher Pat Dunigan and his children for decades before the purchase of the Baca finally happened July 25, 2000. Closing the deal ultimately hinged on a compromise that former President Bill Clinton struck with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), who sits on the Senate's Interior Appropriations Subcommittee and didn't like the idea of a longtime working ranch being consumed by the federal land management bureaucracy.

Congress approved spending $101 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase the Baca on the condition that it continue to function as a "working ranch," while also providing recreational opportunities. That's why it's labeled a preserve, not a park. It is run by a nine-member board of trustees (seven of whom are private citizens) appointed by the president. The board's job, besides protecting the resources and managing public access, is to find ways for the preserve to be self-supporting. Within 15 years, this coveted swath of public land must generate enough revenue through grazing, timber sales, recreation fees, and other means to pay for its own management.

"The argument simply became: Do you want this land to be public or private?" recalls Denise McCaig as she describes how she struggled to build federal solidarity behind the purchase. As Assistant Director of Wilderness and Special Areas for the Forest Service's Southwestern Region, McCaig spent the past 3 years working almost exclusively on the Baca purchase. "We didn't want to lose the Baca by bickering over how or who would manage it." Still, federal land managers probably never suspected the job would go to a board of trustees, modeled after for-profit, private-sector corporations.

"It's an experiment for sure," says McCaig, trying to be optimistic. "It will be interesting to watch (the board) struggle with the same kinds of land management issues that the Forest Service does."

After my hike in the Valle Grande, McCaig joins me for a hike into the Valle Toledo in the remote, northeastern corner of the ranch. The angled autumn light saturates the meadow with neon-rich colors: yellow leaves, golden grass, silver water. We walk among a stand of aspen and marvel at the designs carved in the soft bark by elk scratching their antlers.

"I'm struggling with the fact that wildlife viewing is one of the greatest qualities here, and it probably will be ruined by people approaching the animals," confesses McCaig. "We've done it to so many public lands. We destroyed the very things that we loved about the place."

For evidence, look no further than the national forest surrounding the preserve. About an hour's drive from the metropolitan centers of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the Jemez Mountains record more than 1 million visitor days (one person spending one night) per year. Wildlife sightings are rare and fleeting. Meanwhile, the fenced-off Baca has seen no more than 200 people per year over the past few decades. It's no surprise that besides the elk, many other species, ranging from eagles to mountain lions to the endangered Jemez salamander, find refuge here.

"Everybody who comes out is glad the Baca is public land," notes McCaig, who's hosted a handful of opportunists like me. "But when they experience the solitude and see how special this place is, they don't want anybody else to come here."

I'm definitely guilty of such selfishness. Hiking across the Baca's gaping meadows and silent forests, I've enjoyed the solitude as much as the scenery. Human influence is wonderfully absent here. Granted, this has been a working ranch for a century, but it's far less developed than most other swaths of public land in the Southwest that contain abundant water and gentle terrain. During my days at the preserve, I've felt virtually alone, traversing land that appears never to have been touched by a human foot. One afternoon, I explore an obsidian mine, which yielded the stone Native Americans used to make razor-sharp arrowheads. Partially carved points of the glasslike volcanic rock that didn't quite work out and were discarded lay on the ground where they had been dropped untold centuries ago.

The future of the Baca is now in the hands of the nine individuals appointed as trustees by Clinton during his last days in office. The board must develop a management plan for the Valles Caldera preserve within 2 years from the time they took charge of the property. Technically, they don't have to allow public access to the land until the plan is complete, which is likely to be sometime in 2002. Last spring, one of the first actions taken by the trustees was to close the Baca to visitors and contract for an environmental and archaeological inventory. They also began holding public meetings and "listening tours" around New Mexico to get citizens' input on managing the preserve.

"The Baca is very rich in resources," says board chairman and Santa Fe-based writer William deBuys. "Our first job is to do no harm. We have to develop a comprehensive plan to protect the resources and put it in place before we invite people in."

Then there's the issue of coming up with ways to generate cash. No doubt, some type of permit system will be implemented to protect the environment by limiting backcountry access (as is done in many national parks). The question is, how much will the camping, hunting, and fishing permits cost?

"You don't want it to be so expensive that only the elite can afford to hike there, or that it becomes a good ol' boys' hunting camp," says the National Park Conservation Association's Dave Simon. Grazing might be too pricey for local ranchers, though, if the board were to charge a fee high enough to make the endeavor profitable.

At press time, the board is still in "listening" mode, and no access decisions have been made. Hiking and backpacking are almost certain to be endorsed by the management plan, and may be allowed sooner than more consumptive forms of recreation. But board member and New Mexico Nature Conservancy chairwoman Karen Durkovich says hiking will not be allowed until trails are developed and marked. A Los Alamos hiking club, one of numerous user groups petitioning the trustees, is eager to help build a system of paths. When you factor in the adjacent backcountry in both Santa Fe National Forest and Bandelier National Monument, the possibilities for wilderness backpacking are immense.

My trip coincides with the peak of elk mating season, so every night is like a college frat party as the rowdy bulls chase after cows, filling the woods with hormone-charged barking, grunting, and snorting. Sleep is fleeting and hard to come by.

The good thing about being kept awake by the sounds of the rut is that you don't miss the grand finale at dawn. On my last morning in the Baca, as the sky brightens from black to gray, I watch the wildlife spectacle unfolding below the grove of trees where I'm bedded down. In a vast, grassy depression of the Valle Grande, a silver layer of fog hovers like smoke just above the ground. Several hundred elk casually mingle in the mist, as bulls try to out-bugle each other. It's a mournful but joyous sound, probably an indication of another successful night. No doubt, a few cows will soon be leaning against trees.

I listen to the serenade and wonder if I'll get the same wonderfully sleepless nights when I return to the preserve a few years from now. I hope the Baca will continue to be a place where both elk and humans can nap in peace. As President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1903 at the dedication of the Grand Canyon, "Keep this great work of nature as it now is...You cannot improve on it; not a bit."

Expedition Planner: Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM

At press time, the preserve remains closed to the public pending completion of the management plan. If you want to visit Valles Caldera, check the Forest Service's Web site (see Contact below) to find out if access decisions have been made regarding overnight camping or backpacking.

Even if you can't hike the former Baca Ranch just yet, now is the time to voice your opinions to the board of trustees about how the preserve should be managed (see Contact below). Debate over critical issues?whether to close the roads or allow snowmobiles, for instance?will be hot.

Getting there: The Valles Caldera Preserve is on the north side of NM 4, about 15 miles west of Los Alamos. From Albuquerque, head north on I-25, then northwest on NM 44 through San Ysidro. Continue north and then east on NM 4 for about 30 miles until you reach the signed preserve gate on the left side of the road.

Season: With meadow elevations at 8,000 feet, summer and early fall are pleasant. October, while a bit chilly, is an outstanding time to visit because the elk are in rut and the aspens are aglow. Winter is prime time for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, if it's allowed.

Hiking possibilities: The wide-open terrain of the Baca makes it possible to strike out in any direction. The Valles Toledo and San Antonio in the northern part of the preserve offer the best scenery, wildlife, and solitude. There is also talk of building a "rim trail" around the top of the caldera.

Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Redondo Peak and Valle San Antonio ($4 each).Contact: (888) ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov.

Next door: You'll find several good backpacking routes in adjacent Bandelier National Monument and Santa Fe National Forest's Dome Wilderness. Try the Yapashi Ruins route or Capulin Canyon. Permits are required for overnight camping.

Contact: Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Ranger District, Santa Fe National Forest, (505) 829-3535; www.fs.fed.us/r3/sfe. Bandelier National Monument, (505) 672-0343; www.nps.gov/band.

For more information on the management plan: Southwest Office, National Parks Conservation Association, (505) 247-1221; www.npca.org.