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.