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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.

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.”

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