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.