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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.

“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.”

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