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New Mexico's Baca Ranch soon to be public land
Anglers, loggers, hikers, hunters, naturalists and geologists who used to appreciate New Mexico's Baca Ranch from the other side of a barbed-wire fence don't have to stand on the outside anymore.
Congress has approved a purchase price of $101 million to turn the Baca property, a 95,000-acre jewel in the heart of the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, into public land, and President Clinton is ready to sign the bill into law.
"They're not making any more Baca ranches," said Lois Lyles of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "It has incredible biodiversity. The previous owners did practice good land stewardship. It's as pristine an area as I've ever seen."
The money to buy the Baca property came from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a lump of royalties the federal government receives from offshore oil and gas drilling.
"The NPCA is very pleased that the democratic process is actually working. The American people asked to have the Baca set aside as part of the country's wild legacy and Congress did just that," said Lyles.
The ranch is surrounded by federal land, including the Santa Fe National Forest, the Jemez National Recreation Area and Bandelier National Monument. It is home to 40 miles of pristine trout streams, 66,118 acres of conifer forest, 17 endangered plant and animal species and 25,000 acres of grassland grazed by 8,000 elk, the state's largest herd.
The headwaters of the Jemez River and San Antonio Creek originate on the ranch that sits inside the rim of an ancient volcano, Valles Caldera, 15 miles in diameter. Hot springs, natural gas seeps and volcanic domes dot the landscape.
The area also contains significant Native American religious and cultural sites. The government plans to sell nearly 5,000 acres of ranch land to Santa Clara Pueblo for $4.5 million. That parcel includes the headwaters of Santa Clara Creek, which is sacred to the pueblo.
Not all conservationists who fought to preserve the ranch are pleased with the outcome.
"Because of compromises and the failure of the environmental community to seek national park status, we ended up with a shadow of protection," said Sam Hitt, founder of Forest Guardians. "There's a lot of people saying we finally won on the Baca, but amid the celebration is a dark cloud."
Nine trustees of the Valles Caldera Trust will be appointed by President Clinton to manage the land.
The trust will include the supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest, superintendent of Bandelier National Park and seven other individuals appointed by Clinton and approved by the congressional delegation from New Mexico. The group of seven is to include experts in livestock management, fish and wildlife, sustainable forestry, financial management, and cultural and natural history. Five must reside in New Mexico.
"The trust is charged with raising funds to manage the land, that means they have to engage in revenue producing activities," said Hitt. "There's a very strong incentive to put the bottom line before protection of resources. It's exploitation of resources before resource protection."
The trust will be charged with collecting and allocating fees from the use of the ranch for grazing, hunting and recreation.
He added that legislation establishing the trust does not ensure "healthy land" for future generations. The land is already scarred by logging and grazing, and under the trust, resource extraction is likely to continue.
While recreationists have been waiting for years to use to the Baca land, they'll have to wait a bit longer. It could take months or even years for the ranch to be open to the public as Valles Caldera National Preserve.
"The value of the Baca is truly in its recreational opportunities, even though the legislation says it must be sustained as a working ranch," said Lyles. "There could be a lag between the actual purchase and the time when people can go out and camp and hike, but we hope it won't be long."
Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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