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  • Valles Caldera: Preserving the “Yellowstone of the Southwest”
  • Jeffrey M. Widener (bio)

Located northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, are the majestic Jemez Mountains—a volcanic mountain range that began forming around 20 million years ago (figure 1) (Wolff et al. 2005). This range sits atop the western edge of the Rio Grande rift, an area of extreme volcanic activity, and is part of the Jemez lineament stretching from southeast Arizona to southern Colorado (Heiken et al. 1990). Recurrent tectonic activity formed and re-formed the Jemez Mountains into a range of lava domes, eroded cones, and incised canyons. Of particular interest to researchers are the eruptions of two small vents around 1.5 million years ago. These explosions left the surface unsupported and, as a result, the Toledo Caldera formed. Around 300,000 years later, another eruption, which was about 100 times stronger than the 1980 Mount St. Helens explosion in Washington, demolished the majority of the Toledo Caldera but formed a new one, the Valles Caldera, which measures almost 15 miles in diameter (Wolff and Gardner 1995; Valles Caldera Trust [VCT] 2003).

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Figure 1.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is located in the volcanic Jemez Mountain range (in the distance)—taken from Santa Fe, NM (photo by author).

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After a collapse that forms a caldera, resurgent domes can begin to form if uplift occurs owing to pressure pushing molten rock in the magma chamber below the caldera upward. In the Valles Caldera, this started over 70,000 years ago (Martin 2003, 6). Redondo Peak, at 11,254 feet, is the Valles Caldera National Preserve’s only resurgent dome. This resurgence drained the lakes, created rivers, and formed the Cañon de San Diego, where the Jemez settled in the 1700s. Geographers, geologists, and other researchers recognize the Valles Caldera as an exceptional example of an exposed caldera formation, and, indeed, some call it the “Yellowstone of the Southwest” (VCT 2003, 18; Solomon 2004). Like Yellowstone, it is a place worthy of preservation for its beautiful landscapes. It is also of great importance culturally and ecologically to several indigenous groups, particularly the Towa-speaking Jemez Pueblo. The government continues to seek ways to best preserve such areas for posterity.

Over the past few decades, United States (US) government officials have tried using new methods of acquiring and paying for publicly owned land. In 1996, Congress placed the Presidio, a historic military base in San Francisco, under the direction of the Presidio Trust—the first charter land management program. Congress implemented this trust not only to “preserve the Presidio’s natural, scenic, cultural, and recreational resources” but also to help it pay for its own upkeep (Presidio Trust [PT] 2010; Fairfax, Gwin, and Huntsinger 2004). Thus, they established a difference between setting aside public land to be government supported and placing public land under a trust that would become self-supporting. In this case, the Presidio Trust manages 80 percent and the National Park Service (NPS) oversees 20 percent (PT 2010). The Valles Caldera National Preserve, established in 2000, is the second site placed in a trust program—the Valles Caldera Trust—but this region has a historical cultural geography much richer than and different from that of the Presidio (figure 2).

While several authors have described the history and the problems associated with the land management practices of the NPS and the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) (Foresta 1984; Dilsaver 1994; Spence 1999; Burnham 2000; Williams 2006; Sellers 2009; Runte 2010), only a handful of scholars have researched the land management system of public land trusts (Benton 1998; Fairfax, Gwin, and Huntsinger 2004; Little, Berrens, and Champ 2005; DeBuys and Usner 2006; Sullivan 2008).

On the surface, public land trusts are similar to the NPS and USFS models, but the unique trust model focuses more on actual land use and management for sustainability and resilience than the more familiar NPS [End Page 584]

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Figure 2.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve (cartography by author).

and USFS models do. Both land management models, however, have a number of important roles in...


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