Run the Caldera: The Contested Politics of Wilderness Recreation in Northern New Mexico

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:30 PM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Sarah Stanford-McIntyre, College of William and Mary
An experiment in privatized federal wilderness preservation, the Valles Caldera National Trust is located outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico, on the western edge of the Jemez Mountains. The park was established in the year 2000 with an ambitious plan to make the operation economically self-sufficient by 2015. To generate revenue, the trust advertised the Caldera as a prime outdoor adventure location, offering an array of activities such as helicopter tours, fishing and hunting excursions, and a marathon. Despite this ambitious plan, in 2011 the park was deemed unable to meet the 2015 deadline and talks began about what was to be done.

In my paper I examine both the local and national debate surrounding the trust’s establishment and future, contextualizing it within a multi-generational conflict over property lines and resource use in the Valles Caldera. As part of this discussion, I highlight ways in which the trust’s choice of approved recreational activities, especially the marathon, denotes a very specific set of assumptions about appropriate land use: although undeveloped land should be protected from industrial exploitation, the land is best kept when it is put to ordered, productive use. I connect this local debate to a wider, contemporary reconceptualization of outdoor recreation as a tangibly productive, quantifiable, and goal-oriented activity. Contrasting modern policies with the complex history of federal wilderness management, I argue that this cultural framework, as much as a desire to boost local industry and an ambivalence over the historically strong federal presence in Northern New Mexico, shapes the ongoing battle between environmental protection advocates on one side and local ranchers and agriculturalists on the other.

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