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Valles Caldera

From Jemez Thunder, October 01, 1997

 U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced legislation on Sept. 24 that would authorize the federal government to purchase the 95,000 acre Baca Location No. 1 northeast of Jemez Springs. The nearly square parcel of land – almost 100 square miles in area – is located between the Santa Fe National Forest and Bandelier National Monument north of Highway 4 and is best known for the Valle Grande, the world’s largest extinct volcano.

Destined to become federal land? Stay tuned. Photo by Robert Borden/Jemez Thunder

Destined to become federal land? Stay tuned. Photo by Robert Ray Wood/Jemez Thunder

“Today we have a truly historic opportunity to preserve an extraordinary parcel of land,” Bingaman said. “The Baca Location No. 1 – famous in New Mexico as the Valle Grande – has been rightly compared to Rocky Mountain National Park or the Grand Canyon in terms of its natural splendor and significance to our country. When we complete this transaction, we’ll be allowing the public to access and enjoy these lands for the first time since 1860.” The land is currently managed by the Baca Land and Cattle Company of Los Alamos.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), however, expressed concern that adding the Valle Grande to the government’s already large land holdings in New Mexico might not be wise, particularly given how much money the government already owes for lands it has already acquired.

Bingaman’s legislation would authorize the federal government to purchase the Baca parcel from its owners through a willing seller/willing buyer agreement. The government would then develop a plan for the land’s use by the public, and for its preservation – including protection of the upper Alamo watershed above Bandelier National Monument. Federal appropriations will be required for the sale to move forward.

In writing the legislation, Bingaman has worked in close partnership with members of the Dunigan family, owners of the land since 1962. A spokeman for the Dunigan family said, “This legislation represents the fulfillment of the late James P Dunigan’s long-standing desire to protect the Baca Ranch for future generations. If Mr. Dunigan were alive today, he would be very pleased to see that his efforts are at last coming to fruition.” Dunigan was in discussions with the federal government to complete the land sale at the time of his premature death in 1980.

“The idea of public ownership of the Baca Ranch is certainly not a new one,” Bingaman said. “The last major push was made by the late former New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson in the 1960s. I’d like to think that we’re picking up where he left off.”

“One factor that makes this such a tremendous opportunity is that the Dunigans have worked hard to preserve the quality of the land over the last several decades. With this legislation, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to allow the federal government to continue this responsible stewardship, allow the public to take advantage of a fantastic recreation spot, and head off any attempts by future owners to develop it,” Bingaman said.

The Baca Ranch includes seven distinct valleys, including the Valle Grande, which is nearly six miles across at its widest point. The land contains a number of unique geologic features, including hot springs, sulphur pools and detectable

geothermal activity. It also contains the headwaters for the San Antonio and Jemez Rivers, which flow into the Rio Grande.

The Baca land was originally granted to the heirs of Don Luis Maria Cabeza de Vaca under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1860. Generations have used the land to raise sheep, cattle and horses, and as a timber supply. In addition, these lands have been used since the 1940s for numerous films about the American West. Various films sets remain on the property to this day and are a significant part of the history of the American film industry. Since the 1960s, the Dunigans have practiced selective timbering, limited grazing and hunting, and the use of prescribed fire to protect the land.

In addition to the Baca legislation, Bingaman has also introduced a bill to expand the boundaries of the adjacent Bandelier National Monument. Bingaman’s Bandelier bill would add over 900 acres of privately-held land to the national park, approximately 800 of which are owned by the Dunigan family interests. No statement has been made as to whether the U.S. Forest Service, which is responsible for the Jemez National Recreation Area, or the National Park Service, which administers Bandelier National Monument, would be given responsibility for the Baca Ranch if it were acquired.

Senator Domenici issued a statement on Sept. 24 which said, “I have been reviewing this issue and consulting with a variety of people over the past several months. To me it is obvious that there are other considerations to take into account, such as how will we pay for this when the federal government already owes so much for land acquisitions. I am also concerned about what to do about several million acres in New Mexico and throughout the West that have been deemed surplus. These lands remain in the hands of the federal government even though they are not needed. A solution to this problem could yield millions of dollars for the federal treasury. In the very near future, I expect to introduce legislation that addresses Valle Grande and other important issues.”

In a Sept. 28 editorial, the Albuquerque Journal sided with Domenici, estimating the cost of buying the Valle Grande at about $47 million. “Having the land sliced up and sold by the acre for commercial development would understandable be tragedy,” the Journal editorial said, but “The federal government has other more critical priorities and debts to address before committing to this luxury purchase.

Another large land owner in the Jemez area, the Servants of the Paraclete, has also been approached about selling some of its land to the federal government. Father Liam Hoare, Servant General of the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, said that the Trust for Public Lands has approached the Paracletes on this matter. Father Liam told the Thunder that no decision has been made. But, he said, “We would want the land to be preserved and conserved. Development with condos and such would be the antithesis of what we would want.

From Albuquerque Journal, October 03, 1988

Bore Hole Offers Peek at History, Potential of Core
By Byron Spice, Journal Science Writer

Christmas comes several times a day along the rim of the valley Caldera in the Jemez Mountains.

For geologists involved in boring a hole deep into the ancient, collapsed volcano, it comes in the form of rock cores, decoratively wrapped in metal pipe and delivered from a hard-hat Santa’s 75-foot-tall drill rig just up the hill.

A 75-foot-tall drill rig, the largest diamond-core drill rig in the Valles Caldera, an ancient, collapsed volcano in the United States, is used to bore a scientific hole deep into Jemez Mountains. Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal

A 75-foot-tall drill rig, the largest diamond-core drill rig in the Valles Caldera, an ancient, collapsed volcano in the United States, is used to bore a scientific hole deep into Jemez Mountains. Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal

The cores have been arriving in the scientists’ plastic-sheeted lean-to since late July, first in 10-foot lengths and now in 20-feet lengths. Each 2-inch-diameter cylinder of rock reveals more of the volcanic system’s secrets, which the mountains have been hoarding for hundreds of thousands of years.

The project is part of the Continental Scientific Drilling Program and is designed to increase understanding of volcanoes, geothermal energy systems and the way in which mineral deposits are formed. Researchers expect to complete the drilling in the next few weeks, by which time the bore hole may reach a depth of 7,000 feet.

“Holy smokes, look at the pyrite in there,” cried Jeff Hulen, a geologist with the University of Utah Research Institute, as the latest gift of rock core was dumped into a plastic trough one day last week. “Isn’t that beautiful stuff? Look at this vein,” he said, pointing to a long golden streak of pyrite spiralling around the core.

Only minutes earlier, the rock had been hoisted from a depth of almost 4,800 feet, where temperatures are greater than 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The core was still warm to the touch as Hulen and Jamie Gardner, a geologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, scanned it to find any obvious prizes.

Within minutes, the scientists focused on the bottom of the core, which they found was composed of “intrusive” rock – once molten rock that never reached the surface when the volcano erupted. Its presence surprised and pleased the researchers – “We’ve got an intrusive!” – because the drill long ago had passed through all the volcanic rock near the surface and was deep within sedimentary rock.

This intrusive rock suggested that a previously undiscovered finger of rock might extend from the chamber of molten rock, or magma, that lies three or four miles beneath the caldera. The magma chamber already may have solidified into granite, but its heat continues to feed the area’s many hot springs.

“This is detective work at its finest,” said Gardner, who is co-principle investigator with Hulen of the drilling project.

The bore hole is along the western rim of the Valles Caldera, near a tiny settlement known as Sulfur Springs. It is the third and deepest hole drilled in the giant depression as part of the Continental Scientific Drilling Program, which is sponsored by the Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation.

It will cost $1.2 million just to drill the hole, known officially as VC-2B. About scientists from around the world are involved. Total expenditures could reach $4 million to $5 million during the course of the five-year project, Gardner said.

Geologists increasingly are turning to drilling projects such as this to provide new dimensions to their science. Rather than relying on the two-dimensional clues of surface features to predict underground structure, geologists can use rock cores and bore holes to obtain the third dimension of depth and the fourth dimension of time. By the time VC-2B bottoms out, researchers will have gotten a glimpse at rock dating back 1.6 billion years.

The 14-mile-wide caldera itself dates back 1.1 million years, when a huge volcano erupted so rapidly that it left a void beneath it, resulting in its collapse. The most recent eruption in the caldera system was 130,000 years ago.

It’s one of the three youngest caldera systems in the country and is well preserved. “What we learn here will have applications to other geothermal areas around the world,” Gardner said.

Under the supervision of Sandia National Laboratories, the drilling rig is using diamond-studded bits to cut a continuous core of rock. The continuous core is important because it not only shows scientists what rock types exist and at what levels, but preserves the rock’s structure as well, Gardner said.

The drilling rig is the largest diamond-core rig in the country and was imported from Australia fro the project, said Peter Lysne, head Sandia’s geoscience drilling office. Sandia has high hopes for using the advanced drilling technology for exploratory oil and gas executives at the drilling site last Friday.

Driller Mike LaOrange operates the drill rig used to bore into the Valles Caldera. Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal

Driller Mike LaOrange operates the drill rig used to bore into the Valles Caldera. Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal

The caldera is the source of the Bandelier tuff that covers much of the Jemez Mountains to a depth of 1,000 feet. But the volcanic system extends much deeper than that, with hot, pressurized geothermal fluids – mainly water – seeping through tiny cracks in the underlying sedimentary rocks.

Steel liners are being installed as the hole is drilled. Next year, researchers will perforate the lining at various intervals to sample the fluids, which may contain chlorine, arsenic, boron, silica or other dissolved material, depending on depth and rock type.

Energy companies are interested in tapping these geothermal fluids, letting them flash to steam to power electrical generators. Some of what is learned in the current project may aid in geothermal power development.

However, those hot fluids also dissolve minerals and concentrate them in ore deposits. Those deposits have proven to be of interest in older calderas that have cooled to the point where mining is practical. Scientists hope the drilling project will allow them to observe how these ore bodies are deposited.

For instance, rock cores from a depth of 1,152 feet revealed for instance, ruby silver, a sub-ore-grade mineral often found near bodies of silver ore, Hulen said. That might be evidence of an ore body in the process of forming, or the ruby silver may have migrated in the geothermal fluids from a lower ore body.

Geologist Jeffery Hulen examines a rock core for mineralization, rock type and other features immediately after it has been raised from a depth of about 4,800 feet. Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal

Geologist Jeffery Hulen examines a rock core for mineralization, rock type and other features immediately after it has been raised from a depth of about 4,800 feet. Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal

Likewise, deeper cores have been composed of a jasperoid rock, which suggests the presence of gold deposits, Gardner said.

The drilling is scheduled to end once the bore hole penetrates several hundred feet of Precambrian rock. Previous geothermal drilling has shown this layer of rock to be composed of granite or granitic gneiss through which little fluid circulates.