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.
“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.