Volunteers with Los Amigos de Valles Caldera pose for a picture during a volunteer work weekend.
Los Amigos de Valles Caldera is a friends group in northern New Mexico with a mission to fundraise and support the Valles Caldera National Preserve. This preserve, roughly an hour northwest of Santa Fe, consists of 89,000 acres of valleys and meadows, meandering streams, large herds of elk and one ancient supervolcano.
The friends group began in 2006 and initially focused their efforts on environmental restoration projects in the preserve. According to Peggy Gautier, Chair of Los Amigos de Valles Caldera, the last two centuries of human activity on the land has degraded its natural resources.
“We like to say this land was ‘rode hard and put up wet,’” she began. Formerly owned as a private ranch, the preserve has faced issues with over-grazing from sheep and cattle, has gone through multiple wildfires and was clear-cut for several years for logging purposes.
“When the friends group first started,” Gautier explained, “the board chose to look for grants to improve the watershed and wetlands. This area is not only gorgeous and special in its own right, but it is the headwaters for many creeks and streams that feed into the Jemez River.”
Since then, the group has helped raised approximately $1.5 million in grants (funds that went directly to restore the preserve) and have provided a volunteer match of over $450,000. Each year, they oversee summer work weekends and invite volunteers to work on trails, control erosion and improve habitat.
“This is physically challenging work,” Gautier said. These volunteers help haul rocks, dig and move sod, create protective barriers around bog birch saplings to protect them from elk, along with other tasks. In return, volunteers camp near the worksite and the friends group (in partnership with the Albuquerque Wildlife Federation) provides the volunteers with most of the food throughout the weekend.
Volunteers work to prevent erosion and help preserve wetlands in the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Friends Group Continues to Support the Preserve as it Transitions to NPS
In December 2014, the Obama Administration signed the National Defense Authorization Act and re-established the preserve as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS) from the Valles Caldera Trust. The following October 2015, the NPS assumed full management. This included many of the previous land management staff, who were formerly operating under US Forest Service authority.
While the transfer of public land units can be contentious, Gautier explained that this transition has benefited the public, many of whom wanted greater visitation access to this unique piece of land. In addition, as an NPS preserve, the public continues to have access to hunting, fishing, horseback riding and other multi-use opportunities. In light of the changes that a transition such as this one involves, Gautier explained that the friends group is committed to helping the preserve for the long-term. “We’re here to provide ongoing support,” she said.
Venturing into Retail with the Valle Grande Bookstore
In addition to their restoration work, the friends group also began operating retail sales to benefit the preserve this past November. With 150 square feet of retail space inside the entrance station, the friends group now sells interpretive products, Valles Caldera apparel, and publications that focus on the area’s rich cultural and natural history.
Ellen Castrone, Bookstore Manager with the friends group, explained that the current focus of the store is to extend the visitor experience while the long-term goal includes support for interpretive and educational programming at the preserve.
“For visitors, it's two miles from the main road to the entrance station for the preserve, and then another two miles to the Historic Cabin District where visitors have access to basic items.”
Knowing that visitors lacked access to convenience and safety items, the friends group applied and received a commercial-use authorization from the NPS. In addition to products and publications, they are now able to sell first-aid kits and snacks so visitors can be better prepared as they enter the preserve.
The Valle Grande Bookstore located in the entrance station to the preserve.
“As the Preserve Grows, We Hope to Grow As Well”
As the friends group celebrates its 10th year, they know they are entering new territory, especially in the realm of retail. That’s why, as Castrone explained, she was delighted to attend the 2017 Public Lands Alliance Convention and Trade Show, where she learned about retail operations, met with similar nonprofits, and browsed products and services at exhibiting booths.
“The most heartening part of this experience was the way the community embraced us,” she said. As the nonprofit strives to make a bigger impact for the benefit of the preserve, Castrone said she was excited to be among other groups striving to do similar things at their public land sites.
“As the preserve grows, we hope to grow as well,” Castrone explained. Adding that, while the preserve’s land management authority works to improve infrastructure and increase public access, the friends group is excited to be there to welcome new visitors.
“We’re currently trying to see what we’re capable of,” she said. “We’re pushing forward and, as the preserve becomes more and more established, we think there will be many more opportunities to give back.”