A grand experiment in public lands management
Gess, Peter Larry
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The Valles Caldera National Preserve, created in 2000, is not managed by a traditional federal agency. Instead, it is operated as a public trust and governed by a nine-member board. Seven of the members are appointed by the U.S. president in consultation with the New Mexico congressional delegation. Five of the appointees must be from New Mexico, and each must have a specific expertise or represent an organization interested in the land and its resources. Additionally, the trust is to be financially self-sufficient by 2015, raising the funds necessary to carry out its multipurpose mission. The experimental institutional features of the Caldera represent a bid to circumvent much of the stalemate and gridlock facing public lands, as well as an effort to enhance responsiveness to various stakeholder groups. The arrangement raises questions regarding the optimal mix of political and expert decision-making, the appropriate role of citizen input and participation, and accountability to national and local interests. This research examines whether the unique management structure for Valles Caldera leads to a higher level of responsiveness to important stakeholders than typically found under the usual bureaucratic approaches. The research design is built on a qualitative case study. Data sources consist of interviews, documents, and direct observations. Interview subjects include Preserve trustees and staff members, as well as external actors. The cluster of unique institutional features comprises the independent variable, and a series of dependent variables intended to measure responsiveness are conceptualized and evaluated. Evidence on the extent to which the Caldera experiment enhances responsiveness is mixed. Many of the policies and procedures of the Preserve promote trust and create a positive view of the role of public lands management. However, many others, including less than transparent decision-making, inadequate communications, and a lack of opportunities for meaningful citizen engagement, leave stakeholders feeling disenfranchised. However, most of the shortcomings are associated with problems common to the creation of new organizations and the implementation of new procedures and programs, rather than being intrinsic to the experimental model. This research concludes with a discussion of theoretical and policy implications, as well as advice for key actors.