Shifting Public Land Paradigms: Lessons from the Valles Caldera National Preserve

51 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2015 Last revised: 19 Jan 2016

See all articles by Melinda Benson

Melinda Benson

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: 2016


The Valles Caldera National Preserve is the largest and most ambitious public land management experiment in the United States’ history. Congress created the Preserve in 2000 as a wholly owned Government Corporation managed not by a federal agency, but instead by a Board of Trustees. The management paradigm was unique. In addition to the familiar requirements of multiple use and sustained yield, the Act included a mandate that the Preserve become financially self-sustaining. This experiment ended in December of 2014 when Congress passed a law transferring management to the National Park Service. The creation of this experiment, along with its subsequent unfolding over 14 years, provides a fascinating window into the challenges associated with public land management generally and a financially driven trust model specifically. This Article examines the Preserve’s experiment and attempts to answer the question — what did we learn? Lessons include: (1) the challenges of having a corporate identity while also complying with laws pertaining to federal agencies, (2) the ways in which NEPA can inform management via iterative processes, (3) successes in science-based of adaptive management, (4) the challenges of running a “working ranch” in the American West, and (5) opportunities to protect cultural resources and honor the religious and cultural practices of living native communities. Absent among these lessons is a clear answer regarding whether public lands can be made financially self-sustaining. The Preserve’s neoliberal charge was thwarted for many reasons, including our cultural beliefs about public lands and the role they play within the American imaginary.

Keywords: Valles Caldera National Reserve, Science-based Adaptive Management, National Park Service

Suggested Citation

Benson, Melinda, Shifting Public Land Paradigms: Lessons from the Valles Caldera National Preserve (2016). 34 Virginia Environmental Law Journal 1-51, 2016. Available at SSRN: or

Melinda Benson (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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