Valles Caldera National Preserve: Ecological jewel and super volcano

By Virginia "Ginny" Seamster

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is home to New Mexico’s second largest elk herd. ©Larry Lamsa

Sitting at 8,500 feet in the remote Jemez Mountains less than two hours from downtown Albuquerque, the Valles Caldera National Preserve sweeps across thousands of grassland acres dotted with grazing elk and crisscrossed by meandering streams. The surrounding volcanic domes climb to 11,000 feet at Redondo Peak, and frame the huge valley with forested slopes of conifers and aspens. Animals abound in the self-contained watershed with over 115 species of birds recorded, along with dozens of mammals and six species of fish. The Valles Caldera National Preserve supports a rich diversity of wildlife, high elevation flora, forests and meadows, and the second largest elk herd in New Mexico.

Scientists and university colleagues have been studying the area since it was designated as a National Preserve, and attendees of this year’s Annual Conference will have the opportunity to visit Valles Caldera on one of our 22 workshops.

The complexity of activities performed on the Valles Caldera far exceeds those occurring on most lands managed by the National Park Service. These activities range from managing wildlife, habitat, rangelands, and forest fires, to offering hiking, camping, birding, and horseback riding, as well as hunting and fishing. The Valles Caldera National Preserve is also uniquely positioned to serve as a natural experiment on the effects of stand-replacement wildfire on forest habitat and the local wildlife community. In some places on the Preserve, wildfires have led to the conversion of habitat from mixed-conifer forest to montane meadow, impacting wildlife including birds, fish, and mammals. Following these fires, Preserve scientists and outside researchers have begun to study the impacts of ecological restoration efforts at a landscape level. It is comparatively rare for wildlife managers to be able to measure the direct impacts of landscape-scale restoration efforts on local biological communities, making the Preserve a true ecological and scientific jewel.

Opportunities for unique cultural and geological explorations abound at the Preserve as well. The wealth of volcanic obsidian found on the Preserve has provided a resource for native peoples for thousands of years; spear points from 11,000 years ago have been discovered, highlighting the ancient connection that people have to this land. This 1.25 million year old landscape, formed by the collapse of a super volcano, is an awe-inspiring sight resulting from prehistoric geological events and featuring restored lands, abundant wild animals, and incredible floristic diversity. Ancient springs and mineral bogs, roaming bears, and scattered obsidian flakes have been left largely undisturbed for present and future generations to observe and discover. Consider signing up for the Valles Caldera workshop, or visiting the Preserve on your own. A trip to the breathtaking Valles Caldera will certainly create lifelong memories of your time in New Mexico.