By Arin McKenna
Sunday, March 20, 2016 at 2:36 pm
With the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the elevation of the Valles Caldera National Preserve to national park status – both in 2015 – Los Alamos County is focusing its tourism efforts on being the “Gateway to three national parks.”
Valles Caldera Superintendent Jorge Silva-Bañuelos, Bandelier National Monument Superintendent Jason Lott and MPNHP Interim Superintendent Tracy Atkins gave presentations on the status and growth possibilities for their parks at the March 15 county council work session.
Valles Caldera National Preserve
Silva-Bañuelos highlighted efforts to increase public access, including changes in the fee structure instituted last year. The $10 per person per activity charge in place when the Caldera was a national trust has been replaced with a $20 seven-day pass per carload. All national park passes are accepted and the Valles has its own one-year pass.
Silva-Bañuelos encouraged locals to purchase the Valles pass so they could take advantage of new remote access points. Staff has been tearing down the fences between the preserve and the Pajarito ski area and national forest lands, something locals have been clamoring for.
The preserve has also increased hours, staying open seven-days a week this winter and extending summer hours to 8 a.m.–8 p.m.
Last year, backcountry permits were extended to all visitors instead of just anglers, with half available through reservation and half on a first come, first serve basis. The number of passes will increase from 24 to 35 per day this year.
The preserve saw approximately 118,000 visitors in 2015. According to Silva-Bañuelos, visitation would be 155,000 in 2020 at the current rate of growth, but he anticipates a boost from the National Park Service brand.
A 10-percent increase over the next five years would bring that number to 188,000, 15 percent would make that 197,000 and 20 percent would boost it to 205,000.
“So one of the biggest challenges that keeps me up at night when I think about those numbers is the lack of infrastructure that we have at the preserve to accommodate that level of visitation,” Silva-Bañuelos said.
“We are focusing on things like repairing our public water system that was destroyed in the Las Conchas fire, stabilizing roads that have been impacted by post-fire flooding, adding parking and restroom facilities – I think that’s probably the biggest goal that we have – bringing some of our existing buildings up to code so we can offer them potentially for lodging for the public in the future, meeting accessibility requirements, restoring our cabins, improving our trail system and constructing improved and primitive campgrounds.
“It will not happen overnight, but we are moving in the right direction.”
Bandelier National Monument
Lott compared Bandelier visitation to what it was before the 2011 Las Conchas fire. Visitation was at 246,000 in 2010 and on its way to breaking records before the fire broke out the end of June 2011. Visitation dropped to 110,000 the following year.
The proximity of the 2013 Thompson Ridge fire in the Valles Caldera and the government shutdown in the same year (right during Balloon Fiesta – usually the busiest two weeks of the year) caused further impact.
But things are looking up. Visitation was at 177,000 last year, a 20 to 30 percent increase over the previous year. The park has also had record-breaking visitation this spring.
“Yesterday – that’s a Monday – that’s our slowest day of the week usually. I walked into the visitor center at one o’clock and we were at 536 visitors for the day,” Lott said. “Any time we get 500, that’s a really good day, and that was at one o’clock.
“We were finding our way back to the visitors we lost years ago in the Las Conchas fire.”
Lott anticipates exceeding 200,000 this year, with the help of a national advertising campaign about the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service.
Lott praised the Bandelier shuttle, initiated the year after Las Conchas.
“The shuttle is the only reason we’re open today,” Lott said. “That shuttle program I think is extremely valuable if Bandelier is going to continue to grow in visitation.”
Lott recommended the county work to develop a bypass between Los Alamos and NM 501 that circumvents Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“If we’re going to take people from Los Alamos and send them to Bandelier and the Valles Caldera, I think that would make that transition a lot easier and save that visitor a lot of confusion,” Lott said.
Lott announced that the Department of Tourism will be filming in Bandelier this spring, which will create more visibility for the park in the New Mexico True campaign. He thanked the Los Alamos Lodgers’ Tax Advisory Board for promoting the park through New Mexico True.
Lott is looking to increase winter visitation. The contract for the new concessionaire will require them to rent winter equipment such as cross-country skis and snow shoes.
A new park information system will also launch this year, accessible just before visitors get to White Rock near 1490 on the radio dial.
The park will also be installing new trailhead signs at every trailhead along NM 4.
Lott concluded by thanking the county.
“Of the parks I have worked with so far, this community by far has been the most supportive and the best partner that I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” Lott said. “It is a really pleasure to have a county council and a citizenship that is this devoted to their parks, and I really appreciate it.”
Manhattan Project National Historical Park
Atkins noted that the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is only four and half months in existence and has a long way to go.
Until access to properties “behind the fence” at LANL begins in late 2017, the focus will be on what is available in Los Alamos itself.
A brochure with information on the Historic Walking Tour and what will be coming in the future should be finished in the next four to six weeks.
Atkins is also excited about the app LANL is developing, which will allow visitors to see what Los Alamos looked like during the Manhattan Project. That should be available in April or May.
NPS will hire a half-time ranger this summer. Atkins hopes to have volunteers trained to man the temporary visitor center so the ranger can concentrate on giving tours.
Once the federal FY 2017 budget is passed, Los Alamos will get a site manager.
“Then we’ll have someone on the ground at a management level that can really build partnerships and continue the development of the park,” Atkins said.
According to Atkins, park service is looking for an atypical concept for a permanent visitor center, with a focus on engaging the younger generation. NPS staff is working on media and interpretation with volunteers at Washington State University, and plans to engage college students in Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, Tenn. as well.
“Director (Jon) Jarvis has challenged us to figure out what a 21st century visitor center is,” Atkins said.
NPS is working to improve the MPNHP website and local volunteers trained on the agency’s social media policies can now add updates to the Facebook page.
The park received only $340,000 in funding for FY 2016. The three communities are lobbying for $30 million (to be split evenly between all three locations) in the FY 2017 budget.
All three superintendents emphasized the importance of both county and state marketing efforts and supported the “gateway” approach and praised the New Mexico True campaign.
“With the park service – at least at the local unit level – we don’t have many opportunities to advertise on our own,” Silva-Bañuelos, said. “And that’s where partnerships with our gateway communities can be very helpful.”