Friday, August 10, 2018

Aldo Leopold Cabin Rental Stalled by Zinke Administration

A  U.S. Forest Service proposal to allow public rental of the historic Aldo Leopold cabin in Tres Piedras has stalled due to political gridlock at the U.S. Department of Interior.

“What a shame, it’s a great attraction that could really help bring more visitors to northern New Mexico,” says Deb Graves, owner of the Chile Line Depot restaurant off U.S. 285 in rural Tres Piedras.

The cabin was built by Leopold, a founding father of the nation’s wilderness conservation movement, when he was the forest service’s district ranger back in 1911.

The forest service first announced the proposal in September 2016 noting that it wanted to offer the public a unique recreational experience while also providing funds for maintenance of the historic building. Money earned from cabin and other rental properties stays within the district where it is raised and is a valuable tool in helping the cash strapped forest service pay for maintenance and other costs. 

Forest service cabin rentals are popular and plentiful in Colorado and other states but New Mexico doesn’t have any available.

The Leopold cabin features 4 furnished bedrooms and can accommodate up to 11 guests. It has a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, a library and fireplace and would rent for $175 a night. The cabin’s wide, covered front porch offers sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and is perfect for whiling away an afternoon.  Outdoor recreational opportunities abound within nearby forest and wilderness areas including the Rio Grande gorge.   

The proposal hit a snag due to the forest service’s need to have it vetted and approved by the public before it can be implemented, says Amy Simms, a public service staff officer with the Carson National Forest in Taos.

The forest service needs to use an existing U.S. Interior Department Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Committee to vet such a proposal in New Mexico.

The committees are comprised of members of the public that represent various industries, recreation and government. Members apply for appointment by the Secretary of the Interior and routinely meet to provide public input on federal agency operations.

But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke soon after his appointment by President Donald Trump suspended use of the RAC committees, then reinstated some but failed to appoint members to others.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Farmington District Office committee which heard from U.S. Forest Service staff about the Leopold House rental proposal during a recent meeting in Taos is one of those RAC committees operating without a full roster. It can’t conduct any official business such as approving the forest service proposal due to its lack of a quorum.

“I’ve got the feeling they’re just going to let them die on the vine,” says committee member Mick O’Neil, a retired New Mexico State University agronomy professor and one time Peace Corps volunteer who served in Africa. “It seems this administration just doesn’t like public input.”

The interior department isn’t saying if or when those who’ve applied to fill the vacancies will be appointed, O’Neill said.

The department’s press office declined to answer several inquiries seeking an explanation of what was going on.

Meanwhile the Leopold house often stands empty despite the forest service’s best effort to put it to better use.

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