By Lorri Ooley
Sierra County residents came out in full force to the recent presentation by joint efforts of New Mexico State Park (NMSP) Jim Winchester, Communication Director, and Bureau of Recreation (BOR) Mike Hamman, Area Manager. The recent information flowing out of Elephant Butte Dam Site has been a damming point for discussion for many.
While the town hall format meeting makes information available to the public, its timing is rather questionable, given the decision process for both agencies began back in 2012. Thusly, the timeline for this decision to alter NMSP local presence at the Elephant Butte Lake site comes as a surprise for many residents.
This point came up later, during the public comment portion of the evening, in which poignant questions of administrative managerial decisions were brought under fire. Both representatives opted to direct their comments back at the contributing financial shortfall and not specify what other alternatives were considered prior to their mutual decision for the Dam Site.
During his opening presentation, Winchester identified NMSP’s decision to be based primarily on the current downward financial trend for the agency. Since 2009, it has seen both rises and falls for available funding, however, the last three fiscal years have seen nearly $2 million cut from available funds. This factors into both the agency’s ability to maintain both its staff and presence within the individual parks. NMSP oversees a total of 35 parks across the state, covering 19 lakes and more than 197,000 acres of both land and water. Currently, the agency has lost or transferred 54 employees since 2010, operating at 246 at present. As such, it has had to adjust its staff and resources, but ultimately the access of the parks to the public are at risk.
However, when considering NMSP considers Elephant Butte Lake to be its “bread and butter for generating revenue” as identified by Winchester during his presentation. The Dam Site provides residents and visitors with restaurant, as well as bed and breakfast facilities. These facilities are nearing the sunset of concession contract, which will also need to be revisited.
Ultimately, the presentation from NMSP left an air of decisiveness, without there being any other possible avenues to explore for addressing the need for its continued oversight at the Dam Site.
When Hamman addressed the audience, very little reassurance was given to the area’s future. At time of print, the BOR has yet to specify its intentions for securing a contract with an outside agency to fill the emptying management of NMSP. At the meeting, Hamman expressed several options the BOR has identified, yet there appeared to be no single direction the BOR was heading for Elephant Butte.
Based on the areas identified by Winchester, whomever steps up in taking over management will have many issues to contend with, which have a bottom line dollar tied to them. The main concern expressed by NMSP was the wastewater system that they currently oversee, and BOR did not address how the agency would address that come April 1, 2015, once the contract with NMSP expires. Hamman did state they were in negotiations, with the possibility of extending the current concession contracts. However, there is an obvious no “quick fix” for addressing the day-to-day management, which Hamman expressed the BOR is not good at. This does not even begin to address the glaring financial need, which is driving NMSP away from the duties.
At time of print, the BOR had not returned The Herald’s further inquires to the fate of Elephant Butte’s Dam Site.
NMSP Superintendent Rolf Hechler expressed to this reporter that his agency will continue to welcome comments, questions, and concerns from Sierra County and would field them on to BOR on behalf of the public at large.
New Mexico State Parks can be reached locally at (575) 744-5923. Bureau of Recreation can be reached at its Albuquerque office at (505) 462-3540.