A golden eagle preens in the dazzling autumn light. Elk graze damp meadows. Fiery aspens fleck slopes carpeted with spruce, fir and ponderosa pine. In remote canyons, bears and mountain lions stalk their prey.
Around it all, a strand of barbed wire punctuated by imposing signs: "POSTED: No Trespassing."
This is the Baca Ranch.
To the public, it is a paradise unknown--95,000 acres of national park-quality scenery that has been privately owned for more than a century. In scenic pullouts along Highway 4, carloads of people gaze and point and peer through binoculars at this off-limits natural wonderland.
"It's a kind of high-altitude Rocky Mountain Eden," says New Mexico author and conservationist William deBuys.
But as New Mexico's urban population explodes and the canyons of the Jemez mountains fill with weekend homes and ranchettes, the temptation to subdivide or sell the ranch has grown. Santa Fe and Albuquerque, both among the nation's fastest-growing urban areas, are within a two-hour drive.
"We've seen it in New Mexico all over the northern part of the state," says Bill Huey, former chief of the state Fish and Game Department. "You take 95,000 acres and put a road to every 100 acres, and that's just for starters. And then you fence it and do what you please with it, and pretty soon it's going to look pretty different from what you started with."
Congress has taken a major step toward saving the Baca from such a fate. This year's budget bill allocated $101 million to purchase the ranch. The only issue remaining to be settled before the ranch becomes public is how the government will manage the property.
"This may be the last chance to get the ranch into public ownership in a largely undisturbed state," says Dave Simon, southwest regional director for the National Parks and Conservation Assn.
This is the fourth time the U.S. government has talked about buying the Baca, and the third time it has tried. In every previous case, misfortune or political strife has torpedoed the purchase.
"You would think these guys would learn," Simon says. "But they just don't."
The first time, back in the '60s, conflicts arose over which federal land management agency would get to run the place. The U.S. Forest Service had a natural claim because it already owned all the land surrounding the ranch. But two features made the Baca a natural for the National Park Service--incredible scenery and textbook geology.
"It's as splendid a high mountain backdrop as you can find," deBuys says.
The government granted the land to its first owner, Luis Maria Cabeza de Vaca, in 1860. For most of the early years it was a sheep ranch. But by 1962, when James P. Dunigan bought the land, the Baca raised cattle--5,000 head graze the property each summer.
There were elk too, reintroduced to the area in 1947 after decades of absence. In the 1970s, the elk population boomed, and today the Abilene, Texas-based Dunigan family runs a lucrative hunt on the property. Hunters pay up to $10,000 for a shot at a trophy bull.
If the public gets its hands on the Baca, there are some people who would like to see the elk hunting end and the cattle go. But in New Mexico, where ranching is as much religion as business, not many people expect or even want to end hunting and grazing on the Baca.
"People persist here in ranching not because of the economics but in spite of them," deBuys says.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) couldn't agree more. In exchange for his support of the Baca purchase, Domenici has insisted that under public ownership the place should continue to be operated as a working ranch.