This summer, only one law enforcement officer will patrol all of the Santa Fe National Forest. Rangers spotted in wilderness areas are likely there on a volunteer basis, or at best compensated with a per diem to cover their lunch.

Horseback volunteers are taking existing maps, GPS units and aerial photos into the San Pedro Parks Wilderness to update those maps to reflect the current trail system. Restoration of the Glorieta Baldy Lookout is underway in the hands of Friends of the Santa Fe National Forest, a 501(c)(3) organization gathering donations, grants and volunteers for the job, a task expected to come with a price tag just under $100,000.

Volunteer crews will likewise be responsible for all trail maintenance work. Where's the greatest need? Drop your finger on the map, one staffer jokes. It's everywhere.

"The only way we'll be able to provide sustainable recreation opportunities into the future is to continue to increase our partnerships with local trail crews," says James Melonas, forest supervisor.

The public doesn't just own the Santa Fe National Forest; they're responsible for its upkeep, too. How it's managed for decades to come—what areas become wilderness, where trails are built, and which of its many uses guide maintenance—is up for discussion right now in the years-long process of drafting a new forest plan.

Santa Fe National Forest’s lone law enforcement officer hikes hikes a road near where illegal off-road vehicle use has been reported.
Santa Fe National Forest’s lone law enforcement officer hikes hikes a road near where illegal off-road vehicle use has been reported.

“Our forest plan revision work … is really charting the course for the future of the Santa Fe National Forest and how it fits into the community and how we move forward with our restoration on the forest,” Melonas says. “A big piece of that is our recreation program—how do we make sure that we have a good framework and a blueprint for how we’re going to provide sustainable recreation going into the future? It’s a big deal.”

The areas around the Jemez Ranger District and the Jemez National Recreation Area, the popular hiking trails in the Sangres just outside Santa Fe, as well as the Pecos River corridor are all being particularly scrutinized for the impact of recreation and whether the approach needs to shift.

"We want to be able to have different kind of tools in the tool box for how we are working with our partners and the community to be thoughtful about recreation, trails and maintenance," he says.

The plan is supposed to guide how the service manages its forests, grasslands and riparian areas, maintains resiliency in ecosystems, and balances the wants and needs of various stakeholders (like ranchers and recreationalists). The strategies in the existing 30-year-old plan are now out of date, given current science and technology, including those enabling new forms of recreation (mountain biking of the 1980s, for example, aligns only in spirit with biking today). In particular, the agency is examining which of the tens of thousands of acres inventoried as potential wilderness could be added to the Pecos, Chama River Canyon, or San Pedro Parks wildernesses. A patchwork halo of inventoried acres surrounds each of those wilderness areas, but any recommendation the Forest Service makes is just a recommendation, and would require Congressional action to finalize.

The Forest Service has hosted roughly 126 meetings to discuss the plan and its various components with the public.

"There is less conflict than you might believe because people are openly talking about what their interests are," says Bill Zunkel, president of Friends of the Santa Fe National Forest, a nonprofit working on projects to help support the forest, of his experience at meetings to discuss the plan. "A lot of people carry around ideas in their head about what 'those people' are like—what the ATV people are like or what horse people on trails are like or what the people who want to cut trees for lumber or mine or graze are like. And once they get into a room and see each other as humans, it decompresses that."

Which is not to say that the various interested parties don't still see this as a high-stakes game—ask the mountain bikers concerned about trails closing to them if wilderness areas expand.

Comments on the Forest Service's draft on focus areas jointly filed by Western Environmental Law Center and water conservation organization Amigos Bravos point out that climate change exacerbates the existing impacts to these landscapes from ecological and community stressors such as poorly managed roads and livestock grazing. The forest, they say, should function as a carbon sink; whether it achieves that hinges on how these acres are managed.

The leading goal for the Forest Service, Melonas says, is in returning fire to the landscape before catastrophic wildfires occur, and restoring riparian areas to preserve water resources. The agency also aims to transition to a model that recruits multiple partners and tackles a series of projects that address landscape-wide issues: The Southwest Jemez Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project is billed as an example of the kind of work they hope to do. Partners from the Forest Service, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Pueblo, the Forest Guild, the Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and WildEarth Guardians are working together to address the needs of 210,000 acres in the upper Jemez River watershed, which include thick understories, erosion and invasive species.

"We want to take that model of Southwest Jemez, and take what we've learned from that and apply to other parts of the forest," Melonas says. "What we want to get away from is kind of doing these one-off, small projects here and there, because the stressors and issues we're dealing with are working at a much broader scale."

A partnership model is similarly being deployed to address the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed, a 110,000-acre area that's being treated to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

"One of the purposes of the coalition is to not just plan, but to find places to actually implement things that are ready to go," says Sandy Hurlocker, Española district ranger. Those tasks will likely start with two smaller-scale projects near the Tesuque Pueblo and Hyde Memorial State Park.

Hurlocker's district includes Ski Santa Fe, and this year, he's once again dealing with cattle moving from their neighboring grazing allotment onto the ski area, where they're not supposed to be.

"We're kind of at a loss for figuring out how they're getting there, because the fence is up and the cattle guards we think are working," he says. "It's just one of those deals where the cattle know how to get around, especially when they have something as munchable as the grass up in the ski area. … We don't have a great solution right now."

Pecos/Las Vegas District Ranger Steve Romero was in the field recently following up on reports of illegal off-road vehicle use near the watershed boundary.

"The public pointing out some of these issues to us [helps], because obviously, we can't be everywhere at once," he says.

He's pinpointing issues and identifying hotspots for the law enforcement officer who will start covering his district late this year, one of two new to the Santa Fe National Forest. The tricky part then is catching violators in the act.

Citizen reports have called attention to cattle crossing into forbidden territory, and to the trees cut to create backcountry ski runs near Ski Santa Fe. The cattle can be moved back to their range, but the tip about illegal logging came too late.

"By the time we really got tipped off, it was a pretty cold trail," Hurlocker says. "The closer to real time, the better."

A draft of the plan is due out in early 2018; public meetings and a comment period will follow.