Thirty years ago, before downhill mountain biking was a popular sport or ultrarunning had broken into the world stage, before high-speed chairlifts had reached more than a one-off demo in the US, and before side-by-side models of ATVs had branched out from farm work, the Santa Fe National Forest issued a management plan. That plan has been amended 13 times, but it has become apparent that the needs of the 1.5 million-acre forest, which stretches from alpine lakes and peaks to the desert of Caja del Rio, have outgrown those modifications and a full rewrite is due. Even public perceptions, uses and values of the forest have changed in the three decades since this plan was drafted, as the Forest Service notes in documents about its effort to rewrite the plan.

To draw people into the process and draft a plan that both reflects their current needs and future wishes, Forest Service staff have hosted more than 230 public meetings with more than 3,000 attendees. The latest is a series of informal open houses, including one in Santa Fe on Sept. 27, for people to consider new materials, including pieces of the draft plan that have not yet been published for public review, and to offer feedback and guidance.

"Folks may catch something that would be helpful to us," says Charles Clark, collaboration specialist with the Santa Fe National Forest who joined the agency in 2015 specifically to work on this plan revision. "It's really an opportunity to let people know what's coming, explain a lot of the terms and documents that are coming out, and then get informal feedback."

For dedicated commenters, it's a chance to study up before formal comment periods open up on the draft plan and environmental impact statement.

The documents take shape under broad ideological groupings, labeled alternatives, around whether to emphasize utilization of the forest or natural processes. Those groupings will guide broad strokes, like whether the service prioritizes maintaining roads people use to remove forest products or decommissioning them to improve ecological conditions or restore riparian areas. Clark says he expects the final plan will land, as many multiple stakeholder initiatives do, with a mixed agenda that most resembles the alternative that calls for a balance.

"What we want is for the final plan to really capture our best research as well as much of the public," he says.

Among the bigger concerns reviewed in this process are whether to suggest Congress expand any of the national forest's wilderness areas. Suggesting such a land designation automatically confers the rules applied to designated wilderness areas, banning mechanized tools and toys, according to federal officials. The consideration has had mountain bikers worried that trails will be off-limits and cattle ranchers concerned they won't be able to use mechanized equipment to clear trails and ATVs to manage their cattle.

The service considers on-the-ground details, like whether major roads, utility lines or other noticeable structures cross an area that, by definition, would need to appear "untrammeled by man." Then it gets into the weeds on the physical experience of the place, and whether it represents wilderness qualities like solitude.

The impossibility of balancing it all appears in just two public comments collected by the Forest Service on this revision. One says "evidence of old roads should preclude wilderness consideration," while another states "old roads that are being reclaimed through natural processes should not preclude wilderness consideration."

The majority of lands The Wilderness Society has advocated to see in the wilderness inventory did make that list, says Michael Casaus, New Mexico state director for The Wilderness Society. If there's concern, it's that not all of about 100,000 acres supported for wilderness or special conservation designation will be listed for public consideration.

"The public isn't given an opportunity to weigh in on the full scope of potential recommended wilderness in the plan because the Forest Service has not carried forward certain areas that, again, have been endorsed by a broad set of local and regional government entities," he says.

On the other end, the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society has been working to make sure some of the areas where the club has re-opened trails affected by the Pacheco Fire stay open to mountain bikers.

"We're supportive of what they've proposed in their draft for recommended wilderness," says Brent Bonwell, president of the Fat Tire Society. "Mountain bikers—we're conservationists, too, because we enjoy being out in the forest and enjoying it in its current state."

It's just tough, given that wilderness status means an end to access for mountain bikers.

The one thing that remains consistent in every version of the forthcoming plan are the areas marked for oil and gas or geothermal leases.

"It's a separate standalone process and the results of that we just take as-is," Clark says.

A draft plan and environmental impact statement is scheduled for release in January.

Open house on Santa Fe National Forest management plan revision:
2:30-5:30 pm Thursday Sept. 27. Free.
Santa Fe National Forest Headquarters,
11 Forest Lane,
438-5442;
additional dates scheduled through Monday Dec. 10. For info: santafeforestplan@fs.fed.us