U.S. Forest Service officials have a lot to think about as they develop a long-overdue update on how to manage the Santa Fe National Forest. There are endangered species like the Jemez Mountains meadow mouse. There are the competing interests from ranchers, miners and conservationists to consider. There are the ever-threatening issues associated with climate change.

But the one thing everyone seems to come back to when they talk about how best to manage the forest’s 1.6 million acres in the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains is fire.

“The biggest issue in the Southwest right now is this idea that over the last 100 years we have suppressed fire,” said Jose Iniguez, a research ecologist with the Forest Service who has specialized in Southwest forests for the past 18 years.

It’s been nearly three decades since the Santa Fe National Forest has updated its plan for how to manage the forest. Experts say efforts to revise those guidelines, which cover management of everything from conservation work to how wildfires are extinguished, have been in the works for more than 10 years — but they have been hampered by financial strains and bureaucratic backlogs. As a result, they say, the forest ecosystems are in decline.

The Santa Fe National Forest is among more than half the nation’s forests that are currently out of compliance with a mandate that management plans be revised every 15 years, a process expected to last at least two more years for officials of the local forest and cost between $3 million and $7 million. The process also requires congressional action, which faced several delays over the years until Congress issued the current planning rule in 2012.

“We just didn’t have the resources nationwide to do all the revision work that was necessary, and our region really didn’t get to the top of the priority list,” said Bob Davis, a planning director in the Southwest Region of the Forest Service.

Historically, Southwestern forests were rich with large, yellow-barked ponderosa pines scattered 100 to an acre. Forests now are overburdened with young, frail trees that grow closer to 1,000 per acre and have acted as quick kindling in the destructive wildfires New Mexico has seen over the past 15 years. Since 2005, the state has had 6,386 wildfires — more than 1,000 in 2006 alone — and saw the largest fire on record for the state, the Las Conchas Fire, burn through 150,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains, according to State Forestry Division data.

Iniguez said forest density and the ferocity of wildfires in the region are results of the fire-suppression policy and the lack of controlled burns.

Jennifer Cramer, a forest planner overseeing the development the Santa Fe National Forest’s revised management plan, said fire-suppression policies have been federally mandated since the Forest Service was formed. In recent years, she said, amendments have been added to the forest’s 1987 management plan that allow for prescribed burns, but controlled burns remain underutilized and underfunded as a forest management tool.

The forest “doesn’t look how it should — how it did in the past — because of the exclusion of fire,” Cramer said.

Drought, logging and unanticipated climate change also have altered the appearance of the forest landscape, she said.

Prior to the federal fire-suppression policy, Iniguez said, fires were just as large as they are now, but their flames were low, merely sweeping up twigs and seeds. Now, wildfires can easily climb young trees, infiltrating the canopy and entirely wiping out the forest population in the area of the burn. These fires can reach a height of 300 feet and burn up to 40 miles an hour, he said — compared to just 3 mph in a controlled burn.

When the Los Conchas Fire was sparked four years ago from a downed power line, it burned nearly 50 mph and decimated 20 acres in a couple of hours, at times consuming a single acre each minute. Iniguez said the tall flames of that fire created a phenomenon common in wildfires: a heavy cloud of ash and water that hung above the flames and “created [its] own weather.”

Still, many people oppose controlled burns and a policy of allowing blazes to burn themselves out in a controlled area. They believe total fire suppression should remain the policy. In response to a controlled burn in September, several area residents wrote letters to the editor in The New Mexican complaining of heavy, asthma-inducing smoke.

Fred King of Santa Fe said in a letter to the editor that there was a need to “show the destructive nature of burning the forest of New Mexico for profit, destroying wildlife and causing health issues for residents.”

The state Department of Health does issue warnings for children, older adults and those with respiratory problems to stay indoors during burns.

But Iniguez said fires will occur with or without prescribed burns. The question is whether their intensity can be managed.

“The use of fire has evolved quite a bit from the mid-’80s when these first forest plans came out,” Davis said. “We are now doing a lot of work to incorporate fire as a potential tool.” He said logging — from firewood collection to biomass for heating — are other management tools that would be considered in an updated plan.

The current management plan for the Santa Fe National Forest has seen 14 amendments since 1987, including guidelines for prescribed burns. But Davis said other issues haven’t been addressed: “the needs and demands from the public, grassland ecosystems, wildlife, air quality, water quality — those broader-scale assessments we don’t typically do in an amendment process.”

Cramer said all of those issues will be addressed in the new plan.

The Santa Fe National Forest conducted 11 public forums to solicit input on the plan, the last of which concluded in early December. The community provided nearly 350 comments that will be woven into the final plan early next year.

Tom Jervis, president of the Sangre de Cristo Audubon Society, one of many conservation groups that submitted comments on the plan, said a glaring oversight in the 1987 draft was any consideration of extreme drought. During the past 15 years, he said, the state’s drought conditions have coincided with extreme wildfires — which might have been mitigated by a more current forest management plan that included prescribed fires.

According to the Forest Service, ponderosa pines, the auburn trees commonly used as roof beams in New Mexican homes, are one of many fire-adaptive species that have suffered due to excessive logging, climate change and the absence of controlled burns. A study conducted in recent years by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and published in the journal Nature found that drought conditions likely will contribute to the loss of 80 percent of the older pines, based on projections of global warming conditions.

That study said climate change will have a “profound” effect on the Southwest landscape.

Walter Dunn, a program manager for the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Restoration Program, said an unprecedented increase in forest fires also has taken a toll on funds for restoration work. In 2015, 52 percent of the Forest Service’s budget was allocated to fighting fires, compared to just 16 percent in 2005, he said, which meant $2.5 million to fight fires was pulled from his program’s budget for restoration projects.

“The cost of these fires is unlike anything in history,” Dunn said at a recent forest restoration workshop.

Dunn said the only hope for ensuring forest restoration work receives the funding it needs would be if forest fires were granted the same emergency management disaster funding allocated to communities hit by hurricanes. Several bipartisan bills to do just that have been introduced in Congress in recent years, but none has been passed.

Cramer and Davis said that for now, assessing the current demands on the forest — from the growing strain of a larger population that enjoys outdoor recreation to ever-emerging endangered species — will be the best way to draft a new plan that supports, rather than inhibits, the Forest Service’s mission: to preserve the natural landscape for future generations.

But the realities of limited finances and costly wildfires are unlikely to change overnight. Even Cramer said she realizes that the publication of a new forest management plan will not mean “we are immediately going to go out and start changing things on the ground.”

More daunting may be the uncertainty of what a changing climate will mean for forests. As Davis said last week, the Forest Service is still working to understand the “ways we can treat those forests to be resilient to climate change. … We are still blurry on what that means.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.