In 1987, Ronald Reagan was president, climate change was barely discussed and Santa Fe National Forest drafted its management plan.
Forest officials now are overhauling the 34-year-old plan, with an eye on keeping it malleable for when the climate, landscape and science change in the future.
The revised plan addresses how extended drought, increased development, population growth and more diverse uses are affecting the forest. It also offers broad guidance for adapting to whatever comes in the next 10 or 15 years.
“One of the great advantages of our revised plan is it’s written in a way that is a little more adaptable and flexible in its language,” said Jennifer Cramer, a U.S. Forest Service planner.
The new plan will go through a 60-day public comment period, but it will be limited to those who have already weighed in.
Cramer said the plan has been amended a number of times over the years, though this is the first full-scale revision.
One of the key changes from the Reagan era is how fires are handled.
Past practices have led to high tree density in some areas, leaving these woodlands susceptible to fire, especially in prolonged drought conditions, the plan says.
Fire management in the past 30 years has shifted from suppressing most natural fires to using controlled burns to reduce dense debris and vegetation that can ignite severe wildfires.
The revised plan calls for creating open areas — more gaps between trees as well as clumps of trees in fields — to prevent flames from spreading easily, Cramer said.
To achieve that, crews will increase mechanical tree thinning by 135 percent and almost triple the amount of managed burns, she said.
The plan says lack of natural fires along with livestock grazing, roads and human activities have decreased grasslands. Reduced grass cover keeps water from absorbing into the Earth, increases erosion and leaves the ground barren.
The plan encourages active efforts to restore grass while allowing less development on forest lands.
Meanwhile, riparian areas and the wildlife habitat have been degraded across the forest due to diverted waterways, invasive plants, stray cattle and heavy recreational impacts, the plan says.
It recommends establishing guidelines to prevent harmful impacts to the forest’s streams, rivers and habitat.
Despite the recommended conservation measures, one environmental advocate criticized the plan, saying it doesn’t go nearly far enough to address climate change.
“It’s unrealistic about the impacts that climate change is going to have on the resources on the forest and what the communities are going to need the agency to do to manage those impacts,” said Madeleine Carey, conservation specialist for WildEarth Guardians.
The region — and the world — are at an inflection point with the climate crisis, which calls for bold action, not incremental progress, Carey said.
“We believe in the agency’s ability to be bold and meet the moment, and it has failed to do so,” she said. “We will continue to work to hold them accountable to what they need to deliver for the communities that rely on the forest.”
Julie Anne Overton, Forest Service spokeswoman, said forest management has undergone a significant evolution.
In the 1980s, the agency’s main focus was to manage natural resources, Overton said.
Although the mission even then was multi-use, recreation was more in the background and some activities, popular today, were rare or nonexistent on forestlands, such as mountain biking and rock climbing, she said.
A 2012 planning rule, which the current revised plan builds on, redefined a national forest’s purpose to encompass social, economic, cultural and recreational values, Overton said.
“We take a much more holistic look,” she said.
The plan suggests improving recreational opportunities in ways that don’t harm sensitive ecosystems.
Cramer said it is also flexible about future recreational uses.
“We recognize that, over the life of this plan, there will probably continue to be new ways that people choose to recreate that we would not have foreseen now,” Cramer said.
David Gold, a Santa Fe hiking organizer, said it’s good that the agency is trying to change with the times.
“I’m glad they are updating the plan to reflect current and future uses, and consider recreation as an important use,” Gold said.
A big addition to the plan is a call for forming partnerships with other agencies, businesses, activists, tribes and residents.
That includes working with traditional communities to ensure they have the resources to sustain their way of life, such as land for their livestock to graze, and wood and plants for the members to gather.
This plan will be more fluid, Cramer said. If another agency such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues new guidance on, say, an endangered species, it will automatically be integrated into this forest plan, she said.
“It kind of goes back to that [new] adaptability,” Cramer said.