It’s been a long time coming and will take a few more years. But public access to some of the most scenic, historic and culturally significant acreage in Santa Fe County is on the way now that the County Commission approved the master plan for Thornton Ranch Open Space.
The action paves the way for an expanded trail system that can be used by hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders, and an educational hub augmented by interpretive signs to introduce visitors to the site. Public access could come as soon as 2021.
The master plan, as well as a management plan for the space, was approved by the County Commission earlier this month, along with management plans for Petroglyph Hill and the Galisteo Basin Interpretive Plan.
“We’ve been working on how we’re going to manage this property for a long time,” Colleen Baker, project manager with Santa Fe County, said of the 2,430 acres in the heart of the Galisteo Basin about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe. “It’s really the culmination of a coordinated effort to bring all four of these plans together.”
While increasing access is part of the plan, “first and foremost, it’s for the protection of cultural resources – then to provide meaningful public access,” she said.
Central among the cultural resources is Petroglyph Hill, a basalt-capped volcanic outcrop featuring more than 1,800 images etched into the rock by indigenous people, some believed to be thousands of years old, but most carved by pueblo people who resided in the Galisteo Basin, in the short-lived Burnt Corn Pueblo in particular.
Baker said 29 tribes that expressed some relation with the area were consulted during the planning process.
“In their mind, none of these areas was ever abandoned,” she said. “They are still culturally active and, to them, are still held as sacred.”
The hill was designated for protection by an act of Congress in 2005 and access has been, and will continue to be, limited to guided tours of the site, though docent-led hikes will become more frequent in years to come.
“There are hundreds of years of cultural history in the area, including a fascinating railroad history,” Baker said, involving competing interests of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad and Atchison-Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.
Spanish sheepherding, homesteading and cattle ranching are also part of the area’s story. The space takes its name from the 17,000-acre cattle ranch operated by the Thornton family of Santa Fe and Texas for much of the 20th Century.
Santa Fe County purchased 656 acres of the ranch from the Trust for Public Lands in 2001, a year after it bought a 780-acre parcel that included Petroglyph Hill, making it the largest open space in the county. In following years, the county acquired another 500 acres. An additional 500 or so acres are state or federal land.
New node of activity
Over the years, Santa Fe County has been engaging stakeholders with an eye toward balancing the protection of cultural and natural resources with increased recreational opportunities. The master planning and management process began in earnest in 2014 in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, the state Land Office, the Galisteo Community Foundation, tribes, and special interest groups, including artists, mountain bikers, equestrians and ecologists.
The master plan initially calls for 12 miles of internal trails and 4 miles of regional trails for runners, hikers, bikers and equestrian use accessed from two new trailheads.
While the area could accommodate many more miles of trails, “the planning process revealed that this approach was neither needed (given surrounding recreational trail expansion) nor advisable,” according to the master plan. “A moderate, high-quality trail system was consciously chosen to preserve the character of the landscape, and provide an enriching recreational and educational experience.”
However, the management plan states that off-road trail connections between the communities of Cerrillos, Eldorado, Galisteo and Lamy, as well as a connector with the Galisteo Basin Preserve trail system, are part of the long-term plans. The plans identify a north/south regional trail along the abandoned railroad tracks and an east/west regional trail parallel and outside the right of way of the active railway line along the open space’s southern border.
Tim Rogers works for the Santa Fe Conservation Trust and is a trail planner and avid bicyclist. He said such rail trails make good paths for off-road bicycling and would serve as “spokes in a wheel” for GUTS, the Grand Unified Trail System, a network of dirt trails for non-motorized users that loops around the greater Santa Fe area.
“This will create a whole other node of activity,” he said of the trails along the railroad lines.
Currently, there is no access for mountain bikers on Thornton Ranch, but there are good trails at the nearby Galisteo Basin Preserve, he said.
It’s a beautiful area to ride for recreation, Rogers said, and not too demanding. He rated the trails as easy to intermediate, but more serious cyclists will like it too because of the elevation. When mountain trails are snow-covered, it’s likely the trails in the basin will still be rideable.
“I think this is something that has been a long time coming,” he said. “People are happy the county has been able to pull this together.”
Eldon and Karen Reyer used to go to brandings at the Thornton Ranch when it was still a working ranch, and they lived nearby before moving to Nambé in retirement. The Reyers were among those consulted during the planning process for the open space.
“It would be wonderful to have these trails connect with other trails all the way to the mountains,” Karen said.
She said her husband founded the Santa Fe chapter of Back Country Horsemen, whose mission in part is to “ensure that public lands remain open to recreational stock use,” because he got tired of having to drive long distances to attend meetings. More horse trails – also used by runners, hikers and mountain bikers – will provide more opportunities for “horsepeople to get out and do what horsepeople do,” she said.
An “educational/informational hub” is planned to introduce visitors to the space, and “instill respect for the land” and emphasize the importance of staying on trails.
There will be interpretive panels at each trailhead and along some of the trails, as well as some wayside exhibits describing the archaeological, cultural, geological and historical features visitors will encounter. Baker said programming will be developed and administered by rangers, similar to what’s at Cerrillos Hills State Park. Rangers and docents will also lead scheduled hikes.
The management plan says that all interpretive media will be subject to tribal review prior to its being presented to the public.
Formally opening the open space to the public won’t happen for a few more years. Baker said $2.6 million from a general obligation bond approved by county voters in 2016 for capital improvements will be become available in fiscal year 2019. “We’re hoping to have it open in 2021,” she said.
‘Part of our lives’
Though not within the boundaries of the Thornton Ranch Open Space, the remnants of Burnt Corn Pueblo, one of 24 sites in the Galisteo Basin designated as archaeologically significant, lies adjacent to Petroglyph Hill. The 365-acre site was bought by the BLM using money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund last year.
James Snead, a Santa Fe native who now teaches anthropology at California State University at Northridge, has spent a significant amount of time doing fieldwork at the site, which he says was inhabited for only one or two decades 700 years ago. He knows the area so well that he wrote a book, “Burnt Corn Pueblo, Conflict and Conflagration in the Galisteo Basin, A.D. 1250-1325,” published by the University of Arizona Press in 2011.
In a recent phone interview, Snead said some archeologists would prefer that the public be kept away from such sites, but he’s not one of them.
“The first thing is, it’s public land,” he said. “And this all came about as a way to allow people to spend time in a remarkable landscape, which is something I think we all support.”
But he said Burnt Corn Pueblo has already been ravaged by looters. “People with shovels can do a lot of damage,” he said.
And while he hasn’t seen the final plans the commission approved last week, he appreciates the approach the county has taken.
“They’ve handled a difficult task: How do you make these valuable resources available for people to appreciate without putting them at risk?” he said. “The fact that they are taking their time with this is really encouraging. I think they approached it in the right way.”
Snead said he knows planners took the time to contact as many stakeholders as they could think of to get their input.
An archeologist by trade, he gets philosophical when talking about the connection between the past and the present, and what people can take from it.
“If everything is stuck in a museum, it becomes distant and remote to us. But when we walk among these things, they are a part of our lives,” he said, adding that people in New Mexico live in a “historic landscape.” “What they can see there, and hopefully what they experience while they’re there, is an aspect of a historic landscape in northern New Mexico that has survived through centuries of change. Hopefully, that makes everyone better stewards of the land. Because the public needs to know them and understand them, and help save them.”