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Santa Fe County has finalized a long-awaited plan to open up almost 2,500 picturesque acres in the heart of the Galisteo Basin.

Hikers, bikers, outdoor explorers and horseback riders will soon be able to enjoy the Thornton Ranch Open Space. New trails will be built, and much of the “culturally sensitive” land and archaeological resources in the scenic conservation area 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe are to be improved or restored.

The Thornton Ranch master plan was approved last week to applause by county commissioners. They also authorized an interpretive plan for the Galisteo Basin and a management plan for Petroglyph Hill, a small volcanic summit that is sacred to Native tribes and was designated for protection by Congress in 2004.

These documents will together guide the public use and management of what is the county’s largest open space, with 360-degree mountain views and immaculate night skies.

“There’s been an attack in other parts of the country associated with our public lands and many areas that are saying they want to give them back,” said Commissioner Robert Anaya, referring to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendations that at least four national monuments be shrunk. “That couldn’t be further from what we really need. What we need is to continue to have projects like this.”

The Thornton Ranch area has been closed to the public — except for the occasional county-led tour — since the county began to acquire its share of the former cattle ranch in 2001. Although not all will be accessible, those who are eager to bike or ride or hike the area will certainly take the trails they get.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Piar Marks, president of the Santa Fe County Horse Coalition. “It’s a special property and it’s a beautiful area. More people are going to see that.”

In addition to preservation of the Thornton Ranch area’s scenery and wildlife habitats, the plan carves out public access to at least 12 miles of multi-use internal trails and a 4-mile section of a regional trail that passes through.

There could be more, too. There is an interest, the master plan states, in expanded trail networks in the area, including a connection to the Galisteo Basin Preserve to the immediate northeast. But while the site could accommodate miles more, a moderate trail system would better “preserve the character of the landscape” and “strikes a balance between purposely planned recreational use and preservation.”

Santa Fe County owns some 1,900 acres of the 2,340 in the Thornton Ranch Open Space. The rest are state and federal lands.

“This property is a gem,” said Tony Flores, the deputy county manager. “It was a gem then and it remains a gem today.”

Voters last year approved a general obligation bond that provided $2.6 million for capital improvements in the space.

Interpretive and educational programs to be developed include panels and exhibits about the property’s ecology, plus its railroad and ranching history.

Flores said the county consulted with surrounding pueblos and tribes, some of which trace ancestry to the area.

“These are places with living decedents that maintain their connection to this landscape through enduring cultural traditions,” wrote Michael Kelley, the public works director, in a county memo. Santa Fe County will manage and protect the land, Kelley wrote, “in a way that supports continued traditional use of this area.”

Petroglyph Hill will be inaccessible to the general public, according to the master plan, unless as part of a docent-led hike. The plan states the “integrity of the site’s extensive rock art images and the site’s overall sacred nature would be damaged by public disclosure and access.”

And the Petroglyph Hill-specific management plan states the name Petroglyph Hill should be discontinued in favor of an “appropriate Native American place name.” Tribal access for religious purposes and to continue cultural traditions should be unrestricted, the management plan states.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or