If there ever was a river deserving of inclusion into the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system, the Gila River in Southwestern New Mexico is it. Thanks to the leadership of New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, we have the opportunity to protect this amazing, historic watershed, permanently. Late last week, the Senators introduced the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which would protect nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers and their tributaries under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the premiere federal river protection legislation in the United States.
“Dutch” Salmon was a self-described New Mexican “redneck environmentalist,” who spent his whole life fighting for the Gila and against harmful dams and diversions, until he passed away a little over a year ago. Dutch authored many books about the Gila including the seminal book, Gila Descending, about his 200-mile trip down the Gila with his hound dog and cat; it is only fitting that the Senators honored him with this bill.
I have traveled amazing wild rivers from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Arizona. One look at the Gila and you recognize the magic of its natural flow and exceptional beauty. The Gila is precisely what the framers of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, including Senator Udall’s father, Stewart Udall, had in mind when they set out to create a national system of protected rivers. In addition to passing the scenic eye-test, the Gila and its tributary, the San Francisco River, are full of other outstanding values. Geologically rich, the Gila is home to amazing box canyons, pinnacle rock formations, and numerous caves that supported the Mogollon culture – providing the rich cultural history still evident today through extensive rock art panels and intact cliff-dwellings.
Ecologically, the area is renowned for its high-quality bird habitat and populations of unusual species like the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Common Black Hawk, Montezuma Quail, and Elf Owl. The watershed is also a stronghold for the rare Gila trout and a major conservation strategy is underway to protect the fish from other, non-native species. American Rivers is working with the Senators to enable agencies to protect and restore Gila trout while preserving the free-flowing nature of the river.
The Gila is also full of both easily accessible and backcountry recreational opportunities – boating, hiking, hunting, fishing, essential fish and wildlife habitat, cultural richness, and on and on…supporting a vibrant and growing recreation-based economy that benefits Southwestern New Mexico in numerous ways.
Over the past several years, the Senators and their staffs have worked incredibly hard with the local community—listening, answering questions, and resolving any potential concerns. It’s been some time since there have been any Wild and Scenic designations in New Mexico (the most recent one was a 12-mile stretch of the Rio Grande in 1994!) and in my experience, this is exactly the kind of careful work to build understanding and durability for river protection that sets the example for locally-driven efforts across the country.
The Senators’ work builds upon the support of the local Grant County Commission, who voted late last year in support of Wild and Scenic River protections for the Gila River and its tributaries on nearby National Forest Service lands. The Commissioners, such as Chairman Chris Ponce, recognize the value the Gila provides its citizens both as a place of safe, free, family-friendly outdoor recreation, and as a growing source of economic benefits for Silver City, the gateway to the Gila, as it diversifies its economy.
Efforts of this magnitude and scope provide us an incredible opportunity, and Senators Heinrich and Udall deserve our help. Please take a minute to thank them for their leadership to protect the Gila as Wild and Scenic and about your love and appreciation of wild rivers.