Wild and Scenic legislation introduced to safeguard endangered river

Senators Heinrich and Lujan re-introduce legislation to protect New Mexico’s Gila River

November 2, 2021
Contact: David Moryc, 503-307-1137; Mike Fiebig, 406-600-4061

Responding to strong community support, Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan today introduced legislation to add New Mexico’s Gila River to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The bill would designate 446 miles of the Gila as Wild and Scenic, forever protecting the river and tributaries from dams and other harmful development. A similar bill was first introduced in May 2020 by Senator Heinrich and former Senator Tom Udall, but the local community has been advocating for the protection of these waterways for nearly a decade. 

“We stand with the communities of Southwest New Mexico and Senators Heinrich and Lujan who are seeking to protect the natural heritage of the Gila River,” said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers. “The Gila and San Francisco Rivers are among the most ecologically and culturally important unprotected landscapes in the United States.”

In 2019, American Rivers named the Gila America’s Most Endangered River®. “America’s Most Endangered Rivers is a call to action,” Kiernan said. “The local residents of southwestern New Mexico and Americans everywhere responded to that call by urging state and federal decision makers to protect this special river. Now, with the Wild and Scenic legislation re-introduced, the future of the Gila River looks bright. We are grateful to Senator Heinrich and Senator Lujan and former Senator Udall, and to our partners and supporters for their commitment to saving this national treasure.”

Signed into law in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is our nation’s strongest tool for protecting healthy, free-flowing rivers. The Act permanently protects a designated river’s free-flowing character, water quality and outstanding values such as scenery, recreation, fisheries and wildlife habitat. A designation honors existing uses of the river and can support a strong outdoor recreation economy. The Gila River designation prohibits involuntary condemnation of private property, and preserves private property rights and water rights, existing irrigation and water delivery operations, grazing permits, public land access, and the ability to restore the health of our rivers and forests.

American Rivers expanded its river protection efforts in fall 2019, launching a new initiative to protect the last, best free-flowing rivers in the Southwest – rivers including the Gila and San Francisco. The program represents a significant new investment in the long-term resilience of rivers in the region.

The Gila River is the last major free-flowing river in New Mexico, supporting healthy riverside forests, cold-water fisheries (including recovering populations of Gila trout) and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The river flows through the nation’s first wilderness area, established in 1924 under the leadership of conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold who was supervisor of the Carson National Forest. It is also important to indigenous peoples who have lived in southwestern New Mexico for thousands of years. Many cultural sites are located along the Gila River and throughout its watershed.