Gila River: The Origin of Wilderness

Map of the Gila River watershed | Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Gila River watershed

The Gila River could be considered the birthplace of wilderness.

When Aldo Leopold convinced the US Forest Service that the headwaters of the Gila should be designated the world’s first primitive area back in 1924, it set the stage for the Wilderness Act of 1964. Deservingly, the Gila became the nation’s first congressionally designated Wilderness and remains the largest Wilderness Area in New Mexico.

The West Fork, Middle Fork, and much of the East Fork of the Gila River sit in the shadows of the Black Range along the Continental Divide and the rugged Mogollon Mountains looming at elevations upwards of 10,000 feet in the Gila Wilderness. Surrounded by a varied landscape that includes one of the world’s largest and healthiest Ponderosa Pine forests, the Gila headwaters help sustain abundant wildlife ranging from wild turkeys, eagles, and dusky grouse to deer, pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, javelina, cougars, and black bears. Several packs of reintroduced endangered Mexican wolves have established themselves in the Wilderness Area alongside the world’s largest population of rare Mexican spotted owls.

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 upper Gila is a unique recreational attraction. The surrounding wilderness offers fishing for native trout, hunting, backpacking, horseback riding, and camping across hundreds of miles of trails. There’s generally a short boating season in the spring with the bonus of several natural hot springs to soak in along the river.

The Backstory

Few people realize that the Gila is one of the longest rivers in the West. That’s because it’s typically drained dry before getting halfway through its 500-mile voyage west to the Colorado River near Yuma, AZ. Once navigable by large riverboats from its mouth nearly to Phoenix, the Gila below Phoenix today crosses the Gila River Indian Reservation as an intermittent trickle due to large irrigation diversions.

The situation will grow even worse if a small but influential group of farmers, business interests, and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission succeeds in constructing a new diversion on the river authorized to capture an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water per year before it reaches the state line, double New Mexico’s current withdrawals. A water project of that magnitude would severely impact the Gila’s unique ecology and outstanding recreational values.

Up to $100 million in federal subsidies are available to New Mexico to plan and construct the project, but fatal engineering flaws discovered by a former ISC director put its price tag at two to three times the current estimate of $300-$500 million, if it’s feasible at all. That’s money better spent on cost-effective measures such as municipal and agricultural conservation, effluent reuse, sustainable use of existing groundwater supplies, and watershed restoration that could meet the region’s future water needs quicker, easier, and cheaper than a diversion and pipeline project.

The Future

New Mexico is eligible for more than half of the federal subsidy to finance non-diversion alternatives to meet the future water demand of the region. The alternative is popular among state residents, 85 percent of whom support using current water supplies more wisely through conservation, new technology to help reduce wasted water, and increased recycling of water, according to a 2013 poll.

In addition to saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, these proven methods of water conservation would improve river flows, sustain native fish populations of endangered loach minnows, spike dace, and threatened Gila trout. They would also help maintain the Gila River’s unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, nature-based travel, and authentic wilderness experiences.