Guest Column by Rep. Rudy Martinez
Silver City Daily Press
Monday, June 22, 2020
June is National Rivers Month, a 30-day celebration of the most cherished rivers across the United States. This is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the Gila River, an absolute gem in southwestern New Mexico that also happens to be the last free-flowing river in the state.
The Gila River’s headwaters originate in the Gila Wilderness, the world’s very first federally designated wilderness area. As a result, many of the Gila’s segments offer some of the greatest opportunities for solitude anywhere in the country. This primitive quality makes the Gila River one of the most sought-after destinations for day hikers, families, backpackers, campers, anglers, hunters, kayakers, wildlife viewers and others looking for a break from the high-speed chaos of our daily lives.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich recently took a major step forward in ensuring that New Mexicans will be able to celebrate the Gila River for generations to come. Last month they introduced the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, which would designate nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic. The bill has the support of local elected officials, property owners, and more than 150 small business owners in Grant County because it would preserve traditional uses of the river and permanently guarantee access for outdoor recreation.
The legislation also has widespread support for what it would not do. For instance, the legislation explicitly states that it would not affect existing water or property rights. In fact, the original Wild and Scenic Rivers Act outright prohibits the condemnation of private property for rivers involving more than 50 percent public lands.
The Gila legislation fits this category, as only two of the proposed segments touch private lands, and those were considered only at the request of the property owners. The legislation would also have no impact on grazing rights, allowing southern New Mexico’s ranchers to maintain their livelihoods.
It’s fitting that Udall and Heinrich named their bill after the late Dutch Salmon, a longtime Grant County resident who spent decades battling against efforts to dam, divert, or otherwise destroy the Gila and its tributaries. Dutch’s leadership on these conservation efforts saved the free-flowing nature of the river countless times, so it would be fitting to permanently protect the Gila in honor of his legacy.
While Dutch is perhaps the most well known Gila defender, he is far from the only one. During my lifetime in southwestern New Mexico, I have consistently witnessed diverse groups of stakeholders rally together any time the Gila has faced a significant threat. This admiration for the river is quantifiable, as a recent poll conducted by Change Research found that 76 percent of New Mexico voters support protecting the Gila River and its tributaries through a federal Wild and Scenic designation.
I’m grateful that our senators recognized the deep love New Mexicans feel for the Gila River and are taking steps to provide it with the highest level of federal protection for American rivers. During this National Rivers Month, let’s celebrate the Gila River and its tributaries, and let’s continue to lift up the majority of local voices who are calling upon Congress to designate the Gila as the nation’s next Wild and Scenic river.
Rudy Martinez represents District 39 in the New Mexico Legislature. He lives in Silver City.