Let’s preserve the Gila as Wild and Scenic

By John Harned, Mimbres Property Owner
June 5, 2019 | Silver City Daily Press

I am so thankful that I live near the Gila River. Whomever came before me did an amazing job ensuring that this place was taken care of. Who was responsible for ensuring that the Gila Wilderness wasn’t given up to “progress”? The Mimbrenos? The Apache? The Rancheros? Aldo Leopoldo? Anyone who has wandered through the canyons of the Gila River has seen wild beauty that can be found nowhere else.

I look forward to springtime in the Gila. Despite the relentless wind, it is a time of beauty and renewal. The snow melts off of the Mogollon Range, the flowers bloom and the river swells. I love being on the river. The waters flow free from the high peaks and wind down through the canyons. I see signs of bear. Deer scatter as I round a bend. Countless springs add to the river’s flow. The waters give life. Not just to the plants and animals, but to the people and communities beyond the wilderness boundary.

I am told that the Gila is the last “free flowing” river in New Mexico. Is that true? If so, we truly have something special. For the past 30 years I have studied rivers throughout the Western United States. I have seen the abundance of the river, the lifeblood of the land. It is my hope that we have the wherewithal to use our water wisely so that we can let at least a few of our rivers flow free. Let’s let the Gila be one of them.

Back in 1968, Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It was passed to protect rivers in their “free flowing” state in an attempt to counteract our zealous building of dams to drive commerce and progress. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act offers one protection for the Gila that the Wilderness Act does not provide. It is legal to build a dam in a designated wilderness area but you can’t dam a designated Wild and Scenic river. Wild and Scenic designation for the Gila would stop dams from being built on federal land but would not hinder New Mexicans from diverting their own water.

I am a business owner. I appreciate the need to make money to pay the bills. But I don’t work hard just to get by. I want to have time to appreciate life. Time to hunt and fish. Time to explore the mountains and canyons. Time to cool off in the river with my family and friends. Time to nap in the shade while the river sings me to sleep.

Can we have free-flowing rivers and a vital economy? Yes! Tourists, even though they can be quite annoying, bring real dollars and cents to our businesses. From guides and outfitters to the grocery store, gas station, and hotel owners, tourists drop us their dollars along their way. In fact, according to New Mexico’s Tourism Department, over half of all overnight visitors to the state engage in outdoor activities. The Outdoor Industry Association found that outdoor recreation in New Mexico generates $9.9 billion in consumer spending and supports 99,000 jobs in New Mexico.

The Gila River is home to fish species found nowhere else on Earth. There are more than 200 species of birds that are found in the Gila. The Gila Wilderness is home to exceptional biodiversity. The rich blend of plants and animals in the Gila is a result of its position between four different bioregions. On the north it is bounded by the Colorado Plateau and the RockyMountains. To the south are the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. Flowing from the heart of this mountainous wilderness, out into the desert lowlands, is the Gila River.

The free flow of the Gila River supports some of the healthiest riparian habitat in New Mexico and the southwest. The Gila River is a pathway between the mountain and desert ecosystems. There is no way of knowing how important the Gila River and wilderness will be in the face of changing climate. The future life cycles and movement of many plant and animal species will surely be tied to the Gila Wilderness and its lifeblood, the Gila River.

I am thankful there is a community-led proposal that would designate parts of the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic. Designating portions of the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic would keep them as they are for future generations. Designation does not affect the water rights of towns, ranches or businesses. The same lifestyles and activities we enjoy today will continue with Wild and Scenic designation.

The effort to designate parts of these rivers as Wild and Scenic has been growing in our communities for several years. Many people in Grant and Catron counties support this effort. People like small-business owners, tribes, sportsmen, veterans, faith leaders, and civic organizations are all working together to designate the Gila and San Francisco rivers Wild and Scenic. It doesn’t take an act of God to do this, but it does take an act of the U.S. Congress.

I urge Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to join with our communities and introduce legislation to preserve the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic. Let’s ensure that our children’s children are able to use and enjoy the Gila as we have it today; a beautiful, healthy, free-flowing river.

This article originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press.