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Diverse Stakeholders Applaud New Mexico Delegation for Reintroducing Bill to Protect the Gila River
Small business owners, Tribes, land owners, and others have been working on community proposal for nearly a decade

A diverse coalition of local residents in southwest New Mexico today is applauding the reintroduction of the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act by Representative Gabe Vasquez and Senator Martin Heinrich, and co-sponsored by Senator Ben Ray Luján and Representatives Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernandez. The bill—which has been previously introduced twice—would protect portions of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers and their tributaries as Wild and Scenic to conserve their outstanding values. The local community has been advocating for the protection of these waterways for nearly a decade which led Senator Heinrich and former Senator Tom Udall to first introduce the bill in May 2020. Because of the strong local and diverse support, the bill moved closer to becoming law last Congress when a bi-partisan group of Senators voted to pass the Gila bill out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“Now more than ever, New Mexicans want to ensure that future generations will be able to experience the full glory of a protected wild Gila River: clean drinking water, wildlife habitat, and a huge driver of outdoor recreation,” said Grant County Commissioner Chairman Chris Ponce.  “Thank you, Senator Heinrich, Senator Luján, and Representatives Vasquez, Leger Fernandez, and Stansbury for working to preserve these incredible waters.”

The community-driven proposal would secure the future of segments of the Gila River located primarily in the Gila Wilderness—America’s first Wilderness—by designating nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers as Wild and Scenic under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, ensuring traditional and current use of the waterways, while protecting critical wildlife habitat and growing New Mexico’s sustainable outdoor recreation economy. 

“We believe it is vitally important that we protect these critical watersheds and rivers that have been very meaningful to our people for centuries,” said Fort Sill Apache Chairwoman Lori Gooday Ware, who was also in Washington, DC last week. “Designating these rivers as Wild and Scenic will protect them for future generations and allow those who come after us to reconnect to those who came before us.”

The local community has been advocating for the protection of these waterways for nearly a decade. When first introduced, Senator Martin Heinrich and former Senator Tom Udall and their staff hosted numerous roundtable discussions, negotiated with landowners and public land users to ensure their interests were taken into account, conducted a lengthy and comprehensive public comment period, and incorporated the ideas and hopes of the community into the legislation.

“For generations, my family has been visiting the Gila and San Francisco Rivers to fish, hunt, and picnic. I am thankful that Representative Gabe Vasquez, Senator Martin Heinrich and the entire New Mexico delegation re-introduced legislation to safeguard our time-tested traditions,” added Larry McDaniel, a hunter in Silver City. 

It’s important to note that this legislation would not affect existing uses of the land and waters it would protect. For example, grazing operations would continue on lands surrounding the segments designated as Wild and Scenic. Additionally, development on roads to private land would not be impacted. Hunting and fishing access would not only be ensured, but the designation would safeguard critical habitat needed to sustain land and water wildlife populations. 

Rocky Mondello, owner of Morning Star Sports, added, “In 10 years, I want to be certain our four sons can still bring my grandchildren to the river. I want them to have a place to teach our grandchildren patience as they wait all morning for the first hit of a Gila Group on their line. I want to be sure they can learn resilience as they hike through a crossing of the last free-flowing river in the state. I want to thank Representative Vasquez, Senator Heinrich, and the whole New Mexico delegation for helping me realize this future. ” 

Designating the rivers and tributaries as Wild and Scenic will contribute to durable and diversified local, rural economies that depend upon time-tested traditions like grazing, ranching, hunting, and fishing. It will also enhance those economies through increased outdoor recreation activities like rafting and paddling, horseback riding, wildlife watching, and hiking and camping. Outdoor recreation is big business in New Mexico: Every year it generates nearly $10 billion in consumer spending, roughly $3 billion in wages and salaries, $623 million in state and local tax revenues, and directly employs 99,000 people.

New Mexico’s newest representative, Gabe Vasquez, has long been a champion of the Gila River as well as the interests of anglers and sportsmen. His early adoption of this effort is a clear indication that he will continue to fight for the things that matter most to New Mexicans.

The Wild Gila River coalition urges the relevant House and Senate Committees to move the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act swiftly through Congress this year.