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County votes to support Wild and Scenic Gila River

By Geoffrey Plant | Silver City Daily Press
September 13, 2019

Grant County commissioners passed a resolution Thursday “recognizing the special values of the Gila headwaters” and supporting any future federal legislation that would designate parts of some of those waterways within the “natural, free-flowing network” as protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Preceding the county in making such a move are officials from the municipalities of Bayard, Hurley and Silver City, all of whom have adopted or approved some sort of official declaration signaling their support for Wild and Scenic designation over the past year.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and is meant to protect America’s rivers from development and overuse — if parts of a river are found to meet certain qualifications described in the act.

“An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this nation today,” President Johnson said when he signed the legislation. “Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.”

There are three definitions under which a stretch of river may gain Wild and Scenic status, as “wild,” “scenic” or “recreational.” While the commission wasn’t considering such details — that is entirely up to Congress to decide — much of the lengthy public comment period during Thursday’s meeting referenced a 400-plus-page proposal drawn up by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. The proposal identifies about 430 miles of rivers and streams within the Gila as deserving protection, due to those waterways possessing “unique” wild, scenic or recreational characteristics that aren’t found elsewhere. The proposal is intended to be a guide for legislators.

A Wild and Scenic Coalition map shows that the Wilderness Alliance is proposing protected status for nearly every mile of creek in the Gila Wilderness area, for example. Outside of the wilderness, stretches of the Gila, San Francisco and other waterways are marked in places as deserving Wild and Scenic status. For example, a roughly 30-mile stretch of the San Francisco River, beginning about 20 miles south of Reserve, is marked on the map as having unique recreational qualities.

“There have been efforts to dam, divert and develop parts of the Gila for decades,” said Mark Allison, executive director of the Wilderness Alliance, during public comment. “I think people in this room are tired of playing defense and want to do something more proactive to permanently protect the river for future generations.”

After referencing its predecessors, Allison spoke about the — now relatively minor — Gila River diversion proposed by the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project.

“While this proposal intentionally does not interfere with the Arizona Water Settlements diversion proposed right now, it would prevent future dams and diversions,” he said. “That’s the real purpose of this.”

Buddy Eby is a Grant County farmer, rancher and retired livestock inspector who spoke before the commission Thursday. His comments reflected the general sentiment of a large contingent of landowners, ranchers and farmers who showed up to the meeting to protest the resolution.

“I believe it would be detrimental to numerous land uses,” he said. “It would affect logging, mining, grazing and farming — to name a few. I believe it would have a negative effect on property rights and values for those who live near these rivers. Landowners would not be allowed to do flood-control projects, farmers would not be allowed to clean their ditches or maintain their dams that provide water for their crops. It would also affect the grazing of livestock on these designated rivers. It would have a negative impact on the public, as no structures could be built on these rivers to take water to the cities who may need it in the future.”

Many of those who showed up in opposition to the resolution told commissioners that they feared the Wild and Scenic designations — should they come to pass — would result in their property being highly regulated, or even seized by the federal government in the name of environmental protection.

“I’m concerned that with this, our current, existing economics would be taken over by another layer of bureaucracy,” District 1 Commissioner Billy Billings said. “What are you trying to protect from? A dam has been put down — I don’t see that ever happening. Some future uses might be impinged, though.”

Billings wondered if a well near a protected stretch of river went dry, could a property owner drill another well?

“Under Wild and Scenic, would those property owners’ rights be protected?” he asked. And “someone mentioned the destabilization of the river banks. The [Grant Soil and Water] Conservation District has a resolution against Wild and Scenic, because they see fear that farmers wouldn’t be able to get in there and stabilize the ditch banks.”

Billings added that “the river would then begin to meander into the farms — like it has in the past — and cut them out. I think that one side of this [debate] questions whether the actual intent of the other side is to have a meandering river that would take out all the farms.”

“It is not the intention of this proposal to interfere with private property rights, water rights, ranching, grazing — it is the intention to preserve those traditional uses,” Allison said in his remarks. He also promised to communicate this to the offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, the New Mexico senators who are widely expected to introduce legislation that would designate parts of the Gila as Wild and Scenic.

“I wish I could believe everything that came out of their offices,” said Billings, who went on to cast the lone vote against the resolution, only after suggesting the commission table the item — until next year.

“Clearly, we are not ready to vote on this resolution,” he said, telling his fellow commissioners that he felt they should wait until Gila National Forest Supervisor Adam Mendonca had finished his yearslong revision of the Forest Plan, expected in January 2020.

“I feel this is a red herring,” District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne responded.

The Forest Plan that Billings wanted to wait for will also identify sections of the Gila’s waterways that have qualities that might make them deserving of wild, scenic or recreational Wild and Scenic designation, but, as Mendonca repeated at Tuesday’s work session, it won’t contain any recommendations for such designations.

At the work session, Mendonca told commissioners that U.S. Forest Service management so far had done a great job of preserving and protecting the waterways in the Gila.

“What we have been doing is working,” he said. “The decision to not make recommendations was made years ago.”

“Your rationale is that ‘our management so far has been fine, so we don’t need anything else’?” Browne asked.

“That’s correct,” Mendonca said.

This stance pit him against the majority of the commission, and led District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards to ask Mendonca, “What is the average tenure of a forest supervisor?”

“About five years,” Mendonca replied.

“How long have you been in the position?” she followed up.

“Four and a half years …,” Mendonca said.

Congressional action spurred by grassroots activism is by far the most likely way that parts of the Gila River would gain Wild and Scenic protections. Local declarations in favor of designation — like the resolution passed by the commission Thursday — are signals of such support to Udall and Heinrich, the likely conduits for such legislation.

Udall and Heinrich released a statement to the Daily Press on Thursday applauding the commission for its “strong vote today in support of this effort. We are heartened by the community engagement on protecting the Gila River and designating specific sections of the river as Wild and Scenic.

“It’s efforts like these — with all stakeholders involved and substantial public education — that make for the best use of our public lands and rivers,” the joint statement continues. “We look forward to working with the community to develop legislation in the near future that reflects the robust input of everyone involved, so we can continue to enjoy all that the Gila River has to offer. The Gila is a jewel and deserves to be protected for future generations. A Wild and Scenic designation would permanently protect the Gila’s traditional uses and values such as hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, horseback riding, floating, gathering with family, advancing scientific research and much more. By working together, we can benefit the regional economy for the long term.”

This article originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press.