By Geoffrey Plant | Silver City Daily Press
April 12, 2020
Although the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly minted $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and discussions about President Joe Biden’s massive $2 trillion infrastructure plan are dominating congressional business at the moment, behind the scenes there have been some developments regarding S.3670, the proposed M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act. The bill seeks protected status for 23 segments of waterways comprising about 450 miles of the Gila River system.
Named after late Silver Citybased author, environmentalist and outdoorsman M.H. Dutch Salmon, S.3670 has widespread support from local governments and many stakeholders within Grant County — but among agricultural interests, and in other counties in southwest New Mexico, fierce opposition to Wild and Scenic designation has been a constant since before the bill was even introduced by former U.S. Sen. Tom Udall last May.
Around that time, opponents to the bill were united under the leadership of the Heritage Waters Coalition, a private organization that doesn’t publicly disclose the makeup of its board of directors or the sources or amounts of donations it collects, nor what it spends the money on. The organization has, according to public filings, spent at least $50,000 on lobbying efforts against S.3670 in Washington, D.C., however.
“I need to protect the privacy of our members,” explained Haydn Forward, Catron County commissioner and a co-founder of the Heritage Waters Coalition. He identified himself as a memberof the group’s board of directors, but said he would have to check with the other board members before he could reveal their names.
The group — which claims 4,000 members and counts Freeport-McMoRan among its business supporters, and Grant County Sheriff Frank Gomez and District 38 state Rep. Rebecca Dow among the elected officials who support it — has promoted its agenda through its paid lobbying effort, a well-designed website and informational talks by Forward, who is a persuasive public speaker.
“Wild and Scenic Rivers Act designations threaten our rural way of life, our economy and livelihoods by putting federal bureaucrats in charge of our beloved Gila and how we use our water,” Forward wrote in a letter published by the Daily Press in March, one that’s also posted on the Heritage Waters Coalition website. “The Salmon bill draws all private property owners above and below designated rivers into an overlay of federal law and regulations replacing local and state law.”
Now it appears there may be more room for compro- mise on the side of the bill’s opponents, at least when it comes to which pieces of river are ultimately designated Wild and Scenic by Congress.
“It’s a misperception that Heritage Waters is 100 percent against any rivers being designated as Wild and Scenic,” Forward told the Daily Press last week. “Our goal was always to share the risks of the bill the way it is worded right now, but we also have shared the positives of Wild and Scenic designation. Heritage Waters Coalition is more a group that wants to make sure that the legacy use of the land and waters is protected, along with the river.”
In order to qualify for protection under the original Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a river must both be “free-flowing” and have “outstandingly remarkable values” in one or more of three categories described in the 1968 legislation: “wild, scenic, and/or recreational.” By adding parts of the Gila River system to the 200 already- designated Wild and Scenic rivers in the U.S., the new act named after Salmon would require federal agencies, sometimes in cooperation with local governments, to “protect and enhance the values for which the [Gila] river was designated.”
Other examples of specific values that qualify a segment for designation are unique historic, archaeological or scientific features that don’t exist anywhere else. This could include cultural sites related to the Mogollon civilization, for example, or even simply existing within the historically significant Gila Wilderness, the creation of which was proposed by conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold.
The intent of the legislation is to protect segments of the river and its tributaries from development, to preserve existing cultural uses – like fishing, for example — and, ultimately, to encourage the growth of the outdoor economy in the region, which many communities in and around the Gila view as a critical component to the future economic health of southwestern New Mexico.
During a Grant County Commission meeting last week, Commissioner Billy Billings — who in 2019 cast the lone vote against the adoption of a resolution “Recognizing the Special Values of the Gila Headwaters and Supporting a Wild & Scenic Designation” — indicated that the Heritage Waters Coalition had come up with a list of river segments that it had deemed appropriate for inclusion within the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
“I want to thank any of my fellow commissioners who are listening to additional information on Wild and Scenic,” Billings said. “I’ve always hoped there would be room for compromise. There are parts of the river that don’t qualify because they’re actively used, and have been for many years.”
But “even [the Heritage Waters Coalition] is willing to compromise,” Billings added, noting that he helped co-found the organization.
Forward confirmed that there is a list prepared by the organization, and said that “by far, well into three-quarters of the [23 proposed] river segments we see can be designated under Wild and Scenic.” He declined to share the list publicly, however.
“We have shared that with Sen. [Martin] Heinrich’s staff, and we’re hoping to get continued discussion,” Forward said, adding that the Heritage Waters Coalition had also sent the materials to U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, who took over Udall’s former seat in January. “Out of respect for the senator, I would like to continue those discussions before we share the list,” or at least wait “until the senators release the list.”
The Daily Press was able to confirm that Heinrich’s office had received a letter from the Heritage Waters Coalition on Friday, but no further details were available Sunday evening.
“I don’t view legislation as fixed in time, because to get to ‘yes,’ you have to be open to changes,” Heinrich told the Daily Press during his visit to Silver City last week. “I’m not going to take anything off the table.
Fundamentally, I want to see the nature of this river preserved. It’s a place that was really formative to me as an outfitter and guide, starting my career — and the details matter. And we’re going to continue to engage on the details.”
Forward indicated that it is largely the shortest of the proposed segments that his group objects to, as well as “the obvious segments of the river where there are large water diversions that have existed for years.”
“Those diversions can become entangled in bureaucracy, and we’d lose historical paths to maintain them,” Forward said. “On the Gila and its tributaries, there are 17 diversions currently in use. It’s a well, well used river, and it’s also used according to the legacy of the river.”
Asked whether the Heritage Waters Coalition has had discussions with Native American interests who consider the Gila River to be a sacred component of their traditional homelands, Forward declined to go into specifics.
“We’ve been in contact with many groups,” Forward said. “Again, this goes into one of the areas of groups we’ve reached out to, and it’s important we keep those discussions at this stage private, out of respect for the people involved.”
Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, which played a large role in crafting S.3670, said he hadn’t seen the Heritage Waters Coalition list, but said he was skeptical that the group is “working in good faith towards a compromise.”
“I think it is important to note that there were years of conversation and numerous community meetings leading up to the bill being introduced, including with those who are part of the Heritage Waters Coalition,” Allison told the Daily Press. “The senators even went so far as to have an open public comment period to help inform the final draft, which is very unusual in my experience. Substantive changes were made as a result of this public input, including limiting the proposed segments to those that run through public lands — except for a couple of instances where private property owners asked for segments to be included — and the removal of certain segments on Mogollon Creek, for example. So we already view this legislation as the compromise.
“And we’re talking about the last free-flowing river in New Mexico — the last one,” he continued. “How about we keep one river wild? That seems like a good compromise to me.”
This article originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press.