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Keep Gila River wild and scenic

By Jeff Arterburn and David Carmichael
Las Cruces Sun-News | July 28, 2019

We represent the more than 400 fly anglers and trout conservationists who live and recreate in southern New Mexico, and we enthusiastically support the effort to have the Gila River and its tributaries designated as a Wild and Scenic River. 

We appreciate that our region is home to the nation’s first designated wilderness, named for the Gila River, which flows unhindered from the heights of the Mogollon Mountains, passing through stunning desert canyons on its way to the Pacific Ocean.  The waters of the Gila River, San Francisco River, and their main tributaries on public lands support trout and other native fish populations, and a diverse range of plants and animals that live in the complex ecological zones characteristic of the region. 

These natural resources support a wide variety of recreational activities that attract locals and visitors from across the country, including fishing, birding, hiking and camping. Outdoor recreation and wilderness experiences create tremendous economic value for the communities in this region, value that will be enhanced by the Wild and Scenic designation.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers system was created by Congress in 1968 to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, geological, fish and wildlife, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Wild and Scenic Rivers are those that are free of impoundments, with watersheds that are unpolluted and largely primitive. 

The Gila River meets all of the criteria for Wild and Scenic designation, presenting outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition. It courses through immense vistas, dramatic chasms and canyons, supporting diverse plant and animal communities. These characteristics have tremendous scientific importance, and the river is a key connection to the historical, cultural and spiritual values of many communities in this region.

The Gila River watershed is the only place to find to one very special and unique native species: the Gila trout. State and federal agencies working with conservation and angling communities have made recent progress towards recovering Gila trout populations, upgrading the species from endangered to threatened status with special regulations that allow recreational fishing. 

Other unique native fish including the endangered loach minnow and spike dace also live in these streams, as well as other species with value for recreational fishing that rely on the natural condition of a free-flowing river. Gila trout need cold, free-flowing streams, and they are vulnerable to large-scale forest fire, drought, and increasing water temperatures. The presence of dams or diversions would accentuate the harm from each of these, and must be prevented.

Earlier this year, American Rivers named the Gila River as America’s most endangered river for 2019, largely because of the threat of proposed water diversions. Achieving official designation as a Wild & Scenic River would help protect the Gila River watershed from possible future dams and diversions, while ensuring that we and our children’s children will have full access to enjoy and experience the river in its present wild state. 

We urge our neighbors to add their voices to call our congressional representatives in support of the effort make official the Wild and Scenic designation that we know the Gila River and its tributaries deserve.  

Jeff Arterburn is president of the Gila/Rio Grande Chapter (780) of Trout Unlimited and David Carmichael is president of Mesilla Valley Flyfishers, Inc.

This guest column originally appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News.