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Latino Conservation Week aims to get locals outside, speaking up

By David Marquez | Silver City Daily Press and Independent
July 22, 2019

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance hosted their Grapevine and Comida event at the Grapevine campground Saturday, a finale to all of the work they’ve done during Latino Conservation Week to promote the Wild and Scenic designation proposal for the Gila, Mimbres, and San Francisco rivers.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, or New Mexico Wild, is a nonprofit, statewide organization that seeks to protect and restore wilderness areas in the state.

“Here, right now, the N.M. Wild’s biggest campaign is the Wild and Scenic designations for the Gila, Mimbres, and the San Francisco” rivers, said Simon Sotelo, Gila community organizer for New Mexico Wild.

Even before this week’s events, the campaign for the Wild and Scenic designation has been in the works for around five years, according to Public Lands Fellow Grecia Nuñez, who works with New Mexico Wild in Las Cruces.

“This is one of our main focuses here in southern New Mexico,” Nuñez said. “Our organization is statewide, but the Gila is a very important thing to us.”

“We are proposing the main sum of the Gila and its headwaters, as well as McKnight Canyon, which is the headwaters of the Mimbres River,” Sotelo said. “There’s also the San Francisco River, which would be the Upper San Francisco Box and the lower San Francisco.”

In order to build support for the federal designation for the rivers, the organization promotes the areas that they are working toward protecting — allowing the communities that surround them to experience those areas, and, in turn, give their support to the campaign.

“It is a community-driven proposal,” Sotelo said. “What that means is that we would like for the community to support it — which we have, we’ve gotten plenty of support.”

As of now, New Mexico Wild counts 150 small businesses, faith-based groups, some other local conservation groups, and more than 100 individuals who have sent letters of support. New Mexico Wild has also received support from the town of Hurley, the city of Bayard, and the Silver City Town Council.

Sotelo said Latino Conservation Week — a national initiative which seeks to involve the Latino demographic in decisions related to conservation — has an important role in this campaign.

“With proposing Wild and Scenic, and trying to garner support for that, we recognize that we need every voice that we can get in order to make this happen,” he said. “Let’s get these people involved, let’s get this demographic involved and introduce them to what is actually going on.”

Latino Conservation Week also extends well beyond the bounds of the New Mexico Wild campaign. It serves a larger purpose of involving Latinos in conservation discussions and decisions in their communities.

It’s “a way to encourage Hispanics, Latinos, Mexicanos — however they describe themselves — to get outdoors more, and to get them more involved in the conversation of conservation,” Sotelo said.

During the week, which started July 13 and ended the 21st, New Mexico Wild, in association with various conservancy groups, coordinated multiple events to expose the community to the wilderness areas that they are trying to protect.

They led hikes — one of which was to the Three-Mile Dwelling, a cliff dwelling located on the West Fork of the Gila River.

Another hike was led in partnership with the Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society, where they hiked along the Mogollon Box and into a riparian corridor there.

“We were trying to educate people by saying, ‘This is an area that’s being proposed for Wild and Scenic, and these are the animals that use this corridor as habitat, or use it for their migratory habitat,’” Sotelo said.

They also invited community members to hike a portion of the Continental Divide Trail.

On Thursday, they hosted a gallery opening dedicated to showcasing the areas on which they are attempting to place a Wild and Scenic designation.

“Not every person in Silver City is able to access those easily, so we took a bunch of artists out to areas that are being proposed for Wild and Scenic, and we asked them to be inspired by what they saw,” Sotelo said. “The idea was to give a visual representation of what we are proposing for protection.”

The final event of the week was on Saturday, at the Grapevine Campground, where attendees enjoyed food, a float down the Gila and a hike, among other activities.

Nuñez was among the members who floated down the river.

“This is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico,” she said. “So to protect it, and protect riparian habitat, and the ecosystems that it supports — it’s something that is like a legacy, for future generations to be able to see this area. It might not be full of water, like some of these other Wild and Scenic rivers up in Oregon and Washington state, but in a desert, it’s such a beautiful thing to have a flowing river.”

Angel Peña, the southern director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, coordinated events for Latino Conservation Week in Las Cruces and was in Grant County for the event Saturday. From his home in Las Cruces, he said, he has seen the effects of the damming of the Rio Grande.

“Our river doesn’t flow year-round — this is the only time it flows,” Peña said. “Which makes [the Gila] so much more important, because it does flow year-round for all of these people.”

Sotelo said the Latino Conservation Week events helped in the furthering of their campaign efforts.

“I think the week was a huge success,” he said. “Not only did we get a lot of people involved in our activities, we also generated a lot of positive content for all of these proposals.”

New Mexico Wild hopes to finalize the proposal, which would be drafted into legislation, and then introduced and voted on by Congress, by early or mid-2020.

This article originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press and Independent.