By Zorine Bhappu Shirley | Washington Times
January 18, 2021
The movement to preserve the Gila River is more than merely conservation. It is the protection of the rich history of our great nation. I was lucky to grow up in New Mexico and experience the beauty of the unique natural lands and rivers throughout the state.
My late father, Roshan Bhappu, was a prominent, well-respected engineer in the state, where he spent more than a decade as a senior metallurgist at the New Mexico Bureau of Mines, and as a research professor and later the vice president for research at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. He understood the importance of the natural resources within the New Mexican soil and bedrock, and he passed his love of the land to each of his children.
As a conservative, I know that providing the highest level of protection for the Gila River is necessary to foster economic growth in New Mexico. I also believe that it is of the utmost importance to preserve our nation’s oldest designated wilderness region and to protect the abundant wildlife that thrives in the Greater Gila watershed.
The Gila River is one of only a few naturally flowing river sources remaining in the Southwest. The river winds its way through New Mexico and Arizona before emptying into the Colorado River, and the Greater Gila watershed is cherished by the people of both of these states as a scenic oasis and a sanctuary for outdoor recreationists. Aside from the minerals and wildlife within, the Gila’s flowing waters are also rich with the history of our country.
Famous American author and conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of “A Sand County Almanac,” found within the area of the Gila River what many other transcendentalist authors across the United States had found before him in their own experiences: a place unique in its historical context to the founding of our country, abounding with endless opportunity and wide-open spaces. Inspired by Leopold’s insistence, the leaders of our country recognized the significance of preserving the Gila, designating over 750,000 acres, as the first wilderness.
Today, efforts to continue this historic preservation are found in the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act. This bill would designate portions of the river as Wild and Scenic, ensuring that the natural beauty and inherent historic value of the Gila River would be preserved for years to come. The Gila River is a hub for irreplaceable natural resources that are valuable to many farmers, landowners and outdoor recreationists within the community. It is also home to many rare and endangered species, such as the Gila Trout, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Northern Mexican Garter snake.
The Gila River watershed provides New Mexicans with incredible recreational opportunities, such as fishing, hunting, backpacking, horseback riding, boating and camping. And perhaps even more important than recreation, agricultural communities across the Southwest depend on this historic river for their livelihoods. Under this legislation, the profitable economic opportunities to use the Gila as a water source will be protected, as existing water rights, grazing rights and existing water distribution will remain intact for those that turn to the Gila River as their main source of water.
Agricultural needs will be met, and those in close proximity to the Gila will be able to continue to enjoy the natural beauty of the river without being exposed to harmful and destructive corporate activity. The bill will also serve to preserve the diversified and sustainable economy in the region underpinned by good mining jobs and agriculture and supplemented by outdoor recreation and tourism to ensure a durable recovery.
The legislation is supported by those within the community that call the surrounding Gila Wilderness their home — Americans who value the natural and continual resources of the Gila and understand that any decision made is a lasting one and should be examined accordingly.
Conservatives and conservationists alike must recognize how important it is to protect our nation’s oldest and most prominent natural resources. The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act will do just that. I know that my own experiences of New Mexico are mirrored in so many who call this wonderful state home. We must continue to conserve and appreciate the land on which we live, and in the memory of my father, I hope to aid in the campaign to conserve the heritage of our nation.
• Zorine Bhappu Shirley is a veteran GOP operative having worked for the Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee and for five years was in charge of the Conservative Political Action Conference. She is currently a director of the Essex County Museum in Virginia.
This guest column originally appeared in the Washington Times.