By Geoffrey Plant | Silver City Daily Press
October 12, 2021
A two-day conference “to reengage the communities of Grant County around reintroduction of the Gila Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation” took place on the campus of Western New Mexico University on Friday — and, on Saturday, along several of the 23 segments of waterways that are proposed for designation, like Mineral Creek in Catron County.
About 100 people registered for the conference, although attendance was about half that number, according to organizers.
The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, which proposes roughly 450 miles of streams in the Gila River system for protected status under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Martin Heinrich and then-Sen. Tom Udall in May 2020. According to a spokesperson from Heinrich’s office, the senator “plans to reintroduce his Gila Wild and Scenic legislation soon.”
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, who last year was elected to the seat formerly held by Udall — who announced in 2019 that he would not seek another term in office — has signaled his strong support of the legislation.
According to Nathan Newcomer, a grassroots organizer for New Mexico Wild, the organization which put on the event, the time was right to hold the Gila Wild and Scenic Rivers of Opportunity Conference “because we’ve been locked down for 18 months, and the pandemic has put a damper on activism and on advocating for positive change in our community.
“It seemed a good idea to kick-start things again, and reengage people by listening to panelists speak about the values of the river, the economic benefits of Wild and Scenic designation and the cultural significance of the landscape — and how we pass that along to future generations,” he said.
A November 2020 report by market research firm Southwick Associates found that water-based recreation along the Gila and San Francisco rivers supports roughly 5,000 jobs worth more than $92 million in income, and helps draw visitors to southwestern New Mexico who spend around $427 million each year. About half the respondents to Southwick’s polling said they would use the river more if it were designated Wild and Scenic.
“Assuming a direct relationship between days of use and spending by river users, we can estimate the economic effects of a Wild and Scenic designation,” the study states. “Recreation spending by users of the river could increase from $144.2 million to $386.3 million” and spur the creation of as many as 3,597 more “recreation-related jobs tied to the increased river usage.”
Critics have cast doubt on those economic projections, however.
Named after late Silver City-based author, environmentalist and outdoorsman M.H. Dutch Salmon, S.3670 has widespread support from local governments and 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.
Haydn Forward, a Catron County commissioner and founder of the Heritage Waters Coalition, told the Daily Press in April that his group was mostly seeking compromise with legislators on approximately one-quarter of the proposed stream segments.
“It’s a misperception that Heritage Waters is 100 percent against any rivers being designated as Wild and Scenic,” Forward said. “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.”
Four of Friday’s panels took place outdoors in front of WNMU’s Light Hall, overlooking College Avenue and several Silver City landmarks. One of the recently refurbished, red-painted towers of the St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church on Market Street could be seen in the distance, as well as La Capilla and the Boston Hill Open Space.
Newcomer participated in a Friday morning panel that explained how stream segments were identified by New Mexico Wild over the course of years of fieldwork.
“After five years, we had documented over 400 miles of waterways over 650,000 acres of land that we inventoried by backpacking, hiking, on horseback, driving and in canoes,” Newcomer told the Daily Press. “When we came up with this information, we had questions from Sen. Udall’s office inquiring about what we were finding; and about five or six years ago they became interested in working on legislation on that.”
On Friday afternoon, Simon Sotelo, community organizer for New Mexico Wild, moderated a panel featuring Continental Divide Trail Coalition Executive Director Teresa Martinez and Michael Darrow, tribal historian for the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, an Oklahoma-based federally recognized tribe that regards much of the upper Gila River system and the Gila National Forest as culturally and religiously significant parts of its original homelands.
“There’s a wonderful resource here, and it’s at a stage where it can be horribly damaged or it can be saved — and we still have that opportunity,” Darrow said. “All of us working together can preserve that resource, to everybody’s benefit.”
Magdaleno Manzanarez moderated the day’s last panel with New Mexico land commissioner and Silver City native Stephanie Garcia Richard, Silver City Town Councilor Guadalupe Cano and former District 39 state Rep. Rudy Martinez. Martinez filled in at the last minute for Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and Bayard Mayor Chon Fierro, who were unable to participate.
Garcia Richard took the opportunity to highlight how the State Land Office has shifted “180 degrees” in its approach to public land use.
“In previous administrations at the Land Office — and this is an elected position — the stance was ‘state land is not public land,’ and the reasoning was it’s not like [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] and Forest Service land [because] it is actually held in trust for the beneficiaries: public schools, universities and hospitals,” Garcia Richard said. “That does not mean we can’t use it!”
She noted that under her leadership, the State Land Office, “in partnership with our Native American brothers and sisters,” is also attempting to “repatriate their land back to them. We are wanting to be on the right side of protection and conservation.
“I have come out publicly to support the Wild and Scenic designation,” Garcia Richard added. “There’s actually one parcel of state land right in the Lower Box that we are opening up for recreation. We just installed some signage there.”
Martinez told several stories from his childhood growing up in North Hurley and recreating on the Mimbres and Gila rivers, including one in which a cottonwood branch fell on his head, and another in which an “inebriated compadre” tried to drown himself in the Mimbres, which proved too shallow for the task.
“We used to go picnic on the Mimbres River, as well as the Gila,” Martinez said. “But as time went on, we couldn’t picnic anymore. Because of lack of care of certain individuals, the river was fenced off — both the Mimbres and the Gila. We need to protect that resource.”
Ilana Lapid, associate professor of film at the New Mexico State University Creative Media Institute, attended the conference in search of documentary film subjects for a new class on environmental documentary filmmaking that was just greenlit by administrators.
“I’m trying to raise money to bring 12 students to make documentaries about community members that are working in the coalition to protect the river,” Lapid said, adding that she, Sotelo and Newcomer were working together to select subjects for the student films.
“I’m trying to build an environmental media center at New Mexico State University. That’s the bigger goal,” Lapid continued, adding that, in the short term, “as a filmmaker” in collaboration with two other people, “we’re interested in making a five-minute short film that can be used as part of the legislative effort to pass this Wild and Scenic bill, telling the story of one person with beautiful visuals of the river.”
Lapid said that Ray Trejo, southern New Mexico outreach coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, was a potential subject for that short film.
This article originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press.