The Gila National Forest and the Land and Water Conservation Fund: Protecting a Gem in Southwest New Mexico

Since its implementation in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has supported conservation projects in all 33 New Mexico counties. National forests, national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, open spaces, city parks, and more have received more than $300 million of LWCF money, which has helped to preserve and restore some of New Mexico’s most popular outdoor destinations.

Unfortunately, LWCF has never received full funding from Congress. A bill currently making its way through Congress would rectify the problem, providing full and permanent funding for LWCF. New Mexico Wild is working with the state’s Congressional delegation to ensure the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act is signed into law to protect New Mexico’s most special places – places like the Gila National Forest.

Aerial photo of the Gila National Forest and the Gila River. Photo: EcoFlight

Located in southwestern New Mexico, the Gila National Forest comprises more than three million acres of forest that is at once pristine and rugged. This forest is the home of the Gila Wilderness – the nation’s first federally designated Wilderness Area. Slicing through the Gila Wilderness is New Mexico’s last completely free-flowing river, the Gila River.

New Mexico Wild helps lead a coalition of local small businesses, private property owners, faith leaders, tribes, sportsmen, civic and nonprofit organizations, and more in an effort to permanently protect the Gila and San Francisco Rivers in their free-flowing conditions through a federal Wild and Scenic designation. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have both expressed interest in sponsoring the requisite legislation, and the community is urging the senators to introduce a bill in 2020. Ensuring the forest is in good health so visitors can continue to access the Wild Gila River is one more reason to ensure the LWCF is permanently and fully funded.

Middle Fork of Gila River, Gila Wilderness.
Photo: Jay Hemphill

Adequately funding places like the Gila National forest also helps New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economy, an already strong and rapidly growing economic sector. The excitement around this important arm of the state’s economy was evident in October 2019 when New Mexico Wild hosted the 2nd annual Outdoor Economics Conference in Silver City (a community at the edge of the Gila National Forest). The conference brought together nearly 300 attendees from 42 communities across New Mexico. Headlining the conference were Senator Heinrich, Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales, Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard, and other leaders and experts in the realm of outdoor economics.

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich attends a Gila Wild and Scenic reception hosted by New Mexico Wild staff in Silver City on October 2, 2019.

The conference provides policy makers and land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Parks Service with a platform to engage New Mexico residents in conversations about how to harness and enhance the state’s growing outdoor sector. This year’s panel topics included State Outdoor Recreation Resources, an Outdoor Marketing Toolkit, Eco and Wildlife Tourism, and Equitable Access and Opportunity to the Outdoors. As a bonus, Governor Lujan Grisham and Commissioner of Public Lands Garcia Richard announced their support for the federal Wild and Scenic designation for the Gila River at a private reception on the first night of the conference.

The passion driving continuous efforts to preserve the gems found within the Gila National Forest and the excitement about New Mexico’s budding outdoor economy drive home the idea that the time to fully and permanently fund the LWCF is now.


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