Keeping the Gila River Wild for People and the Planet

By Molly Brind’Amour
Environmental and Energy Study Institute | October 6, 2022

Home to thousands of years of human historyhundreds of species of birds, and one of the largest roadless areas in the continental United States, the Gila River and its accompanying wilderness stands in a category of their own, even among the majesty of the Southwest. As wild and scenic as the river is, it still lacks the crucial Wild and Scenic designation that would protect its flows and habitat from the destruction of diversion.

Preserving the Gila as a Wild and Scenic River would not only protect the river’s myriad animals and plants, but it would also protect an environment that has historically been and continues to be an important place for Hispanic and Latino communities to enjoy time outside and engage in recreation.

Winding through New Mexico, the Gila River is one of the longest rivers in the American West. The Gila is also New Mexico’s last major free-flowing river, unencumbered by dams. Right now, the fight to keep it that way presses on with the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act (S.3129), which would designate segments of the river system as parts of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

The legislation comes on the heels of a five-year-long fight to divert the Gila River to provide water to New Mexican landowners, which was itself the fourth proposal to divert the Gila. The Wild and Scenic designation would preserve water rights and traditional uses on the Gila, as well as provide better wildlife habitat and ensure that the river stays free-flowing.

A Rich History

A crucial factor in the push for the Gila’s Wild and Scenic designation in New Mexico is the river’s rich history. Dating from as far back as 6000 BCE, archaeologists have found evidence of a Cochise Culturewith its people living, eating, constructing homes, and cultivating crops in the Gila’s river valleys. And from around 1260 to 1280 CE, the Mogollon people built homes out of the cliffs above the river, constructing rooms from stone and crafting pottery. Those homes still exist and are protected as part of the Gila Cliff Dwellings Monument, which allows visitors to learn about the people that made their home near the same river that many call home today.

Beginning in the 16th and 17th century, the nomadic Apache arrived in the Gila region, hunting and gathering in a wilderness that was full of grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and river otters. Although the U.S. government forcibly relocated all the Chiricahua Apache as prisoners of war in 1886, some of their descendants, now the Fort Sill Apache, still visit the Gila River that flows down from their sacred mountains.

“The waters of the Gila River flow from the slopes of our sacred mountains and are the location of traditional ceremonies that we still practice today,” explains Fort Sill Apache Chairwoman Lori Gooday Ware in an op-ed. “It is our responsibility to protect these cultural, natural and historical resources for future generations, just as our ancestors cared for these lands and rivers before us.”

Protecting the River

Today, the Gila River is a centerpiece of its community, a place where families can take advantage of its amazing opportunities to hike, fish, hunt, camp, and backpack. Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a nonprofit dedicated to community-based conservation and ensuring Frontera (border) communities have access to the outdoors, supports the designation of the Gila as a Wild and Scenic River, noting that Hispanic families and communities enjoy the river’s recreation opportunities year-round.

Hispanic Access Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to connect Latinos with opportunities to improve lives and build an equitable society, reiterated the importance of the Gila to the community around it. Its 2021 report, Place, Story, and Culture: An Inclusive Approach to Protecting Latino Heritage Sites, focuses on Latino heritage sites lacking official recognition and provides recommendations for addressing this lack of representation. The report highlights the Gila River, and emphasizes the importance of designating it as a Wild and Scenic River.

“Not only does the Gila River provide natural resources that allow wildlife and humans to inhabit the area, it also provides for recreational, agricultural and economic endeavors,” the report authors explain. “These waters provide for the livelihood of many Hispanic farmers as well as seasonal farm workers, while supporting the local economies in these areas.”

Report co-author Norma Hartell explained that the document served to analyze the lack of Latino history sites in nominations to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHC), or as National Landmarks. Hartell noted that criteria for sites like these have “historically excluded people,” especially when some Latino history sites are no longer “tangible,” because they have been destroyed.

The Wild and Scenic designation is “another tool to be able to protect sites, instead of just the NRHC or the process of making something a national park or landmark,” according to Hartell.

Protecting the Gila River is particularly important in light of the many threats the river faces. Dams and diversions have always been a threat, given the Southwest’s intense water needs.

While the New Mexican sections of the Gila are free-flowing, protecting its vibrant riparian ecosystem, parts of the Arizona section of the river are blocked by diversions like the Coolidge Dam, which make sections of the river only intermittently flowing.

According to Ray Trejo, the Southern New Mexico outreach coordinator at the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, the most recent campaign to divert the Gila River was fiercely, and successfully, opposed by environmental groups like Nuestra Tierra. Originally, the Gila River Diversion proposal would have diverted 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila in New Mexico each year, to be used by New Mexico landowners. But ultimately, the proposal was killed in 2020, in a 7-2 Interstate Stream Commission vote that denied the funding for an environmental impact statement—after $16 million had already been spent by the Central Arizona Project Entity in pursuing the project.

“And not one shovel ever hit the ground,” Trejo said. “It was a fierce fight, and in the end, the conservation groups won, and we’re pretty proud of that notion.”

Climate change is expected to further exacerbate the Gila’s problems because of less predictable snowfall in the Black and Mogollon ranges—snow that melts is the river’s major source of water. Paired with worse droughts and the destructive behavior of domestic and feral cows that destroy habitat and cause the river’s flow to slow, it is clear that the Gila is in dire need of protection.

Unequal Opportunities

Threats to natural recreation sites like the Gila have the power to worsen existing disparities in outdoor engagement for Hispanic and Latino communities. Already, these communities are disproportionately underrepresented and underserved in outdoor spaces—only 13 percent of Hispanic people surveyed by the National Park Service had visited a national park in 2018, compared to 77 percent of non-Hispanic, non-Latino white respondents.

Another study found that 67 percent of Hispanic or Latino people in the United States live in an area considered “nature-deprived,” compared to 23 percent of non-Hispanic white people. Finally, destruction of nature has been found to have the largest impact on low-income communities of color, with natural area loss “particularly acute for Hispanic and Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border” in regions of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

For Laura Flores, a volunteer program coordinator for Latino Outdoors in New Mexico, money, transportation, accessibility, and simply not having safe spaces are some of the biggest barriers she has seen to getting outside. Flores works to help make the outdoors more welcoming and accessible for Latino youth by coordinating accessible, welcoming, and culturally-connected outdoor recreation outings for young people and their families.

“What we like to focus on is absolutely getting marginalized youth outside, but also providing that social piece, that history piece, the culture piece … to make people feel more connected with the place they’re recreating in,” Flores explained. “I think the importance of conservation is to teach our future generation, our children and their parents, why we do this work … why the water supply is life in New Mexico.”

Much more work remains to be done to ensure that spaces like the Gila River are accessible and equitable to all visitors, and to ensure that decision-making on these historic sites is not limited to non-Hispanic white voices. The Hispanic Access Foundation’s report provides recommendations like updating the evaluation criteria for the National Register of Historic Places, creating a professional pipeline for members of communities that face systemic oppression to be represented in decision-making roles in the field of historic preservation, and providing solutions outside the National Register process to protect places of significance.

As for funding resources, Laura Flores looks toward New Mexico’s Outdoor Equity Fund, a state program that provides grants to help engage low-income youth in outdoor nature-based recreation activities. At the national level, the Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. initiative, backed by Sen. Heinrich (D-N.M.), aims to “build momentum for the creation of a national equity fund that will ensure long-term investments in programs to serve all youth with opportunities to explore the great outdoors.” This fund would help low-income youth, especially young people of color and young people in rural communities, experience the “transformative” power of learning about climate and the environment outdoors.

And there is no doubt that those experiences are transformative, underscoring the importance of protecting wild spaces like the Gila as we work to make those spaces more welcoming and inclusive.

“The big blue sky above the Gila is just like a chapel for many people,” Trejo said. “It’s good for the soul.”

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