By Luke Koenig, Gila Grassroots Organizer
Hello everyone, I’m Luke Koenig, and I’m the new Gila Grassroots organizer for New Mexico Wild. I joined New Mexico Wild a little over a month ago in what was a culmination of a path I’ve been on for a few years. That journey began when I was working as a conservation corps crew leader, working on a river restoration project on a river that was nearly developed before a powerful conservation organization swooped in an almost impossible, midnight hour, last ditch effort, and saved it. I wondered, “Is this what successful conservation comes down to in the Southwest?” What I realized then is that we better put down our tools and start knocking on doors if we’re going to have any undeveloped, undammed, publicly accessible rivers left at all.
That journey led me halfway around the west, including to Yellowstone, where I worked what was once my childhood dream job, as a Yellowstone Park Ranger. But I left that job to continue in my search to find where conservation and community meet. And finally, I stumbled upon the Gila: the wildest place I’ve ever been, flanked by the strongest community I’ve ever found. It’s a remarkable place, where as conservationists we’re following in the footsteps of giants, and as community members, a lot of our work still lies ahead of us.
Of the more than 100,000 miles of rivers, creeks, streams, and arroyos found in New Mexico, less than one-tenth of one percent are permanently protected. When we compare this to the 63% of all rivers, and the 94% of major rivers, permanently altered by the 489 major dams in New Mexico, the odds are stacked against us. When we remember that the longest undammed river in the Southwestern United States, and the only undammed main-stem river in New Mexico, the Gila River, in 2023, remains without permanent, federal protections for its free-flowing state, the situation looks dire. And, to consider that there have been four significant attempts to dam or divert to Gila since just the 1960s, the most recent of which only being defeated in 2020, is a stark reminder of just how urgent our work is.
And yet, despite all of that, we’re in a good place. We’re in a really good place. When the M. H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River bill was reintroduced to the Senate in March of this year, it was due to more than a decade of work done by those who have been willing to stand up and defend the Gila. When the bill again passed out of committee on a bipartisan basis in the Senate this year, it was because of the breadth of public support shown by those who know that a Wild Gila River is a good thing for everyone. After our champions in the House, led by our own Gabe Vasquez, along with the rest of New Mexico’s delegation in the House, introduced the bill to the House of Representatives for the first time in March of 2023, we can finally say we are closer than we’ve ever been to giving the Gila the most powerful protections that any river anywhere in the world can have: a Wild and Scenic Designation. This is an exciting time.
I’m honored to be joining the fight at this very particular time in the history of the Gila River when we are right on the very cusp of its permanent protection. We’re here because of the many ardent conservationists and community members who have been fighting for the Gila for many years.
What does it mean for the Gila to remain wild? It means that it will remain forever a place of healing, of solace, of wonder, and of hope, just as it has been for time immemorial.
So, what do we do now? Because we are in such an advanced stage in our work, and given the realities of a stalled and divided government, the most important thing now is to show our champions in Congress that the support for a Wild and Scenic Gila in Southern New Mexico is alive and well. One of the best ways to do this is to show up to community events that support a Wild and Scenic Gila and engage your fellow community members in conversation about the river and why it should be protected. If you want to take it one step further, you can write an op-ed or letter to the editor of your local newspaper, or write or call your representatives, who I know are eager to hear your support. If you’re interested in any of this, please reach out to me by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction. We’re almost there, and with your help, the Gila River will soon be protected–forever.
Click here to learn more about our ongoing campaign to secure federal Wild & Scenic River protections for segments of the Gila And San Francisco Rivers.