The Gila River starts in the Mogollon Mountains in southwestern New Mexico and empties into the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona. It flows through and around the Rocky Mountains, the Chihuahuan Desert and the Sonoran Desert. Around the river are green trees and the forest of the same name. If you are floating down the river, you may see people hiking, backpacking and enjoying nature.
Image: US Geological Survey
The Gila region is home to a variety of wildlife. Tree species include cottonwoods, sycamores, willows and alders. There are 300 types of birds, including hawks, eagles, woodpeckers and flycatchers, found in the trees and skies near the water’s edge. And on the ground, you’ll find animals such as elk, javelinas, cougars, black bears, fish, mountain lions and Gila monsters.
Photo credit: US National Park Service
Humans have lived around the Gila for millennia. In fact, there is evidence of human activity in the Gila Forest between 9500 and 6000 B.C. The Cochise civilization inhabited the area between 6000 B.C. and 300 A.D. In the late 19th century, many tree and animal species disappeared due to their use as resources for the region’s economy. In response, Aldo Leopold, an employee of the Forest Service, led the charge to designate the Gila Forest as the first national wilderness; it received this designation in 1924. While Arizona’s part of the Gila River is protected as the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, the New Mexican section is unprotected and therefore vulnerable.
The Gila is the state’s only river that flows freely without a dam but the river was listed as the most endangered river in the United States in 2019. One of the greatest threats to the Gila is diversion, which would establish structures, such as dams and canals, that could be used for energy or water supplies. The state government has discussed plans to divert Gila’s waters, which would harm species that need it to live.
There is hope for preserving the Gila. Last November, New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan introduced the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act. The bill aims to protect more than 440 miles of the Gila River watershed. If passed, the Gila will receive the “Wild and Scenic River” designation. This designation would preserve the Gila “in free-flowing condition” so that the river and its “immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 allows Congress to give rivers the highest protections, and this bill will amend the 1868 law to include the Gila.
The Gila’s ecosystem will benefit if Congress passes this bill. With protections, endangered species such as the Gila trout, Southwestern willow flycatcher, and Northern Mexican garter snake, will have the opportunity to restore their populations. Only 0.01% of New Mexico’s rivers are protected by a wild and scenic designation, so the Gila designation could pave the way for other rivers in the state to achieve protection.
Photo credit: US Forest Service
Prominent New Mexicans support the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act. In a press release from Sen. Heinrich, Chon S. Fierro, the mayor of Bayard, says, “It is important that we call for the protection of the Gila River because we have been going there to fish, hunt, and picnic with our families for many years and we want to continue to do so while securing it for future generations.” In that same press release Rocky Mondello, the owner of Morning Star Sports, says, “In 10 years, I want to be certain our four sons can still bring my grandchildren to the river… I want to be sure they can learn resilience as they hike through a crossing of the last free-flowing river in the state.”
The press release also demonstrates widespread support. Danny Vasquez, a member of the Silver City League of United Latin American Citizens, says that the Gila should be protected: “[Rafting on the Gila] was always a thrilling adventure, filled with breathtaking scenery and wildlife… The Gila River is a jewel to be enjoyed for generations.” And Zorine Bhappu Shirley, a former employee for the Republican National Committee, is quoted saying, “I… 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. ”
To protect one of the most endangered rivers in America, the U.S. Senate should pass this bill. When it’s passed, the Gila will maintain its natural flow, its species will thrive and more people can experience this natural wonder.
This blog was coauthored by Asha Dhakad, Environment America Intern
Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America
Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.