5 Reasons to Protect New Mexico’s Gila and San Francisco Rivers

Wild and scenic designation would help wildlife, habitat, and the economies

5 Reasons to Protect New Mexico’s Gila and San Francisco Rivers
New Mexico
The West Fork of the Gila River wends through the Gila Wilderness in western New Mexico.
Nathan Newcomer

The Gila River is an essential piece of southwestern New Mexico. Along with the lesser-known San Francisco River, the Gila meanders through Grant County, and both waterways sustain surrounding communities, provide a place for families and friends to recreate, and support wildlife that depend on their waters to survive. For decades, a diverse coalition has been working to protect more than 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries as wild and scenic—a designation possible under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which Congress passed to protect our nation’s most outstanding free-flowing rivers by ensuring clean water, safeguarding fisheries, and preserving cultural resources, scenery, and outdoor recreation opportunities for current and future generations. Here are five reasons these iconic waters deserve this designation:

1. Safeguard a free-flowing river

New Mexico
The Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries sustain a variety of wildlife, ranging from wild turkeys and dusky grouse to pronghorn and bighorn sheep, like these crossing the Lower San Francisco River Canyon. The waters are home to Gila trout and other fish prized by anglers.
Alison Flint

The Gila and San Francisco rivers, along with their tributaries, make up one of the largest undammed watersheds in the Lower 48 states. Today, just 1,081 miles (.01 percent) of the 108,104 miles of these New Mexico rivers are designated as wild and scenic.

2. Traditional uses

New Mexico
A horseback rider takes in the Gila Valley just outside the Gila Wilderness. New Mexicans have relied on the Gila and San Francisco rivers for food and clean water for centuries. Wild and scenic designation would protect all current uses and traditional values of these rivers—including hunting and fishing access—and would not affect private property rights. Grazing on lands around the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries would continue if the waterways are designated as wild and scenic.
Tom Cooper

New Mexicans have relied on the Gila and San Francisco rivers for food and clean water for centuries. Wild and scenic designation would protect all current uses and traditional values of these rivers—including hunting and fishing access—and would not affect private property rights. Grazing on lands around the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries would continue if the waterways are designated as wild and scenic.

3. Outdoor recreation

New Mexico
People come from near and far to hike, camp, ride horseback, fish, hunt, and paddle in the Gila (above) and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries.
Nathan Newcomer

Much of the land surrounding the proposed wild and scenic rivers is designated wilderness, which locals and visitors use for a variety of nonmotorized recreation. Public lands are a huge reason for New Mexico’s high tourism numbers—which hit a record high in 2016—and studies have consistently shown that outdoor recreation can transform rural areas into gateway communities to their surrounding public lands and waters.

New Mexico
Hikers wade through a box canyon on the Upper San Francisco River. New Mexico’s lands and waters are a driver for local tourism.
Nathan Newcomer

4. Economy

Every year outdoor recreation generates nearly $10 billion in consumer spending in New Mexico, along with roughly $3 billion in wages and salaries, and $623 million in state and local tax revenues, and directly employs 99,000 people.

Economic opportunities from outdoor recreation abound not only in restaurants, hotels, and outfitters, but also in other types of establishments that help sustain and grow rural communities, including gas stations and hardware and grocery stores.

More than 150 local businesses have signed a pledge of support for wild and scenic designation for the Gila and San Francisco rivers.

 

5. Local support

New Mexico
Community members express support for designating the Gila and San Francisco rivers as wild and scenic at a Sept. 12, 2019, meeting of the Grant County Commission, which subsequently voted in favor of the designation.
Joey Keefe

A diverse coalition of tribes, sportsmen, veterans, small business owners, faith and civic organizations, local municipalities and governments, and outdoor recreation and conservation organizations has been working for decades to protect the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries as wild and scenic. Today, in addition to the support of the Grant County Commission, protective designation is supported by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Fort Sill Apache Tribe, City of Bayard, Town of Hurley, and the Town of Silver City.

Pew joins the local community in urging New Mexico senators Tom Udall (D) and Martin Heinrich (D) to introduce legislation in the U.S. Senate to protect these vital and irreplaceable waterways.

John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program.

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