Note: On May 7, 2020, New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, which would protect roughly 440 miles of the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries as wild and scenic. This article was also updated to reflect a correction in the percentage of miles of rivers designated as wild and scenic.
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:
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 124.3 miles (0.1 percent) of the 108,104 miles of these New Mexico rivers are designated as wild and scenic.
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.
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.
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.
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.