Water is Life

In the arid West, we are all connected by rivers; they are the lifeblood of our land, our economy, and our way of life.

In honor of the recent World Water Day and the 50th anniversary of the Wild Scenic Rivers Act, Audubon New Mexico would like to share a story about the Gila River from a great supporter and partner of Audubon, Dave Foreman. This intriguing story twists and turns through the history of the Gila River all while reminding us of the deep-rooted advocacy to protect the Gila River that still lives on today.

Please join the movement and help us to continue to protect the Gila River, Colorado River and other rivers in our nation that provide precious life to all living creatures by joining the American Rivers 5,000 miles, 5,000 stories movement.

By Dave Foreman

The North American Cordillera — known as the “Spine of the Continent” — runs from the Brooks Range of Alaska all the way south to the Isthmus of Panama. The Spine ties together two of the great floristic and faunal realms of the world — the Nearctic and Neotropical.

In the heart of this web of life, the Gila River drains the Mogollon Rim and Sky Islands of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico into the Colorado River and then the Sea of Cortez. The Gila’s upper headwaters on the Arizona-New Mexico border cover much of the Apache and Gila National Forests. It is here and in the Sky Islands just to the south that theNearctic and Neotropical Realms overlap to make up a world-class landscape of biological diversity, ecological jumbling, and wildness. The Gila Headwaters also make up the largest complex of mountain wilderness in North America south of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The Gila Wilderness is one of the most ecologically diverse wilderness complex in North America with overlapping and blending influences from the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, Colorado Plateau, Sky Islands, Sierra Madre, Sonoran Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert. It contains one of the largest free-flowing (undammed) headwaters watersheds left in temperate

North America and one of the largest expanses of Ancient Forest (unlogged) south of the Boreal Forest.  As a result, it harbors some of the greatest non-coastal breeding bird diversity and density in the United States and, with climate change, may provide key habitat for tropical species as ranges expand northward.

Recreational opportunities abound as well. The Gila Headwaters are one of the great birding areas in the United States with three Important Bird Areas that span the Upper, Middle andLower Gila Box gallery forests and the verdant river valley that connects them. The Gila Wilderness has long been recognized by the U.S. Forest Service as the best horsepacking wilderness in the system. The Aldo Leopold Wilderness, a portion of the Gila National Forest, has been called the “wildest” Wilderness in the West. What lies ahead for this untamed landscape that belongs to all of us?

A little over 100 years ago, the legendary Forest Ranger Aldo Leopold began to explore the little-known headwaters of the Gila River in the new National Forests along the New Mexico-Arizona line. He later wrote that when he came to the Southwest in 1909, six big roadless areas (each over 500,000 acres) remained in the nation’s National Forests. Two — the Blue Range and Gila — covered the Gila River Headwaters side by side. He fell in love with this country for long pack trips and quality hunting and fishing.

After World War I, however, there came a boom in motorcar recreation. Leopold became alarmed that soon there would be “Ford dust” everywhere, even in his beloved Gila Headwaters. He wrote a visionary proposal to make the mountain and canyon landscape drained by the three forks of the Gila River a protected roadless area. In 1924, Southwest Regional Forester Frank Pooler designated some 750,000 acres as the Gila Wilderness Area — the first area in the world specifically set aside to safeguard its wildness. In 1929, the Chief of the Forest Service took note of the Gila Wilderness and encouraged other National Forests to designate areas as “Primitive Areas.”

These regulatory designations, while better safeguarding the areas, didn’t offer permanent protection. Over the next 50 years, the Forest Service whittled away Leopold’s original GilaWilderness from 750,000 acres to 563,000 acres.

From the 1950’s to the 70’s, the Forest Service, on more than one occasion, proposed to reclassify more than one third of the remaining acres of Primitive Area from any kind of protection.  Conservationists, however, like Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society (SWNMAS) Chapter members Jim Stowe and, later Bob Langsenkamp, led the overall efforts on the Gila and demanded designation of 714,000 acres as wilderness and managed to dominate the Forest Service hearing in Silver City in December, 1972.

The Forest Service continued to evaluate designation of wilderness areas in the late 70’s and 80’s. They found hundreds of thousands of acres of wild landscapes on the Gila and Apache National Forests. Conservationists found even more. Among these areas was Lower San Francisco Canyon in both states. Ornithologists and other field biologists found the “Frisco” to be one of America’s ecological gems. The effort culminated in the New Mexico Wilderness Act of 1980 and the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. The outcome: a barebones Aldo Leopold Wilderness of only 211,000 acres, a Gila Wilderness of 569,600 acres, and a 30,000 acre Blue Wilderness Area in New Mexico. The Arizona bill left the Blue in that state as a Primitive Area. Despite strong work from southwestern New Mexico conservationists, the New Mexico bill did not give San Francisco Canyon Wilderness designation but did make it a congressional Wilderness Study Area.

The 70’s also triggered efforts to dam the wild and free flowing Gila River. Although the Gila River had several irrigation dams downstream in Arizona, its headwaters were undammed except for a few little fishing reservoirs. The upper Gila and its major tributaries were overall free flowing—one of the largest watersheds in a natural condition. But in 1978, in order to get support from powerful Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico for the Holy Grail of Arizona plumbing—the Central Arizona Project—the Arizona delegation had to cut a deal, a deal that gave New Mexico 18,000 acre feet of the Gila’s water to be stored in Hooker Dam right where the river flowed out of the Gila Wilderness Area. The preferred high dam would have transformed some 20 miles of the wild, free flowing Gila River within the Gila Wilderness intoa dead slack pool all the way back to its confluence with Sapillo Creek. The Hooker Dam scheme showed just how mighty water development was in the West for most of the 20th Century — for the major driver of the Central Arizona Project was none other than conservation icon Representative Mo Udall of Tucson, and Senator Anderson who had been a friend of Aldo Leopold’s and a steadfast backer of protecting the Gila Wilderness. The Gila National Forest took no position on Hooker Dam and the flooding of their vaunted first Wilderness Area, but assured the public that they would put a buoy line across the reservoir on the Wilderness boundary to prevent motorboats from violating the Wilderness. When conservationists organized to back a larger Gila Primitive Area addition to the Gila Wilderness than proposed by the Forest Service, they were just as steadfast against a Hooker Dam.

SWNMAS and Maricopa Audubon Society fought Hooker (and other dams) throughout the 1970s, which was the time in which dam fighters nationally organized and finally put the brakes on the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Hooker was replaced then by Conner Dam, which would not flood the Gila Wilderness but would be put at the end of the Middle Box of the Gila at the upper end of Redrock Valley. The Middle Box was a rough-and-tumble stretch of whitewater and wildness, proposed for Wilderness designation by the New Mexico Wilderness Study Committee and SWNMAS.

Conservationists fought Conner Dam valiantly and it finally drifted away only to have yet one more proposal—an estimated $1Billion diversion on the Gila River—forwarded by theState of New Mexico in 2015. Once again, SWNMAS and Audubon New Mexico are fighting hard to stop the diversion of New Mexico’s last free flowing river and preserve one of the Southwest’s largest contiguous multi-aged cottonwood gallery forest and intact native fish communities in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

While the State has yet to select a preferred diversion design, despite 10 years and $5 million dollars-worth of studies, preliminary plans have evaluated several possible diversion sites within the Gila National Forest including the roadless area immediately downstream of the Gila Wilderness and more recently the Freeport McMoRan diversion immediately upstream of the Middle Box and the forest service’s Gila River Bird Area in the Big Burro Mountains.

The Gila Wilderness is where the idea and practice of Wilderness Area designation and protection began. Since the designation of the Gila Wilderness over 90 years ago, Leopold’s vision area has been sliced and chipped away at. Since 1978, conservationists have had to fight one dam or diversion scheme after another on the Gila, San Francisco, and Blue rivers. The Gila National Forest is in the early stages of plan revision under the 2012 Forest Planning Rule. The new plan provides us with another opportunity to bestow the highest level of conservation protection on the Gila headwaters. Only protection under the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and large additions to Wilderness Areas will end these threats and oversights.

How you can help, right now

Audubon Arizona and Audubon New Mexico have joined forces to become Audubon Southwest.