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At last, Gila River lovers can rest easy, knowing that the river in New Mexico is protected from an ecologically harmful and ridiculously expensive diversion. Since the passage of the Arizona Water Settlements Act in 2004, the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, with its partners in the Gila Conservation Coalition, has been working to protect the Gila River. In 2021, we won!

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In an era when dams in the American West are being dismantled, and when climate change is contributing to record low river levels, the NM CAP Entity, a quasi-governmental group, was a throwback to an outmoded age, insisting that diverting the Gila River was the only way to spend Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) funding. Fortunately, more progressive people, politicians, nonprofits, and ideas prevailed, and the Gila will remain the last wild river in New Mexico.

The question before us now is how to allocate $80 million in AWSA funding on non-diversion water projects that will conserve water, serve the greatest number of people in southwest New Mexico, and protect the river and its native flora and wildlife. Taking into consideration recommendations from New Mexico’s Water Trust Board, this decision will ultimately be made by another state agency, the Interstate Stream Commission.

For more than 15 years, UGWA fought for the Gila River. You can be sure that we will continue to push for water security in southwest New Mexico while protecting the Gila.

A permanent way to protect the Gila River and its major tributaries is through Wild and Scenic River legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. When passed, the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, championed by New Mexico’s Senator Martin Heinrich and Senator Ben Ray Luján, will protect about 450 miles of rivers and streams, almost all of them in the Gila National Forest, including the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas.

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Passage of this legislation would ensure that river and stream water quality is maintained and would restrict activities that could harm the values for which the river segment was designated. It would prevent the construction of new dams or other harmful water developments.

Wild and Scenic River designation preserves current uses of the river segment. It has no effect on hunting or fishing, and neither prevents current public access nor opens up private lands to the public. If livestock grazing presently takes place on land next to a designated river segment, such use can continue as long as it does not degrade the values for which the river reach was designated.

In short, Wild and Scenic River status keeps the designated river or stream as it is today, to be enjoyed by future generations.

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At 3.3 million acres, the Gila National Forest could be a vast stronghold of plant and wildlife habitats, at a time when global biodiversity is plummeting. The revision of the Forest Service’s 1986 forest plan is an opportunity to ensure that the land and water in this ancient landscape is protected for the good of humanity and our non-human neighbors.

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Following are some of the ways in which this protection could be accomplished under a revised plan:

  • Exclude or limit livestock in sensitive riparian areas
  • To the extent possible, reroute roads that travel through rivers and streams
  • Recommend increased wilderness areas (wilderness can only be designated by an act of Congress)
  • Recommend river and stream segments for Wild and Scenic River designation (Congress must pass Wild & Scenic legislation)
  • Enact protections for high elevation coniferous forest to safeguard plant and animal species that are vulnerable due to climate change
  • Ensure that habitats of threatened and endangered plants and animals have additional protection
  • Right-size the forest road system by eliminating redundant, purposeless, and harmful roads

The Gila National Forest expects to release its final forest plan in spring 2022. Although there is no associated public comment period, release of the final plan kicks off a 90-day objection process when individuals and nonprofits can file objections. UGWA, along with our conservation colleagues, will carefully review the final plan and file an objection if we find it to be inadequate.

In conservation work, the onslaught of earth-destroying ideas can be overwhelming, with the victories few and far-between. So when we actually succeed in our protection efforts, it’s important to celebrate and let our supporters know that their actions bore fruit.

Here’s the true story of a seriously bad idea that ultimately ended well. In 2017, the US Air Force proposed the creation of new and expanded Military Operations Areas in the airspace above the Gila National Forest, including the Gila, Aldo Leopold, and Blue Range Wilderness Areas.

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The cause for alarm was the proposal from Holloman Air Force Base, which included:

  • conducting military trainings over 7 million acres, including the Gila National Forest and nearby rural communities
  • flying 10,000 annual sorties, an average of 30 per day (a sortie is defined as a flight leaving and returning to Holloman Air Force Base)
  • dropping 15,000 flares over the Gila National Forest, which, in the last 20 years, has experienced the largest wildfires in the state’s history
  • releasing 15,000 bundles of chaff, each containing millions of tiny aluminum-coated fibers, that could harm wildlife and air and water quality
  • low level and supersonic flights that would disturb wildlife, livestock, and quiet recreationists

The local community responded with a swift and vehement, “Absolutely not!” UGWA, other conservation groups, and concerned individuals quickly educated ourselves on the issues and organized the considerable opposition. At public meetings and comment periods, the conservation community submitted thousands of substantive comments opposing disruptive military training maneuvers over the Gila. Partially in response to this outpouring of opposition to F-16s roaring over southwest New Mexico, the Air Force released its decision in early 2021 to conduct its military trainings close to Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, over lands that are heavily impacted by oil and gas extraction.

This victory against the US Air Force demonstrates the effectiveness of organizing against the forces of environmental degradation. It is important to acknowledge our collective power and  remain vigilant in our protection of the Gila River and Gila National Forest.

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