February 12, 2020

Udall, Heinrich Seek Comment on Wild & Scenic Legislation to Protect the Gila River

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) announced that they are circulating draft legislation to protect the Gila River by designating portions of the river and its watershed as Wild and Scenic. The lawmakers are seeking public comments and stakeholder input on the draft legislation.

The Greater Gila watershed, which includes the San Francisco River and other main tributaries, comprises the largest remaining network of naturally flowing river segments in the Southwestern United States. New Mexicans have cherished the Gila for generations for its spectacular scenery and wildlife habitat, shared family experiences, unique fishing and recreational opportunities, abundant cultural resources, and as a clean water source for countless traditional uses.

A webpage with a summary of the legislation, maps detailing proposed protection areas, frequently asked questions, and information about how to submit comments is available HERE.

“The Gila River is an irreplaceable New Mexico treasure,” Udall said. “The Gila watershed is one of the last wild, undammed rivers in the Southwest, it is one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in our state, and it is one of New Mexico’s most iconic outdoor destinations – fueling our thriving outdoor economy. New Mexicans have enjoyed the natural beauty of the Gila alongside traditional uses for generations, and by working together we can pass on that shared heritage to future generations. My father, Stewart Udall, helped to create the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act because he knew that preserving wild places was the right thing to do for our children and our economy. With the river under threat, a wild and scenic designation would permanently protect the Gila’s traditional uses and benefit the regional economy for the long term. I look forward to continuing to work with local communities to finalize this legislation to reflect the input of everyone involved, so we can continue to enjoy all that the Gila River has to offer.”

“If any place deserves Wild and Scenic River designation, it’s New Mexico’s Gila River,” said Heinrich. “I’m proud to work with local leaders in southwestern New Mexico and Senator Tom Udall to draft the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act, aptly named to honor the life and legacy of Silver City-based author and conservationist M.H. Dutch Salmon. There are very few places left like the headwaters of the Gila—a place near and dear to my heart and special to so many New Mexicans. The upper Gila and San Francisco rivers are some of the last naturally-flowing tributaries of the greater Colorado River watershed. Nearly 100 years ago, the spectacular landscapes and ecosystems shaped by these waters inspired the establishment of America’s first wilderness area. Wild and scenic designation will permanently protect the Gila’s free-flowing segments, attract more visitors to southwestern New Mexico, and grow our outdoor recreation industry.” 

Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, creating the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The Act preserves designated free-flowing rivers or river segments for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. Congress passed the Act at the height of the modern dam-building era to ensure that the construction of new dams was balanced with the protection of select river segments that possess nationally significant values. This landmark law is the highest form of protection for rivers in the United States. Congress has amended the original legislation to include additional river segments and how the new segments should be managed. In their legislation, Senators Udall and Heinrich are similarly tailoring management of the proposed river segments to the needs of our region in such a way as protect the traditional river values and uses while also permanently protecting the free-flowing nature of these river segments.

The legislation outline is below:

Protect Free-Flowing River Segments

- The draft legislation would protect the traditional river values and uses while also permanently protecting the free-flowing nature of these river segments.

- The bill would also permanently protect the outstanding recreational values found along many of the river segments, which include hunting, fishing (including of Gila trout), hiking, camping, backpacking, horseback-riding, pack-mule trips, floating, rafting, kayaking, stargazing, canyoneering, OHV trail riding, and other recreational pursuits.

- The bill would allow for continued traditional uses such as grazing and irrigating.

- The bill would permanently protect the extraordinary scenic values found along many of the river segments.

- The bill would permanently protect the exceptional geological values and their remarkable display of 30 million years of change.

- The bill would permanently protect the unique habitat of native species assemblages, including habitat of the Gila Trout, loach minnow, spikedace, Gila chub, narrow-headed gartersnake, northern Mexican gartersnake, Chiricahua leopard frog, yellow-billed cuckoo, and southwestern willow-flycatcher.

- The bill would permanently protect the numerous historical and cultural values, which include the Mogollon civilization dating to 9,500 B.C.; the home of the Apaches; Mimbreños; Mountain Men; Buffalo Soldiers, and the birthplace of the American Wilderness System. 

Protection for Private Lands and Public Access

- The bill would not change how private landowners decide to use their own land or condemn private land.

- The bill would not limit public access to public lands, nor does it open up private lands to public access.

- The bill would not affect grazing permits, including for currently vacant allotments on federal land.

- The bill would not have any effect on existing valid water rights, interstate water compacts, or existing irrigation or water delivery operations.