U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich deserve a round of applause for introducing legislation to add segments of the Gila and San Francisco rivers to the nation’s Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The language of the bill provides permanent protection for just under 450 miles of these rivers in southwestern New Mexico, ensuring they will remain in their free-flowing conditions for generations to come.
As a native New Mexican, I know how much these rivers mean to the people of this state. Silver City and other nearby communities have long relied on access to the Gila River to maintain a traditional way of life. Look to evidence of Mogollon settlements here dating to 9500 B.C., or the history of the Fort Sill Apache’s relationship to the river, which persists to this day, and it’s clear the Gila River has always been an integral part of the communities that call the region home. A Wild and Scenic designation guarantees that the identified segments will remain as they are today, allowing the adjacent communities to continue their traditional uses of the rivers.
Love for the Gila and San Francisco rivers stretches beyond Grant County, however. Providing opportunities for solace and outdoor recreation, these rivers attract visitors from Albuquerque and across New Mexico every year. Kayakers, anglers, campers, hikers and more cherish these waters, and these visitors provide a steady flow of income for small businesses in the area. Data from the recently formed New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division reveal that outdoor recreation generates $1.2 billion for the state’s economy annually. Businesses in Silver City ranging from Morning Star Sports, a local outfitter, to Javalina Coffee House have adamantly signaled their support for Wild and Scenic designations because they know outdoor enthusiasts help keep their doors open.
In addition to the two small businesses mentioned above, more than 150 Grant County businesses are supportive of this legislation, as are tribes, faith leaders, civic organizations, local governments, sportsmen and women, and countless others. Sens. Udall and Heinrich did what good elected leaders do: They listened to their constituents and used the powers of their offices to meet their needs.
During my time as mayor of Albuquerque, I placed an emphasis on the production of clean energy and its conservation because I know New Mexico’s natural beauty is our calling card. Leaders must be environmentally conscious and push initiatives that sustain our landscapes for the sake of future generations of New Mexicans. Protecting the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic is a great way to do just that, preserving critical ecosystems in one of the most beautiful sections of the state.
The introduction of the Wild and Scenic legislation comes at a critical time, as New Mexicans are longing to get outside after all the stress and disruption caused by the current global pandemic. I urge all New Mexicans to listen to the advice of public health experts and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and stay home as much as possible for now. Mask up! However, when it is finally safe to move about the state freely again, I hope all residents of this great state will get a chance to enjoy the wild Gila and San Francisco rivers.
Martin Chavez is a board member with the national nonprofit conservation group, American Rivers.