SILVER CITY – One thing M.H. “Dutch” Salmon has come to know is that if your cause is protecting things that are wild and natural, the fight is never done.
Take, for example, the Gila River, which Salmon lives near, fishes in, has canoed upon, has loved for more than three decades and battled to keep free for much of that time.
“It’s the last river in New Mexico to show us what a natural river should look like,” said Salmon, 70, a publisher, author and outdoorsman who lives just outside this southwestern New Mexico town.
A big reason for that, Salmon notes, is that the Gila is the only New Mexico river without a dam on it. Not that people don’t keep trying to change that.
“Certain people can’t see any rationale in a stream flow beyond diversion and consumption,” Salmon wrote in his 2008 book “Gila Libre: New Mexico’s Last Wild River” ( University of New Mexico Press).
In the 1970s, Salmon said, a dam was proposed for the Gila between Turkey and Mogollon creeks, one of his favorite fishing areas. That proposed dam, Hooker Dam, failed because it would have backed water up into the Gila Wilderness area and no one was about to let that happen.
Then in the ’80s, the Conner Dam was conceived for 20 miles farther down the Gila, in the Middle Box Canyon. That didn’t happen because opposition from environmentalists was strong and the project would have destroyed riparian habitats and threatened the spikedace and loach minnows.
“I thought we were home free, and then in 2004 the Arizona Water Settlements Act came along,” Salmon said.
That federal act set the stage for the Gila River diversion project, which has Salmon on guard once more.
On the way back to Albuquerque from the Lordsburg area, where I’d been working on a Journal story, I stopped to visit with Salmon at his home. We talked in a part of his house devoted to his publishing business – High-Lonesome Books, which he established in 1986. He turns out one to four titles a year – Western Americana, Old West history, outdoor books.
In 1986, High-Lonesome published “Gila Descending,” Salmon’s account of his 200-mile journey – by foot and canoe – down the Gila River. He did the 1983 trip in the company of his hound dog, Rojo, and a tomcat referred to only as “that damn cat.”
“It looked at that time like one of those projects (the Hooker or Conner dams) would go through, and I wanted to see the river as nature made it. I wanted to say goodbye to the river,” he said.
Turns out he didn’t have to then. But the Gila diversion plan means he might have to yet.
The settlement act makes $128 million in federal money available to New Mexico for the purpose of diverting up to 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila for various uses in the southwestern New Mexico counties of Luna, Hidalgo, Grant and Catron.
Steered by New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission, the project would divert Gila water near Turkey Creek, Salmon’s favorite place to fish for bass and catfish, to off-stream storage.
Critics point out that cost estimates range from $300 million to $1 billion – much more than is available from the federal funds; that not enough water is available from the Gila to make the project cost-effective; and that it is not clear who would benefit from the diverted waters or where additional money would come from.
Supporters consider the project important to the water security of towns, communities and irrigation ditch associations in the four-county area.
“It’s an example of a good, old Western states water story,” Salmon said. “The proponents of the diversion don’t have a buyer for the water and they don’t have an identifiable end point for the water. But the mantra in Western states is you don’t let water go to other states if you can help it.”
Salmon is from Syracuse, N.Y., but no matter where he is, he’s at home outdoors.
“I was fishing when I was just a little kid,” he said. “My father was a hunter and a fisherman, so I got into it early. For a long time, I’ve had an addiction to the sporting life.”
In 1979, he moved to Catron County, “25 miles off a paved road, between Quemado and Horse Springs,” because he found out he could hunt with hounds in New Mexico. He has lived in Grant County since 1982.
Salmon has Parkinson’s disease now and sometimes walks with the aid of a steadying stick. But the disease has not stopped him from traveling to Santa Fe to attend Senate committee hearings related to the Gila diversion issue.
It has not stopped him from fishing the Gila or hunting with hounds. It has not dimmed the fire in his eyes. It has not curtailed his affection for the Gila, a river he did not love at first sight but came to respect with a passion.
“It was wilder than I first thought,” he said. “It had more fish in it than I thought and had a greater variety of fish in it.”
He can’t understand why some people want to violate the Gila, tame it.
“It’s just a different way people look at the resource,” Salmon said. “I see a natural area, recreation and wildlife. They see no beneficial use without consumption. They see commerce.”
And the fight goes on.