The great western writer Wallace Stegner once wrote that America’s great outdoors represent “the geography of hope.”
At this time of grave crisis for our nation, millions of Americans — many of them out of work, worried about their health, and struggling to put food on the table — are seeking hope. Increasingly, as in Stegner’s time, they are turning to our nation’s outdoor spaces as places of refuge and as sources of inspiration.
Our public lands and waters can also serve as a concrete part of our national recovery. During previous economic downturns — including the Great Depression and Great Recession — ambitious conservation efforts have been key components of America’s economic recovery. That’s because conservation and economic development go hand in hand. Time and again, we have seen that protecting public lands for all to enjoy fuels economic growth.
Before the onset of this crisis, outdoor recreation was fueling some of the greatest job growth in New Mexico, and across the nation, particularly in our rural communities. Last year, the outdoor recreation economy was responsible for an estimated $900 million in economic activity and millions of jobs nationwide. Conserving and expanding recreation opportunities in our treasured public lands and waters will be key to restarting this important part of our economy.
One such natural treasure is southwestern New Mexico’s Gila River, one of the last wild rivers in the entire American Southwest. The naturally flowing headwaters of the Gila shaped the steep canyon walls, broad river banks, and open meadows of the Gila Wilderness, America’s first protected wilderness area.
As the birthplace of our national wilderness system, the Gila Wilderness is already one of New Mexico’s most popular outdoor destinations. But without permanent protection, the waters that serve as its living heartbeat remain vulnerable to harmful development. Last year, the national advocacy organization American Rivers declared that the Gila was the most endangered river in the country.
That’s why we recently introduced legislation to designate much of the greater Gila and San Francisco watershed in New Mexico as wild and scenic, under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. For more than 50 years, this bipartisan law has allowed us to conserve segments of rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for future generations.
Wild and scenic designation has a proven track record of enhancing water quality and spurring economic development and increased recreation opportunities on rivers across the country. Wild and Scenic River designation for the Gila would help southwestern New Mexico tap into river-related recreation and tourism that contributes more than $97 billion to the overall U.S. economy each year.
For thousands of years, the headwaters of the Gila sustained indigenous cultures. And for generations, local families in New Mexico have hiked, camped, floated, and fished in the Gila. Simply put: the Gila is a jewel of New Mexico — and the whole United States – and it has long deserved our highest form of protection.
When we are asked why we are introducing major conservation legislation in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis, our answer is clear: because conservation can — and must — be part of our economic recovery and our national renewal.
As we grapple with the deep health and economic pain brought on by this crisis, we must move forward with a clear vision of how we want to rebuild our economy. We should invest in conservation and in our future, and put sustainable growth front and center – to put us on a stronger footing moving forward.
We don’t need to stop at Wild and Scenic designation for the Gila. Let’s infuse more federal dollars into our national parks, wildlife refuges, national trail system, and national forests to create jobs and expand recreational opportunities in communities all across America. Let’s finally provide full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, America’s most popular and successful conservation program. Let’s expand the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps and put young people and veterans to work protecting and improving our outdoor spaces.
We should mount a historic campaign to invest in forward-looking economic drivers like our public lands. This proposition is a win-win: each of these investments will fuel economic recovery and create a cleaner and healthier future for our children, so they too can enjoy the beauty of this great nation.
Our nation’s geography — our treasured outdoor places — are filled with hope. Let’s turn that hope into action and invest in the outdoors to jumpstart our national recovery.