Udall, Heinrich Introduce Wild & Scenic Legislation to Protect the Gila River

The Greater Gila watershed comprises the largest remaining network of naturally flowing river segments in the Southwest; The legislation, incorporating input from a diverse array of New Mexico voices, will benefit New Mexico’s outdoor economy by designating portions in the Gila River Basin and Gila National Forest as Wild and Scenic

WASHINGTON—Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) announced the introduction of legislation to designate portions of the Gila River, its watershed and other rivers in the Gila National Forest as Wild and Scenic Rivers. The legislation will be a boon to New Mexico’s outdoor economy, while protecting an irreplaceable natural resource for future generations of New Mexicans. The senators developed the legislation taking into account the large amount of feedback provided by community members, private landowners, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, local officials, farmers, ranchers and others.

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 protection areas and frequently asked questions is available HERE.

“The Gila River is an irreplaceable New Mexico treasure,” said Udall, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. “The Gila is one of the last wild 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 outdoor economy. As we all gain a deeper appreciation for access to the outdoors and our dependence on the natural world during this difficult time, protecting unique ecosystems like the Gila watershed is more important than ever. Support for protecting the Gila is deep and widespread. This legislation is a ray of hope for the future, and it will help to build and protect local economies at a time when they need it the most. New Mexico families 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 enact 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. This balanced legislation, developed after extensive outreach and taking into account a diverse array of New Mexico voices, will permanently protect the Gila’s traditional uses and benefit the regional economy for the long term. After listening closely to New Mexicans, we are beginning the formal legislative process – introducing legislation that will preserve the Gila River for generations to come.”

“If any place deserves Wild and Scenic River designation, it’s New Mexico’s Gila River. There are very few places left on Earth where you can understand what the saying ‘water is life’ truly means,” said Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I can think of no greater example than the headwaters of the Gila—a place near and dear to my heart and special to so many New Mexicans. Nearly 100 years ago, the spectacular landscapes and ecosystems shaped by these waters inspired the establishment of America’s first wilderness area. It is long past time that we offer the highest form of protection to these waters that New Mexicans have long valued. 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. I’ve been proud to work with Senator Udall and community leaders to develop legislation with widespread support from local stakeholders in southwestern New Mexico. Passing this legislation is the best way for us to conserve the wild and scenic characteristics of this watershed for future generations and to honor the legacy of all of the New Mexicans, like Dutch Salmon, who devoted their whole lives to protecting the Gila.”

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.

Support for this legislation from local community leaders, sportsmen and women, business leaders and local residents can be found HERE.

The legislation outline is below:

Protect Free-Flowing River Segments

  • The bill will protect the traditional river values and uses while also permanently protecting the free-flowing nature of these river segments.
  • The bill will 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 protects continued uses such as grazing and irrigating.
  • The bill will permanently protect the extraordinary scenic values found along many of the river segments.
  • The bill will permanently protect the exceptional geological values and their remarkable display of 30 million years of change.
  • The bill will 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 will 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.
  • The bill will allow for robust public participation in the development of the Comprehensive River Management Plan, including by local and tribal governments as well as political subdivisions of the state like Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Protections for Private Lands and Public Access

  • The bill will not condemn private land or interests in land.
  • The bill will not change how private landowners decide to use their own land. That is a matter of state and local government, not federal designation.
  • The bill will not change the jurisdiction of the State of New Mexico over state lands, water rights, or fish and wildlife.
  • The bill will not limit public access to public lands, nor does it open up private lands to public access.
  • The bill will not affect grazing permits, including for currently vacant allotments on federal land.
  • The bill will not amend or affect the Arizona Water Settlements Act.
  • The bill will not have any effect on existing valid water rights, interstate water compacts, or existing irrigation or water delivery operations.
  • The bill will not reduce the ability of land managers and partners to undertake projects and activities that restore the health of our rivers, forests, and sensitive species populations.
  • The bill will not alter Native American treaty rights.