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Revisiting & Rethinking the Gila

First and Wildest Book

As a group of diverse authors and contributors to the new book First & Wildest; The Gila Wilderness at 100 traveled from congressional office to congressional office in the hot and muggy June weather of Washington D.C. it was hard not to contend with the reality that at the same time the biggest fires in New Mexico’s history were still uncontained.

It was also hard not to think about the fact that 100 years earlier in June 1922, Aldo Leopold himself was helping to assess and contain wildfires on the Gila while implementing a new forest inspection methodology. As he engaged the rugged Gila, encompassing over 550,000 acres, he contemplated a new management objective, the exclusion of roads and development of any kind.

Created by a super-volcano forty million years ago, the Gila with its deep canyons, sheer cliffs, high mesas and overall functioning ecosystem had made a deep impression on Leopold during his very first visit in 1919.  But the 1922 visit, fortified by a longer tenure in the Forest Service and new conversations with like-minded colleagues such as Arthur Carhart, compelled Leopold to put forth a “Wilderness Area” recommendation to his superiors in the agency. It would take two more years for the proposal to work its way through the forest service bureaucracy before ultimately becoming the world’s first ever officially “designated” wilderness area. It would be another forty years before the United States Congress would pass the Wilderness Act which now provides protections and management guidance on over 109 million acres across the country.

Leopold was pragmatic enough to know that even this new Wilderness designation would not alone ensure the health of the Gila because grazing, which would continue to be allowed, was already creating erosion problems. But Leopold also recognized that this was a new and unprecedented way for the Forest Service, or the United States government, to think – let alone act.

Landscape with large tree, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico, 1927

Sure enough, as we approach 2024 and the 100th Anniversary of the formal adoption of the Gila Wilderness Plan, there are continuing challenges of managing feral livestock, supporting the recovery of Mexican wolves, protecting the Gila’s precious water resources, conserving rare endemic species, and managing fire and recreation amidst climate change and new technologies. This is all unfolding at the same time the conservation movement is attempting to continue its sincere interest in overall environmental health while reconciling the fact that not everyone benefits from, or has equal access to, healthy lands and waters.

These realities make for a fascinating moment to “pause for breath” and consider how the Gila, and indeed the entire Wilderness System, emerged, as well as its current cultural context, and most importantly its future.

Fortunately, all of this is aided by the publication of First and Wildest a new collection of essays, published by Torrey House Press in collaboration with WildEarth Guardians that examine the Gila from various biological, ecological, and cultural perspectives. I was intrigued when the editor, Elizabeth Allen approached the Leopold Foundation to better understand the Gila’s Leopoldian context and consider if an essay by Leopold made sense to be included. Intrigue quickly grew into excitement as I learned of Elizabeth’s vision.

First & Wildest is available at our online bookstore.

After reviewing the early galleys of the book, excitement gave way to appreciation because First & Wildest is a wonderful and deserved 100th birthday gift to the Gila. The book is a truly beautiful, elegant, and eloquent model of the approach we need to be using to revisit our past, rectify our present, and re-ground ourselves in the thinking and caring needed to ensure that our efforts to protect wild and sacred places are intentional, comprehensive, and inclusive.

The group of contributors that trudged from congressional office to congressional office included a Nuevomexicana fish biologist, an archeologist, a birder, a photographer, environmental advocates, a pastor, and a delegation of the nant’an (chief) and beh goz ani (attorney general) from the Chiricahua Apache Nation.  Not only did we successfully elevate this upcoming Centennial on the New Mexico Congressional Delegation’s radar we also met with Chair Mallory and her team at the White House Council on Environmental Quality to discuss a range of issues and potential actions to better steward the Gila now and into the future.

Quoting Leopold at the podium is White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, Brenda Mallory.

Contributors, a few community members, and Kirsten Johanna Allen from Torrey House Press, met with elected officials and members of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in D.C.
Contributors in front of the Capitol; First & Wildest book circulating the halls of Congress and the White House!

Advanced in the exchanges were short term interventions, such as removing feral livestock, improving grazing practices, enforcing allowable recreation activities, and better fire management protocols, to longer term legislative tools such as the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, or additional large landscape designations – perhaps National Monument status.  Other approaches emerged including shifting from the current “Multiple Use” mandate on the Gila to managing specifically for biodiversity and climate resilience, or co-management, or even shifting roles/responsibilities of the federal government and the Chiricahua Apache for whom the Gila, which they call nde Benah, is their sacred homeland.

We still have time to use this moment in time, in combination with our imagination and influence, to craft a vibrant and vital vision for the future that allows the Gila to continue revolutionizing how society, or at least Western society, conceives of its connection and relationship to land.  So sit down with First & Wildest to better appreciate this special place and help start a conversation centering on how to keep the Gila wild for centuries to come.