Honoring the Gila Wilderness
Written by Richard Rubin as published by Taos News on July 7, 2022
The importance of our American wilderness areas has evolved despite many controversies and deserves enhanced attention now on the one hundredth anniversary of establishing the Gila Wilderness. This first is a New Mexico story. It goes beyond politics to be rightly regarded a century later as powerful enhancement of the ongoing ecology relationship to our land. Aldo Leopold is credited with inspiring the certification of this first Federally protected wilderness. Leopold’s relationship to Taos is well known for his marriage to Maria Alvira Estella Bergere of land grant heritage and his role as supervisor of the Carson National Forest in 1912-13. The home he built in Tres Piedras is a National Historic Site. However, after a near fatal rangeland snowstorm exposure and over a year recuperating from subsequent kidney failure, the Leopolds lived and worked in Albuquerque for ten years. Scholars credit this time as valuable for Aldo’s emerging transition from Forestry to Conservation, including protection of our public lands. Extensive literature has studied and described his Forest Service work, thoughtful publications, and personal life. I have been fortunate to learn much about them as volunteer steward of the historic bungalow in Tres Piedras with staff of the Carson National Forest. Due to historic preservation, archaeologic protection, and safety requirements, the house is only open to the public through authorized student groups, guided organizations, and the Leopold Writing Program. But more opportunities for his legacy’s inspiration are planned.
What do I think is important for the Taos community to consider now? First, in recognizing this centennial of the Gila Wilderness establishment, an important book of essays was just released: First and Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100, from Torrey House Press. The twenty-five contributors describe meaningful experiences with the Gila Wilderness. They include Deb Haaland, Tom Udall, Aldo Leopold, Alastair Lee Bitsoi, Beto O’Rourke, Martin Heinrich, Joy Harjo, Gabe Vasquez, Leeanna Torres, and Eve West Bessier among diverse others.
Second, we should be aware that philosophy and practices about wilderness areas range among preservation passion, multi-use government policies, political conflict over commercial exploitation, controversy over indigenous and historic culture rights, wildlife extinction, and criticism of recreational abuse by the ecologically entitled.
Third, in addition to these complex issues, there are personal values wilderness can provide us. As naturalized first-generation New Mexicans, Annette and I have memories of our own meaningful experiences in the Gila Wilderness that move us to honor this centennial and Aldo Leopold’s wisdom. We met in June of 1968, coming independently after Eastern college graduations for health care and education program service in Arizona and New Mexico. We moved to Albuquerque in 1972 when I was accepted to a medical internship at the University of New Mexico Hospitals. Two weeks before beginning work, we jeeped for backpacking to the Gila Wilderness.
Like many of the essay writers in First & Wildest, we each had unexpected and influential experiences there. I remember finding a girl from a nearby ranch and her mother after the child fell off her horse and suffered an upper arm fracture. I had learned the correct way to stabilize a fractured arm with a sling from our kit. The mother and daughter were relieved, and so was I when a Forest Service truck pulled up. This was a maturing experience for me, realizing my transition from medical student to responsible samaritan physician.
We then hiked a few miles inside the wilderness boundary from a trailhead and set up camp by one of the Gila River tributaries. Annette sought interesting photographs, especially of wildflowers. I was developing my fly-fishing skills and was excited to pursue wild trout. I explored upstream one sunny morning. An hour became several, and Annette came looking for me, worried that I was injured. She was very glad to find me just happily engrossed in fishing. Her own maturing experience was realizing the possibilities when alone in a wilderness. Her anxiety evolved to awareness that adventures included risks, that she could walk out to our vehicle, and that search and rescue efforts for me were possible. She felt confident in her resilience. I think such life events are among the values of wilderness. Beyond the philosophical, recreational, and land ethic justifications for wilderness protection, we are grateful for the personal memories. And glad they can be written about now in our later years.
Annette and Richard Rubin live in Arroyo Seco.
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