By Dan Roper
Restoring watersheds and protecting clean water are at the heart of Trout Unlimited’s work in New Mexico. But to protect our favorite rivers and streams, we need a tool that preserves their outstanding values and free-flowing nature.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was created to do just that, making it the policy of the United States that certain rivers “shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Today, this landmark law remains the highest form of protection for rivers in the United States.
In southwest New Mexico, we have a unique opportunity to protect two of the last free-flowing rivers in the American Southwest – the Gila and San Francisco Rivers. Recently, New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation known as the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act. If passed by Congress and signed into law, it would represent the largest designation of wild and scenic rivers in the state’s history, in the heart of one of the nation’s most iconic landscapes.
Anyone who’s ever backpacked under the towering pines and canyon walls along the forks of the Gila River or fished for Gila trout in the cold, clear tributaries that pour from the rugged mountains of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas, understands just how special this place is. To forever protect the wild waters of America’s first wilderness is only fitting.
The legislation honors the life and advocacy of M. H. “Dutch” Salmon, a long-time advocate for the Gila River, perhaps best known for a 200-mile wilderness canoe run down the river with his dog and cat, which he chronicled in his bestselling book, Gila Descending. The 1983 trip was inspired by the first of many dam proposals on the Gila River, and he continued his advocacy on behalf of the region’s wild rivers throughout his remaining years, helping stop three diversion projects on the Gila River and opposing recent schemes by the New Mexico CAP Entity. He also co-founded the Gila Conservation Coalition 1984 to protect the region’s rivers and surrounding public lands.
The legislation would designate over 440 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers and many of their main tributaries as wild, scenic, and recreational waters. The proposal includes nearly all of the coldwater habitat occupied by native Gila trout, a species currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and inhabiting only seventeen streams in New Mexico, all of which are slated for increased protections under the Act.
This includes streams like Mineral Creek and Whitewater Creek, two tributaries to the San Francisco that flow wild from their headwaters in the Gila Wilderness to the wilderness boundary and have been at the center of efforts to recover native Gila trout. It also includes Willow Creek, where the Rio Grande/Gila chapter of TU gathers members and volunteers twice each year to collect data and stream measurements to guide future habitat improvements to benefit native fish; and Spruce Creek, a remote tributary and source of the fifth remnant Gila trout population, the genetically distinct Spruce Creek lineage.
The proposal also includes Las Animas Creek, home to the southernmost population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, New Mexico’s only other native trout species.
For decades, water boosters have developed plan after plan to construct damns, diversions, pump stations and all sorts of ill-conceived projects to create reservoirs, roads and infrastructure where today these wild rivers still flow. Permanent protection of these rivers through wild and scenic designation would help put the worst of these schemes to bed for good while still protecting individual water rights in the region and economic activities like farming and ranching.
Just last month news surfaced of yet another ill-advised plan. This time it’s a proposal to construct a 200-foot dam across the San Francisco River, proposed by the same company behind plans to build similar projects on the Little Colorado River just miles outside of Grand Canyon National Park.
If he were with us today, Dutch Salmon would surely be helping lead the fight against one more threat to the region’s rivers. Passage of the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic Rivers Act presents us with an opportunity to honor Dutch’s lifetime of advocacy for wild rivers by protecting the outstanding values and free-flowing nature of these rivers and streams for good.
Dan Roper is the New Mexico public lands coordinator for TU’s Sportsman’s Conservation Project.