WildEarth Guardians staff prepare for launch of “First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100”

WildEarth Guardians is helping to share the many voices of the Greater Gila Bioregion of New Mexico and Arizona as a way to celebrate the people, places, and wild things of this iconic national landscape—and America’s first wilderness area. Threats continue to put pressure on the resources and people of the region and I’m regularly in the field to learn about and share these stories. Here are some of my updates:

Trip 1: Interviews for the anthology book trailer

In case you haven’t heard, WildEarth Guardians—with the unrivaled support and guidance of Torrey House Press and editor Elizabeth Allen—will be releasing First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100, an anthology celebrating the centennial of the Gila Wilderness. The book will be published on May 17, 2022 and I encourage you to pre-order your own copy here.

In preparation for the book launch, I took to the road with a small film crew in mid-February to shoot a short promotion trailer. We wanted to interview as many contributors as possible to ask: Why the Gila? Why now?

I’m not well-versed in the careful art of interviewing. And given the exceptional list of authors, poets, politicians, photographers, and conservation experts who contributed to the anthology, to admit intimidation would be an understatement. But here’s the thing. It’s a lesson I learn again and again but am always grateful for the resounding refrain: people long to share their love of place, in this case, their deep and vibrant love of the Gila.

We conducted 15 interviews in seven days, most of them in person. And each time I sat down face-to-face with a fellow lover of this land, at first mention of the Gila their eyes would light up and stories would pour forth of wild (mis)adventures, once-in-a-lifetime bird sightings, barefoot children playing in the river, favorite vistas, epic elk hunts, and on and on. It’s instantaneous, this connection to place. Evoked through so much time and lived experience, through the way landscapes like the Gila penetrate our very being and stick to us, live in us, in ways unique to the great wild world. And it’s why, when asked to help celebrate and protect it, the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

Trip 2: Documentary of Mogollon mining threat

The tiny community of Mogollon, New Mexico is nestled deep in the foothills of the Mogollon Mountains, just a mile or so north of the Gila Wilderness boundary, and accessed by one of the most treacherously winding, narrow roads I’ve ever navigated. Founded in the late 19th century, the town underwent the usual boom-bust cycle of many early mining towns, eventually vacating most of its residents and slowly converting the local economy to tourism and the arts. The current full-time population hovers around 15, with retirees who relish the peace and quiet, a handful of artists, a restaurant, a museum, and one old hotel, called the Silver Creek Inn, run by Stanley King and Kathy Knapp.

Filming the pie lady of Pie Town. Photo by Leia Barnett.

I met Stanley and Kathy through friends of friends of Catron County residents I’d connected with via somewhat random outreach and word-of-mouth. Soon after our introduction, they filled me in on the developing threat of a mining resurgence, as new mining exploration was taking place within a half mile of town on a few acres of private land. The residents were vehemently opposing this.

It’s difficult to capture just what exactly is so compelling about this little town and its small collection of inhabitants who are fighting so valiantly to protect the place they love. At its core, I think it represents what it means to be in community, to consider yourself not only part of a gathering of humans, but part of an ecology of trees and owls and wolves and streams and sky. To take this membership seriously is to value the safety of that larger community as much as the safety of yourself and those you love. It’s a recognition that the things we depend upon most basically—clean air and clean water—are not guaranteed. And it therefore becomes our responsibility to ensure the systems and protections are in place to guard those necessities, namely, intact, resilient ecosystems.

And so we made a film about the guardians of Mogollon. The characters are exceptional, the storyline full of plot twists, colorful toques, 40-year-long restoration projects, blackberry pies made by the pie lady of Pie Town, and real-life rotary phones. We can’t wait to share it with you. Stay tuned.

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About the Author

Leia Barnett | Greater Gila Campaigner, WildEarth Guardians

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