An imperiled landscape under siege

The Greater Gila region is an exceptional landscape. It is exceptional for its biodiversity, which is greater than that of Yellowstone. It is exceptional for its cultural significance, as it is the traditional homelands for 18 different federally recognized tribes. It is exceptional for its cultural history, which dates back to over 10,000 years ago. It is exceptional for its size and scale, at over 10 million acres, five different ecoregions, four different designated wilderness areas, and three separate mountain ranges. And it is exceptional for the place that it holds in the hearts and minds of many New Mexicans, as a place to backpack deep into the Black Range Mountains, a place to fish in our state’s last free flowing river, to star gaze under unparalleled dark skies, to experience the elk hunt of a lifetime. There is no other landscape in the West that is both an ecological and cultural nexus cherished by so many.

And the Greater Gila is under threat. The megadrought that continues to bear down upon the Southwest threatens the health of the rivers and the vulnerable plant, animal, and human communities that rely upon them. The continued livestock grazing of these distressed ecosystems perpetuates their increasing fragility. A Tucson-based company just proposed a new copper and gold mining operation in the Burro Mountains.The Holloman Air Force Base recently proposed expanding jet training over the Greater Gila, although this has stalled. For now. A private entity just received their preliminary approval for a water storage pump facility on the lower San Francisco River. And the persecuted population of Mexican Gray wolves continues to aspire to recover, but instead teeter on the brink due to agency mismanagement and a lack of meaningful carnivore coexistence legislation.

Each of these threats is representative of larger national issues that continue to jeopardize the health of our communities, the robustness of the ecosystems we rely upon, and the resilience of our planet. The F-16s that buzz the tops of the ponderosa pines and shake the hatchling chickadees from their nests high atop Hillsboro Peak are an expression of the increased militarization of the borderlands, a tradition that has shaped our national narrative since Woodrow Wilson first signed into law sweeping constraints on immigration. The United States Government’s often xenophobic border wall agenda has for too long come at the expense of human health and safety, ecosystem resilience, and equitable and just policies for all affected communities.

The General Mining Act of 1872 continues to expose our public lands to the rapacious agendas  of extractive industry. The laws established in this act remained mostly untouched and heavily in favor of mining companies until former Senator Udall and current Representative Grijalva made some modifications to them in 2019. But multinational mining companies still literally get away with murder. Anyone who’s seen the scar of the Chino Mine outside Silver City knows there is nothing eco-friendly about an open pit mine. The barren red and yellow canyon of that cavernous scar has become a lifeless landscape all to itself. Not to mention the environmental effects that will be felt in those surrounding communities for centuries to come.

Additionally, we know that Indigenous communities are fighting hard to protect their sacred lands from this misguided, monomaniacal enterprise. The San Carlos Apache and their representative non-profit Apache Stronghold have been fiercely fighting to save their sacred lands of Chi’chil Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, from the profit-mongering objectives of the multinational mining corporation Resolution Copper. The Apache were forcibly and violently removed from the Greater Gila landscape as recently as the end of the 19th century. The displacing effects of these unfettered, unregulated industries reverberate across the landscape of the American southwest.

And if we’re on the topic of resource exploitation, water should most certainly be included in the conversation. The Greater Gila houses the watersheds of several important rivers, including the San Francisco, the Gila, and the Mimbres. All three make up a portion of the Colorado River Basin, an already imperiled, over-used, and mismanaged hydrological system. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently issued a preliminary permit for a pump storage facility for a site near Lake Powell, similar to the one proposed for the San Francisco River. The ill-conceived nature of this project cannot be overstated. “Unsustainable use of the Colorado River has already taken this life source to its knees,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “If we intend to sustain this living river for future generations, we cannot ask the river to bear this heavy burden any longer. It is time to look elsewhere to wind, solar and other forms of power storage.”

The threats to the Greater Gila include threats to the rivers and threats to the wildlife that rely upon them. For over two decades, the critically imperiled Mexican gray wolf, or lobo, has fought its way back from extinction and the current wild population hovers just over 180. Ongoing acute conflict with livestock grazing on public lands continues to jeopardize the future of the species. The prioritization of beef production over biodiversity protection is part of an old west mandate that still permeates the culture of the agencies and leaves them hamstrung when bold, meaningful action is needed.

All of the things that make the Greater Gila special: the wildlife, the water, the quiet, the dark skies, the long running human relationships to the land, they’re all under threat. The Greater Gila is underprotected and the federal agencies entrusted with the management of these revered lands continue to prioritize profit over people, extractive industry over biological integrity, and rapacious corporate agendas over ecological resilience. We must change the mandate of administrative bodies like the forest service from “multiple use” to “sustaining for all”. It’s long overdue that our national forests be managed under the Department of the Interior rather than the Department of Agriculture.

There must be systemic land-management reformation if we are to save wild landscapes like the Greater Gila. We must start thinking at a scope and scale that appropriately reflect the gravity of the threats that continue to menace and endanger life as we know it. We need big, protected landscapes that revitalize and invigorate communities, that allow for a thriving, rather than a barely surviving. The time is now. Let’s protect the Greater Gila.

About the Author

Leia Barnett | Greater Gila New Mexico Advocate, WildEarth Guardians

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