A Love Note to the Gila in New Mexico
Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) has been a public lands champion in Congress and is an avid hiker, hunter, and angler.
The Gila country in New Mexico — from the steep canyon walls and ponderosa forests of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses to the sweeping vistas over the high-elevation grasslands of the Bureau of Land Management’s Continental Divide Wilderness Study Area — will always be near and dear to my heart.
I still remember my first trips into the huge and dynamic landscapes of the Gila like they were yesterday. When I was in my early twenties, I took on an AmeriCorps position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a group working on the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into the wild.
Aldo Leopold — the early ranger in the Gila National Forest who first proposed conserving the region as our nation’s first protected wilderness — once wrote about how seeing the dying green fire in the eyes of a wolf he had hunted led to his revelation that we needed to conserve our wildlife and our wild places. Decades later, my colleagues and I were tasked with gathering data to dispel the rumors that the Mexican wolves of Leopold’s era still populated the remote mountains and forests of the Southwest.
We surveyed huge swaths of New Mexico and Arizona. We would hike or drive a route and stop every mile to howl into the darkness, once in each cardinal direction. Then we would record the responses. While no wolves ever responded, we did record a plethora of coyotes and an amazing array of owls. I can still see the Mexican spotted owl who responded to my “wolf howl” by flying to a dead tree fifteen yards away and perching on top to inspect me. His suspicious look seemed to tell me, “You don’t look like any wolf I’ve ever seen.”
Over that year working in the Gila country, I marveled in discovering a landscape that was still so big, so wild, and so beautiful. It felt like finding a home that I never knew I had. It inspired me to know it ever more intimately as I set out on foot, backpack in tow, to discover the roadless and wilderness portions that inspired Aldo Leopold generations before.
Sitting at the edge of Cooney Prairie, I watched wildlife come and go, mix and mingle, like they were wildebeest and impala on the African savannah. Elk, mule deer and pronghorn were all visible through my binoculars as I sat under a tree at the edge of this massive grassy park.
When I inadvertently stumbled upon a prescribed fire in the area around Turkey Feather Pass, I watched in stunned silence as fire crept calmly across the ground, occasionally torching a young ponderosa or a patch of Gambel’s oak, but sparing the ancient pines — with just a bit of blackened bark to record the passage of flame. While the ladder fuels and old grasses were cleansed away, the huge, centuries-old pines remained to hold up the sky like the pillars of a European cathedral. This is what a real pine forest was supposed to look like!
Five years later, after I spent time working as an outfitter guide and an educator, I returned to the Gila for a trip that would set a new course for the rest of my life. The terrorist attacks of September 11 had just shaken the very foundation of our country. I felt a deep calling toward public service. But I still needed the time and space to think about my path forward. Around the same time that commercial jetliners were just beginning to fly again, I met up with an old friend from college and headed south and west from Albuquerque.
It was early fall and we drove through miles of yellow wildflowers and caught up on old times. We hiked and camped from Willow Creek through fifty-three miles across ranges with names like the Jerky Mountains and mesas with names like McKenna Park and Jackass Flats. We camped along the headwaters of the Gila River and talked about our goals and plans for the future as we watched a billion stars and the Milky Way pierce the night sky. I emerged from that adventure with a lighter soul and a decision to run for City Council the following year in Albuquerque.
My sixteen years of public service that have provided me with a real sense of purpose — and taken me on many new adventures — began on that backpack in the Gila.
These days, I return to the vast expanses of the Gila whenever I can to cleanse my soul of the clutter and vitriol that infects so much of our politics in Washington. There is still nothing quite like stealing away for a few days between Christmas and New Years to sleep in a wall tent or sit around a fire in the cold and quiet of this landscape. And I would never trade the memories I have shared with my two teenage sons as they stalked their first elk or waded into untrammeled mountain streams.
I am also working with community leaders in southwestern New Mexico to pass the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act to permanently protect the Gila’s free-flowing water segments, attract more visitors to the region, and grow our outdoor recreation industry. Our legislation is named after longtime nature writer and fisherman Dutch Salmon, who was a lifelong champion of the headwaters of the Gila River. I can’t think of any better way to honor his memory and preserve what makes the Gila so special than to protect the waters that are the beating heart of this iconic wild landscape.
We are so lucky in America to own public lands and waters like the Gila. We must do all we can to make sure these places are still there for our children, their children, and future generations.
So many of our country’s parks and public lands written about in these love notes would not exist but for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This important conservation program was permanently funded when Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act earlier this summer. You can learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund here.
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