Author :
Karyn Stockdale
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Celebrating the Gila River and Supporting the NM Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund

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In 2024, we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, drawing our attention to the Gila River. A key tributary of the Colorado River, the Gila River originates in the Gila Wilderness—our nation’s first designated wilderness area (est. 1924)—and is rich in biological diversity and cultural history. But after generations of development, extended droughts, and a changing climate, the need to actively conserve this area is even greater. With continued attention to climate resilience including land and water stewardship, forest and watershed health, outdoor recreation, agriculture, historic preservation and wildlife species protection, the Gila River and Wilderness can be protected for centuries more.

The Gila River is the home of ancient peoples and Apaches and represents one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest. This ecologically-intact river system, dominated still by multi-aged native species, has shown amazing resilience, having recovered from channelization and over-grazing, and serves as a rare reference point for natural river functions in the arid Southwest.

The Gila River supports outstanding examples of southwestern “bosque” or riparian forest and an abundance of wildlife. Because of the incredible outdoor recreation opportunities from bird-watching to sport-fishing to hiking and time in the wilderness, the Gila River provides significant economic value to southwestern New Mexico. Cottonwood and willow forests along the river support high-value bird habitat for more than 250 species of birds—some say this river supports one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in America, including the federally-endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and federally-threatened Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The Gila River encompasses three separate designated Important Bird Areas (IBA) including the Gila-Cliff Area IBA, Gila Bird Area IBA, and Lower Gila Box IBA. Audubon’s beginnings in New Mexico are connected to this area, as members organized to fight dams in the 1960s and formed the first New Mexico chapter, the Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society.

The Gila River also supports many other critical species. It supports one of the most intact native fish communities in the Lower Colorado River Basin including the federally-endangered loach minnow, spike dace and federally-threatened Gila trout. Additionally, the federally-endangered northern Mexican garter snake and Chiricahua leopard frog live in the region.   

In 2019, American Rivers, one of Audubon’s conservation partners, designated the Gila River as America’s Most Endangered River because of a threatened diversion and infrastructure that threatened the health and habitat of this vital river.

In 2023, the State of New Mexico established the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund to dedicate sustainable funding for existing land, water, and wildlife conservation programs through existing state programs. Initial seed money of $100 million was invested in 2023, and in 2024 the legislature invested an additional $300 million to the fund, ensuring it can survive on its own interest in perpetuity at current output levels.

We’re grateful for this historic investment, knowing we will need to be vigilant for the next 100 years to ensure the Gila River and the wilderness will also last in perpetuity.

 

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