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The Gila is America's first Wilderness Area, designated administratively by the U.S. Forest Service in 1924. Along with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area, the Blue Range Primitive Area and over two million additional acres free of roads, these wildlands make up a great portion of southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona. The region is rich in biological diversity and has a wealth of public land – over 6.5 million acres in federal management out of 10 million acres in the bioregion. Because of these two assets - public land and great wildlife habitat - it is one of the increasingly rare landscapes in the American West where all the ecological parts can be simply restored and saved while meeting the challenge inherent in both Aldo Leopold’s land and wilderness ethics.
The Gila has been referred to as the Yellowstone of the Southwest for its size, wildness, and nearly complete suite of natural processes and wildlife populations. Extensive roadless areas, wilderness and old growth forests, unparalleled wildlife—including Mexican spotted owl, Mexican gray wolves, jaguars, and endemic trout and other native fish - make the Gila Bioregion very special with the potential to be the crown jewel of a wild southwest.
WildEarth Guardians is working in the Gila Bioregion to ensure a lasting wild legacy for future generations and secure this area as a premier example of the untrammeled West. To achieve our objectives, we are defending the Gila Bioregion from exploitation such as mining, logging, domestic livestock grazing, dewatering of rivers, and off-highway vehicle abuse. We are restoring keystone ecological processes and species to the region such as fire and beaver. In addition, we are actively working to prevent the second great extinction of the Mexican gray wolf in the wild. With litigation, free market economics and creative organizing efforts, WildEarth Guardians is a stalwart defender of this American conservation jewel.
One of the great remaining conservation challenges in the Greater Gila Bioregion is resolving the modern-day conflict between livestock producers and wolves. We believe that this conflict could and should be equitably resolved. To date, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has killed or removed approximately 70 wolves in response to complaints from public lands ranchers that graze cattle within the 4.4 million acres where wolves exist on the Gila and Apache National Forests. The wolf will not persist in the Gila Bioregion unless this acute pressure is relieved in strategic wolf strongholds. We are working with willing ranchers to promote a voluntary grazing permit retirement program. WildEarth Guardians intends to pioneer this practical and creative approach to wolf and wildland conservation in the Greater Gila Bioregion.
Aldo Leopold, author of the popular book A Sand County Almanac and incredibly influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and wilderness conservation, spent time in the Gila Bioregion during his early career. In 1909, fresh out of Yael School of Forestry a young Aldo Leopold was assigned to the Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. He was first a forest assistant on the Apache National Forest and later transferred to the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico.
Leopold’s biocentric ethics regarding land conservation were partly developed in the Greater Gila Bioregion. In the Gila, Leopold saw the parts of a functioning ecological system, including large predators and fire. In part, this helped him to understand their necessity and led to his vision of large, undisturbed wild places for more than just hunting and recreation.
Leopold’s unmistakably articulated this concept in his famous quote from A Sand County Almanac:
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
(Wilderness) Over one hundred and ten years ago the General Land Office established the Gila River Forest Reserve, which is currently the fourth largest national forest. The first wilderness area on any national forest in the nation was established on the Gila National Forest. The Gila Bioregion is one of the largest complexes of public lands in the West. Of the:10,009,100 acres included in the Greater Gila Bioregion, 816,060 acres are managed by the BLM, 5,695,100 acres by the U.S. Forest Service and 490 by the U.S. Park Service.
Today more than one million acres of the Greater Gila Bioregion is protected as wilderness with another 2.2 million acres of land still eligible. There is over a million acres of inventoried roadless national forests in the Greater Gila Bioregion and millions more that are documented by citizens. Much of these lands are eligible for congressional Wilderness designation. It is our intention to have these lands added to the National Wilderness System as Leopold would have envisioned.
WildEarth Guardians’ Clean Waters, Wild Forests Campaign in New Mexico resulted in the designation of hundreds of miles of streams and rivers in the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness as “Outstanding National Resource Waters”—the highest degree of protection under the Clean Water Act. These Outstanding Waters cannot be degraded for any reason other than short-term impacts from restoration activities such as prescribed wildland fire.
Where these Outstanding Waters currently exist on wilderness grazing allotments that are free of cows, we expect those allotments to remain ungrazed to protect high quality waters and ecological values. Where Wilderness waters are already impaired from grazing activities in the past, we hope the Outstanding Water status will attract more attention and funding from state and federal agencies for restoration of ecological integrity and water quality. WildEarth Guardians will renew our Clean Waters, Wild Forests campaign in New Mexico to secure this degree of water protection for the rivers and streams of the remaining undeveloped roadless lands in the Gila Bioregion.
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