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Wild Anniversaries

The Gila River Festival makes a splash for its 10th anniversary, Sept. 18-21.

by Donna Stevens & Dutch Salmon



Once in a while you just have to go a little wild, and this is one of those times. The "call of the wild" seems to be hard-wired into each of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Fortunately, Americans have plenty of healthy, invigorating places where we can go wild — our nation's officially designated wilderness areas. In 2014, we commemorate two momentous wilderness milestones: the Wilderness Act's 50th anniversary and the Gila Wilderness Area's 90th anniversary.

10th anniversary poster, woodcut by Phillip Parotti.

It's also the 10th anniversary of the Gila River Festival, which will be held Sept. 18-21 in Silver City and surrounding areas, with the theme, "Celebrating America's First Wilderness River." Many of our nation's greatest rivers have been dammed, diverted, or otherwise altered for economic benefit. Yet our free-flowing Gila River has survived multiple attempts to dam, divert and constrain its flow.

The protection of wilderness areas isn't just a fortuitous happenstance. These areas are the fruits of the foresight and perseverance of many visionaries, such as Aldo Leopold, for whom Silver City's public charter school is named. Leopold came to the Southwest in 1909 to begin his career with the Forest Service. Initially an enthusiastic proponent of logging, grazing and other extractive uses of the Gila National Forest, in just a few years Leopold witnessed much forest degradation.

When Leopold first conceived the idea of permanently protecting wilderness, he determined that there were six roadless areas in the Southwest of 500,000 acres or more that qualified as wilderness. By 1920, the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico was the only large, wild, unroaded place left; the other five were already given over to development. In 1924, Leopold's last wild place in the Gila National Forest, now known as the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas, was designated as the nation's — indeed, the world's — first officially protected wilderness area. Leopold wisely said, "[Wilderness] will be much easier and cheaper to preserve, by forethought… than to create it after it is gone."

Since this designation was administrative only, wilderness advocates feared it could be reversed by a future Forest Service chief or president. The Wilderness Society, under Bob Marshall and then Howard Zahniser, helped shape the Forest Service's policies on wilderness designation and management and pressed for the passage of the Wilderness Act. Zahniser believed that "we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment." President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964.

Wilderness designation is the highest form of protection for public land, and must be approved by an act of Congress. No roads, vehicles or permanent structures are allowed in wilderness, and activities such as logging or mining are prohibited. Wilderness areas provide habitat for wildlife and imperiled species, filter and clean our air, protect watersheds that provide us with clean drinking water, boost local economies with tourism and recreation dollars, and give us outstanding places to recreate and to escape the stresses of the modern, noisy world.

The Gila River's headwaters arise in the Gila Wilderness, so the Gila is truly the nation's first wilderness river. But the Gila River currently does not have the protections afforded by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Wilderness Act's "sister" legislation. In fact, the nation's first designated Wild and Scenic River is not the Gila, but the Rio Grande.


The four-day Gila River Festival will feature many events about wilderness and wilderness rivers. (Talks are at the WNMU Global Resource Center except as noted.) The keynote speaker is New Mexico native son Dave Foreman, who knows a thing or two about wilderness (Thursday, 7 p.m.). While living in southwest New Mexico in the 1970s, Foreman helped fight the battle against decreasing the acreage of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas, which was ultimately won by an unlikely alliance of ranchers, old-timers and conservationists. Foreman worked for the Wilderness Society, following in the footsteps of Marshall and Zahniser. He eventually became disillusioned with the compromises of national environmental organizations, and co-founded the group Earth First! Always compelling, sometimes controversial, Dave Foreman attracted a standing-room-only crowd at the 2009 Gila River Festival.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, appropriately enough, will participate in festival events about wilderness. Executive Director Mark Allison will give a presentation on the concept of wilderness rivers (Friday, 1 p.m.), and Gila Grassroots Organizer Nathan Newcomer will speak to the potential for greater forest protections in the upcoming Gila National Forest plan revisions (Friday, 2:15 p.m.). Newcomer will lead a hike into the Gila Middle Box, a stunning stretch of the river (Saturday, 8 a.m., Silver City Visitors' Center); if you prefer an armchair wilderness experience, be sure to catch his virtual tour of the Gila (Thursday, noon, Silver City Museum Annex).

Historian Stephen Fox's presentation on the history and personalities behind the Wilderness Act (Friday, 11 a.m.) will be complemented by a Wilderness Film Festival (Saturday, 1 p.m., WNMU Parotti Theater). Guggenheim fellow Michael Berman will give a presentation at a McCray Gallery opening of his new Gila River photos, to be followed by outdoor multi-media projections by Peter Bill and his film students (Friday, 5-9 p.m.).

WNMU Professor Emeritus Dale Zimmerman will give a presentation on hummingbirds of the Gila (Thursday, 9:45 a.m.), and ornithologist Mike Fugagli will talk about how a river diversion may affect Gila Valley bird diversity and populations (Thursday, 11 a.m.). For a graphic picture of the effects of a river diversion, a field trip will lead participants to potential diversion points and show how a pipeline will bisect the pastoral valley and the Mogollon Box Campground (Friday, 8:30 a.m., Visitors' Center).

As always, the festival will host guided hikes, presentations, Monsoon Puppet Theater parade, art walk, a Gila River bus tour, kayak trip, and a Sunday brunch. A Gala for the Gila features live music by the Roadrunners and custom Gila River libations by Little Toad Creek Brewery (Saturday, 8 p.m., Little Toad Creek downtown).

Native American elder Grandfather Golden Eagle, Indigenous Grandmother Flordemayo and native New Mexican Brett Myrick will lead the creation of a sacred water wheel at the Gila River. At the close of the festival on Sunday, "eco-nun" Sister Joan Brown will guide an interfaith blessing of the river and the water wheel. (Meet at Visitors' Center at 1 p.m. to carpool or at Mogollon Box Campground at 1:45 p.m.)

Go wild at the festival, and help protect the Gila, New Mexico's last wild river.


For registration, full schedule and more info, visit gilaconservation.org.
Donna Stevens is director of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance. Dutch Salmon is chairman of the Gila Conservation Coalition.





Life in a state of nature:

Readers continue to share their snapshots of the critters they see in our "Southwest zoo." Judy Murphy writes of her roadrunner picture: "I had just refilled the bird seed and finch seed when this little gentleman showed up for dinner. We had seen a pair walk down the street, but this was the first time he had visited the yard."





And Dennis Lane shares this photo of a Mexican spotted owl: "While hiking in the Gila this spring, I came upon the most beautiful and somewhat rare owl we have in the Gila. They are often heard but rarely seen. It was actively hunting in the early morning when I saw it; they normally hunt in the dead of night. What a thrill!"





Share your own photos of local creatures great and small. Send to editor@desertexposure.com or mail to PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062.




The Tumbleweeds Top 10


Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. Immigration concerns pop back up, along with the hoped-for Tesla factory. DonÕt look now, though, but mentions of Susana Martinez and the 2016 GOP ticket are on the rise, too (40 hits, #16).

    1. (4) New Mexico + immigration – 275 hits (▲)
    2. (1) Virgin Galactic – 271 hits (▲)
    3. (2) Gov. Susana Martinez – 231 hits (▼)
    4. (3) New Mexico drought – 230 hits (▲)
    5. (7) New Mexico + Border Patrol – 144 hits (▲)
    6. (5) Sen. Tom Udall – 130 hits (▼)
    7. (10) New Mexico monsoon – 120 hits (▲)
    8. (9) Gubernatorial candidate Gary King – 106 hits (▲)
    9. (-) New Mexico + Tesla – 99 hits (▲)
    10. (8) Sen. Martin Heinrich – 94 hits (▼)



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