December 15, 2020

Land owners tout conservation but oppose ‘Wild and Scenic’ designation for Gila

Courtesy Nathan Newcomer

The Gila River is proposed for federal wild and scenic designation.

Howard Hutchinson bought his first parcel of land in southwestern New Mexico near the Gila Wilderness in the 1970s. 

“I hitchhiked into here in 1973. And I said, ‘Wow, paradise. This is awesome. This is where I want to live to raise my family,’” Hutchinson told NM Political Report

At the time, Hutchinson said he was a “radical environmentalist,” and an early member of the controversial environmental group Earth First. 

But Hutchinson said his views on environmentalism have evolved since then. 

“As I aged, and became closer with a lot of the longtime residents here, I began to realize that there was a land use ethic that they had developed quite naturally,” he said. “You don’t develop that land use ethic, and you don’t survive in the arid Southwest. That’s just the facts of the matter.”

Hutchinson is chairman of the San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District and is also a member of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (NM CAP) Entity, a group that worked for years on a major diversion project through the Arizona Water Settlement Agreement (AWSA). The diversion project recently fell through, but the group is considering other water development projects on the Gila.  

RELATED: After a long battle, the Gila River Diversion project comes to an end

Both the conservation district and the NM CAP Entity are opposing legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich that would designate portions of the Gila and San Francisco rivers and their tributaries on federal public lands as wild and scenic, affording those areas protection from future development. 

Hutchinson said he doesn’t think the senators know what’s best for the area. 

“I began to realize that what I saw and fell in love with as being so pristine was because the people that live here have made it so. Now, we have people that don’t reside here, they don’t understand the ecosystems that are in play in this area. And they enact prohibitions and restrictions on the very land use ethics that made it what it is today,” he said. 

Hutchinson is part of the Heritage Waters Coalition, a group of landowners, ranchers and other water conservancy organizations that say the bill, if passed, could lead to big problems for how they use the waters of the Gila. Hutchison said he fears the designation could force nearby landowners and U.S. Forest Service grazing permitees to follow new restrictive regulations while also opening them up to litigation from environmental groups. 

But both Udall and Heinrich, as well as environmental and conservation groups that worked on the proposal, say the legislation was drafted with specific language to protect existing water and grazing rights, and would not impact any water diversions developed through the Arizona Water Settlement Act. 

“We worked hard to build consensus and took input from local stakeholders to make sure we got this legislation right,” Heinrich told NM Political Report. “This legislation preserves existing water rights, private land rights, and public access points to these segments. The wild and scenic designation would enhance recreation opportunities like hunting, fishing, hiking, and rafting. And it would still allow for continued traditional uses such as grazing and irrigating. All while permanently protecting the Gila’s naturally-flowing segments, attracting more visitors to southwestern New Mexico, and growing our outdoor recreation industry.”

Protecting the Gila for recreational use

The Gila River, which begins in the Gila Wilderness and flows southwest across the border into Arizona, is considered a jewel of the state’s remaining wilderness. It is also considered the most endangered river in the country by some conservation groups. 

That fact spurred the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and other groups to develop a proposal to designate segments of the Gila and San Francisco river systems for protections under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968

RELATED: A win for the state’s last wild river

Heinrich and Udall’s legislation would designate 446 miles of the mostly Forest Service land along the Gila River and other waters in the Gila and San Francisco water basin as either wild or scenic, protecting those portions of river from future development. The legislation, which was the culmination of a years-long effort, is named after M.H. Dutch Salmon, a nature writer and longtime advocate of the Gila River who passed away in 2019

Proponents of the bill, including local businesses, sportsmen groups and conservationists, say it’s important to protect the Gila as a wilderness asset and a riparian habitat that can support both a healthy ecosystem and outdoor recreation. 

Gabe Vasquez, founder of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, told NM Political Report there are cultural and social justice benefits to protecting the area, too. 

“This is one of the few places in the West that has this abundance of federal public land and designated existing wilderness that is also surrounded by a majority Hispanic community,” Vasquez said. “That’s a really special place for our residents and our community to hold up and to enjoy, and to continue to protect.”

Vasquez noted that protecting the Gila would ensure the Hispanic community have continued access to the natural resources and assets of the area.  

“A lot of Hispanic families in Grant County in particular, but going all the way down to Luna and Hidalgo counties, rely on the Gila for fishing, for hunting, for hiking, for camping. This is largely what a lot of Hispanic families that interface with this forest really have been doing here for a couple of 100 years now and part of why they continue to live here,” he said. 

Balancing existing uses while preserving the future of the Gila

Udall and Heinrich said they made a special effort in drafting the legislation to include input on the proposal from community leaders, landowners, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, local fishers, farmers and ranchers. 

“Sen. Heinrich and I took the unusual step of posting a discussion draft of the legislation early this year, which we revised to reflect community concerns,” Udall said earlier this year at a hearing for the bill

The result of that effort was specific language in the bill that protects existing rights, privileges and contracts related to either federal land or private property within the same watershed as the covered segment. Those protections extend to grazing permits on federal land, water rights and the state’s authority in administering water rights, existing points of diversion, water distribution infrastructure and existing mineral rights. 

There is also language in the bill clarifying that it would not affect the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA)—the law that became the basis for the Gila River diversion project proposed by the NM CAP Entity. 

But members of the Heritage Waters Coalition don’t believe the legislation goes far enough to protect those rights. 

Tom Shelley, a rancher in the area with water rights and grazing permits along the Mogollon Creek in the Gila Wilderness, said he’s worried about how the designation may impact his cattle operation. 

“In many places in the West, this legislation has precipitated lawsuits,” Shelley told NM Political Report. He’s worried that the designation might open up grazing permits to litigation from environmental groups. 

“It ends up being that the grazing permits are terminated, or the [lawsuits are] long enough that small entities, like myself, wouldn’t have the resources to continue ranching, when your permit is terminated for 10 or 15 years for the duration of a lawsuit,” he said. “That raises a red flag. I think this designation would make it [litigation against grazing permits] more likely.”

Tom Shelley, a rancher in the area with water rights and grazing permits along the Mogollon Creek in the Gila Wilderness, said he’s worried about how the designation may impact his cattle operation. Photo courtesy Tom Shelley

Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the NM CAP Entity, told NM Political Report he’s concerned the designation may impact future water development projects on the Gila.  

“I think that the designation itself does set some parameters on top of existing NEPA requirements and under the forbearance agreement that’s part of the AWSA requirement,” Gutierrez said. 

“It’s not very specific about exactly what the parameters are in the event that you’re going to develop some water or do some development with the designation in place,” Gutierrez said. “The designation also talks about impact, impact to the area depending on what designation it has, whether it’s wild or scenic or recreational—but when you’re developing water, there’s no way to not have impact.”

Sitting there in plain English

Haydn Forward, the organizer behind the Heritage Waters Coalition and Vice Chair of the San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District, pointed to Section 7 of the Wild and Scenic Act of 1968, which directs federal agencies to protect the free-flowing nature and other characteristics of designated rivers through interagency evaluation procedures. 

“They say existing water rights and land uses are protected. But, as you get into the meat, the teeth of the language, you find out that not one word in Section 7 of Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is being amended,” Forward said. 

Without any amendment to that section, Forward contended that federal agencies could impose regulations on private landowners and limit agricultural irrigation systems on the Gila. 

Proponents of the legislation believe these concerns are overblown. 

“It’s sitting there in plain English,” said Nathan Newcomer, a Gila grassroots organizer for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. Newcomer and other members of the organization worked over the past two years on identifying which segments of the rivers might be eligible for the Wild and Scenic designation. 

“If you want to maintain your cattle infrastructure, you can maintain your cattle infrastructure. If you want to maintain your existing point of diversion, you can maintain that, if you want to do some minor tweaks to it, of course you can do all these types of things,” he said. 

The Wild and Scenic Act was created initially to preserve certain free-flowing rivers by preventing large dams and major diversions. But Newcomer said the designation doesn’t seek to prevent smaller, agricultural diversions. 

“If [someone] wants to propose doing some gigantic dam, well then that would be a problem because that’s what the Wild and Scenic Act is designed to do—prevent major dams, and not [prevent] small inflow irrigating channels and things like that,” he said.