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.
Representatives from two opposing groups in New Mexico testified before the U.S. House Energy and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday, painting conflicting portraits of support for a bill that would see portions of the Gila River receive federal Wild and Scenic designations.
The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act would designate 446 miles of 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. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich presented the legislation at the hearing. The bill is named after M.H. Dutch Salmon, a nature writer and longtime advocate of the Gila River who passed away in 2019. Heinrich said the bill would “permanently protect some of the most dynamic and spectacular rivers and streams in our country.”
“The Gila and San Francisco Rivers are the beating heart of southwest New Mexico and are home to some of the most spectacular places in the west, full stop,” he said.
Udall said the bill was the result of two years of work by groups in New Mexico, and said the bill was drafted with extensive input from various stakeholders.
“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.
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Udall and Heinrich were joined by Jamie Crockett, the co-owner of Gila Backcountry Services, who also spoke in favor of the bill.
“This bill is the result of a grassroots movement and nearly a decade of work, from and by the people of my community, to guarantee protections of these rivers, their values, their current uses, and our traditional ways of life,” Crockett said.
This weekend’s warm and windy conditions were good for hiking or kite-flying. But they were tough on a river everyone is already expecting to be low on runoff this spring and summer. According to the National Water and Climate Center’s forecast for the Rio Grande Basin, the water supply outlook for spring and summer remains “dire.” In his monthly email, forecast hydrologist Angus Goodbody noted that while storms did hit the mountains in February, particularly along the headwaters in Colorado, snowpack in some parts of the Sangre de Cristo’s continued to decline. That means the river and its tributaries will receive less runoff than normal this spring and summer—and many areas may reach or break historic low flows. Last week, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news.