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Casting a Wide Net to Protect New Mexico's Gila River

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Thursday, October 7, 2021   

SILVER CITY, N.M. -- Those who enjoy outdoor activities in the Southwest, say the Gila River and surrounding public lands have it all, and they want to see Congress pass legislation to protect the Gila River as Wild and Scenic.

Alicia Edwards, Grant County Commissioner, will participate in a conference in Silver City this week to call attention to the economic, cultural, recreational and agricultural benefits derived from what is called "America's First Wilderness."

"People have been doing outdoor recreation in this area a long time before it was trendy to call it 'outdoor rec,'" Edwards pointed out. "We've been known for hiking, cycling, hunting, fishing, for many years."

The Gila was inaugurated as America's first wilderness in 1924, 40 years before the Wilderness Act. The two-day "Rivers of Opportunity" conference at Western New Mexico University will feature speakers from a number of state and federal agencies, conservation groups, academics and tribes.

A study by Southwick and Associates estimated a potential increase of at least $144 million in recreation spending by visitors with the Wild and Scenic designation.

Tom Allen, economist and co-author of the report, said it outlines how much money people spend on outdoor recreation in and around the river area.

"And specifically, how many people visit those rivers and what that means in terms of spending and jobs and income and value added to the New Mexico economy," Allen explained.

Beyond benefits to the economy, Edwards emphasized preservation is a core Western value.

"We're losing so much land and so much of our open space here in the West that I just think designating this area as Wild and Scenic will be a real message to people about how we have to preserve these areas," Edwards contended.

Legislation to protect nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers and their tributaries was introduced in May 2020. Grant County has already passed its own resolution to support the designation, which only Congress can decide. It would not affect existing grazing and ranching operations in the area.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Disclosure: The Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Group contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy and Priorities, Climate Change/Air Quality, Consumer Issues, Endangered Species and Wildlife, Energy Policy, Environment, Health Issues, Public Lands/Wilderness, and Salmon Recovery. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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