NM ambassadors travel east to advocate for Gila River


New Mexico has one of the nation's last "wild" rivers, free of human-made structures and community representatives will be back in the nation's Capitol this week to advocate for its protection.

A delegation of tribal leaders, local elected officials, veterans and community leaders will urge members of Congress to pass the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act. Passage would protect nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers and their tributaries.

Harry Browne, a commissioner in Grant County, said local residents have championed the legislation for nearly a decade.

"This region is among the nation's most economically challenged," Browne pointed out. "We deserve the benefits of Wild and Scenic Designation, increased tourism, increased investment by small businesses in outdoor recreation activities."

After four introductions, the bill passed out of a Senate committee last year with bipartisan support. As negotiated, it would allow grazing operations to continue on surrounding areas. Nonetheless, some landowners oppose the bill, worried it might restrict their Gila water use and lead to lawsuits.

In 2011, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico won the right to establish a reservation on homelands in southern New Mexico.

Pamela Eagleshield, vice chair of the tribe in Oklahoma, said many of the remaining 800 members hope to return and enjoy the pristine environment.

"Because our petroglyphs, our carvings, our culture, our history; everything that we have is there," Eagleshield emphasized. "If it's changed in any way, that's something that directly affects the spirituality of our people."

Browne noted the Grant County community-driven proposal will benefit people of all kinds.

"That is why my family and I moved here back in the early '90s," Browne stressed. "It would be devastating to see what we have here diminished by un-careful development."

New Mexico's outdoor recreation industry generates just over $2 billion in consumer spending by directly employing 28,000 people.