Growing up in southwest New Mexico, I developed an appreciation for the Gila River and the ways in which it sustains the communities in the region. Over the decades, the river has been threatened in many forms and community leaders have fought tirelessly to ensure the river’s long-term protection. Fortunately, those local efforts just received a significant helping hand from the federal level.

Weeks ago, Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján reintroduced legislation that would designate nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic. These federal designations conserve America’s most remarkable rivers in their free-flowing nature. As New Mexico’s last truly free-flowing river and an absolute gem of an outdoor destination, the Gila certainly fits the description.

If a Wild and Scenic designation for the Gila and San Francisco rivers becomes a reality, it will go a long way toward preserving a way of life for the people of southwest New Mexico. For centuries, families have fished the rivers to put food on the tables or simply visited its banks as a way to unwind and reconnect with nature. The watershed is also part of the overall ancestral homeland of the Fort Sill Apache. As we recognize Native American Heritage Month in November, it is important to remember the Wild and Scenic effort is all about the communities like Fort Sill that have been actively protecting these watersheds for centuries.

The Gila River also helps to prop up the local economy. Visits to the Gila are an important economic sustainer for Silver City and other nearby communities. A Wild and Scenic designation officially would put the Gila River on the map and ensure a steady stream of customers and patrons to the small businesses in the region for the foreseeable future.

Investing in this sector of the economy is a great way to help New Mexico recover from the challenges the coronavirus pandemic has brought. The outdoor sector already is hugely important to New Mexico’s overall economic outlook. An analysis produced by the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division reveals the outdoor economy generates $1.2 billion in revenue and supports 33,500 jobs in the state annually. A Wild and Scenic designation for these rivers would go beyond keeping this sector steady and enhance it.

This legislation was originally introduced in the spring of 2020 by Heinrich and former Sen. Tom Udall. Although it received an important hearing in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee, it ultimately made it no further in the process. The recent reintroduction revives the legislative effort.

Designating the most spectacular segments of Wild and Scenic is wildly popular. Tribes, faith leaders, property owners, outdoor enthusiasts, local governments and more than 150 small businesses in Grant County have declared their support for these federal protections. I was proud to be one of the first elected officials to publicly announce my support for the legislation, and I’m thrilled to see it moving forward again.

Heinrich and Luján deserve credit for keeping their promise to reintroduce this legislation to protect the Gila and San Francisco rivers as Wild and Scenic. But more importantly, the residents of southwest New Mexico deserve a standing ovation for coming together as a community to advocate for the preservation of their most valuable resources.

Stephanie Garcia Richard is commissioner of public lands for the state of New Mexico.

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