Forest plans set the direction for how we use our national forests. With our help, the Forest Service will determine how the Gila will be used, while taking important measures to conserve water resources, protect wildlife, and uphold ecological integrity.
Similar to a city or county plan, a forest plan aims to balance the preservation of our land and water with the enjoyment and traditional use by our communities.
A hallmark of the process of forest planning is collaboration — engaging multiple voices and points of view on how to best manage the forest. It’s important that our Hispanic values are heard and incorporated into the new plan for the Gila. Our heritage and connection to this land and water goes back generations and we must be a part of the discussion.
The Gila National Forest’s draft revised forest management plan was released for public comment in January 2020. The Forest Service is now reviewing all the public comments and preparing a final forest plan and environmental impact statement, which is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2022.
The Gila is among the most remote and least developed forests in the country, and the Gila River is the last remaining free-flowing river in New Mexico. It faces serious threats, including:
More than 300 species of birds have been recorded along the Gila River, which wildlife, ranging from the reclusive mountain lion and endangered Lobo to the threatened loach minnow, call home. Permanent, large scale diversions to the Gila River would disrupt the habitat of these and other important species. Any diversion of the Gila River could drastically change the natural cycle of how the river has flowed for centuries. It could hurt tourism and nearby businesses, would be a waste of taxpayer dollars, and, based on water planning in southern New Mexico, is not necessary.
2021 Update: Fortunately, after fifteen years of tireless opposition from conservation groups and concerned individuals, the Gila River diversion is dead. Agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, after spending more than $16 million to study a diversion, at last conceded the folly of dewatering the river to benefit a handful of irrigators growing low-value crops.
There is still more work to be done to secure our water future. At issue is about $80 million remaining in federal funding that can be used to meet water needs in Grant, Catron, Hidalgo, and Luna Counties. The Water Trust Board will evaluate projects such as municipal water efficiency infrastructure, watershed restoration, and effluent reuse, among others. The ultimate decision-making authority rests with the Interstate Stream Commission. It is up to us to stay engaged in this process that will determine how water is used in southwest New Mexico for decades to come.
Holloman Air Force Base has proposed a new Military Operations Area (MOA) for F-16 fighter jets over the Gila Wilderness and surrounding areas. This means that loud jets, breaking the sound barrier, could do upwards of 30 low-altitude trainings in the Gila every day, disrupting the environment and harming wildlife. Some fighter jets will drop flares and a radar-deflecting metal material called “chaff” from above 2,000 feet. Current forest conditions due to drought, insect and disease outbreaks, and past fire and vegetation management have resulted in higher risk of wildfires. Flare use can exacerbate already dangerous fire risks while flight activity can disturb recreational activities and agitate wildlife. Moreover, such activity is likely to disrupt the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism and retiree relocation to the region.
2021 Update: Due to widespread and vocal opposition to military trainings over the Gila National Forest, the US Air Force chose a more appropriate area near Alamogordo to conduct pilot trainings. For now, the Aldo Leopold and Gila Wilderness areas will remain the quiet refuges that our community values so highly.
Our public lands, and our access to them, are in danger. Some misguided state and congressional lawmakers seek to rob us of our public lands, handing them over to state governments for their discretion and eventual sell off. Unlike federal public lands, New Mexico state trust lands are constitutionally mandated to be managed for maximum short-term profit and can be sold or developed at any time—New Mexico has sold off 4 million acres of its lands since statehood, cutting off public access.
A state takeover of public lands would punish New Mexico taxpayers, who would be forced to shoulder an additional $218 million annually to fight wildfires, maintain roads and trails, treat noxious weeds and conduct habitat restoration, potentially leading to higher taxes, budget cuts in state departments like education and restricted recreational freedoms. Counties representing one million New Mexico residents have passed resolutions formally opposing state takeovers of public lands in the best interests of both the wilderness and the state.
National Forest roadless areas represent the last great opportunity for preserving our Hispanic heritage by protecting the best hiking, hunting, and fishing locations to pass down to future generations. These areas also provide clean sources of drinking water for many New Mexicans. Since 2001, these roadless areas have been protected by a law called the Roadless Rule, which effectively bans logging and road building. There are several bills in Congress that, if passed, would fundamentally undermine the Roadless Rule and the common-sense protections it provides. Efforts to attack the Roadless Rule are attacks on our public lands, clean water, wildlife, and recreation.