In May 2020, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
"Dutch was a friend of mine, and a one-of-a-kind conservationist," says Udall, adding that 35 years ago, Dutch recognized the value of the Gila watershed when he fought the proposed Connor Dam. "We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to him for his foresight and his vision, and his tenacity."
Under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, Congress created a system to protect rivers with "outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values." In New Mexico, that already includes a stretch of the Rio Grande, as well as stretches of the East Fork of the Jemez River, the Pecos and the Chama.
Udall says backers convened a public comment period when working on the bill and ended up making changes to the original draft. "We worked with a strong grassroots alliance, and that allowed us to come up with something that I think is very strong," Udall says. "And we're going to do everything we can to look for opportunities to pass this from now until the end of the year."
The bill would protect stretches of the river in New Mexico from development and protect habitat for endangered species. It also protects continued uses like irrigating and grazing. It wouldn't affect or amend the Arizona Water Settlement Act or change how people use their water rights or access their lands.
Speaking of the long-running controversy on the Gila, Udall says people need to talk to one another.
"By that, I mean coming to the table and actually talking with one another, doing active listening, where we're trying to find out what the other person's position is, where we're trying to walk in the shoes of the people around the table who we may disagree with," he says. "When we do that, we find ourselves reaching a point where we can find common ground."
Unfortunately, some people today immediately want to avoid finding common ground.
"When it comes to these important issues—conservation issues, issues about the planet and climate change, all of these really big issues—it's important that we utilize that approach of trying to work with each other and get ourselves in the mindset of, 'We have issue here, let's see if we can get a solution that works for everybody,'" he says. "You don't always reach complete unanimity, but I think what we've done in this bill reached a really good place and it's something that deserves to be passed."
Udall is retiring from the Senate when his term ends, but he plans to keep working on this "wherever I am."
"I love the Gila," he says, "and I'm going to keep pushing."