From the howling lobos to the silent native Gila trout, the endangered animals that live in the Gila Wilderness are among its best-known inhabitants; the lumbering pines and the rushing rivers take a close second.
The writers of a new collection of essays from Torrey House Press recall a century of protection for 500,000 acres and the beings within them in southwestern New Mexico in First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100. As the title hints, the Gila was the nation’s first-ever space designated as a wilderness area, a label that now defines 800 places in the United States, including the Pecos Wilderness in our own backyards. Federal law calls on them to remain “without permanent improvements or human habitation” that are “protected and managed so as to preserve [their] natural conditions.”
The book, partly funded by WildEarth Guardians, presents portraits of a rugged place: far from a policy guide or a tick-tock history of the fraught path to the present. Yet, it couldn’t succeed without being grounded in what’s come before—even the fairly recent past that includes bark-beetle infestation, setbacks for endangered species programs and wildfires of staggering acreage and intensity.
Writers including Pam Houston revisit the human emotional toll of political polarization and of pandemic isolation in the same space as the peril of nature, and Beto O’Rourke (yes, that Beto) and others touch on the power of time spent away under the starry skies. Find an essay by Aldo Leopold from 1912 that’s credited with leading directly to the Gila Wilderness designation in 1924 and the broader Wilderness Act 40 years later, but also work from the late M.H. “Dutch” Salmon, whose tenacious activism in response to a proposed diversion on the Gila River contributed to that project’s deflation. There’s also a piece from Priscilla Solis Ybarra, who expounds on the complexity of the Gila’s racial narrative.
SFR is pleased to run excerpts from works by scientist and nuevomexicano Leeanna T. Torres; Santa Fe birder and writer Renata Golden; Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM; and Gabe Vasquez, a conservation activist and former Las Cruces city councilor. Ahead of a reading this week at Garcia Street Books, we checked in with Elizabeth Hightower Allen, a Santa Fean who served as the book’s editor, to talk about how it came to be and what she learned. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
SFR: You’ve said that you are no Gila expert. How did you end up as the editor of this book?
Elizabeth Hightower Allen: I was the features editor at Outside magazine...and I had an environmental column and I did a lot of environmental features, editing them and assigning them. And I left in 2019 simply because I wanted to have more of a hand in the arena of conservation and climate and all that. The timing just lined up completely. I knew people at WildEarth Guardians and they wanted to bring together a lot of voices for the Gila in this book and we talked with Torrey House Press—Kirsten Johanna Allen is the founder there—and we really wanted to make a book that was very personal, that would be just as useful to stick in your backpack when you are backpacking down there and really get to know the place and love the place and what it means to people but that could also be used as a conservation tool.
What was your process in choosing the writers? How did you respond to the challenge of looking back for 100 years and also casting some kind of forecast or prescription for the future?
It was really fun. Kirsten and I talked about this a lot. We wanted it to be a celebration of the Gila after 100 years of wilderness...a celebration of the potential of the Gila and the treasures there, but also kind of the threats.
WildEarth Guardians had a lot of contacts in the conservation community and Kirsten had some ideas from the literary world. I had some ideas from my experience at Outside and mostly it was like pulling one thread and then another. There is a wonderful writer down there named Philip Connors and he has written Song for the River. I called him knowing that I wanted to have something from him in the book. And there were people like Sharman Apt Russell down there who are really well known Gila writers. There is JJ Amaworo Wilson, who runs the literary program at Western New Mexico University. The rest of it was serendipity. Phil was like, ‘Did you know that Beto O’Rourke is an avid backpacker?’ I had no idea, so I got in touch with Beto and he wanted to contribute, and obviously people like Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich who have been fighting to protect it and Laura Paskus who has been covering it for so long. And then there were people like Pam Houston. I knew it would be great to have her and I just sent her a note saying, ‘Hey Pam, do you want to go try to see a wolf?’ and she was like, ‘Yeah.’
Several essays reference a Gila fire on record as the biggest in New Mexico history. How do those essays fit within the greater context of what is happening in the state right now as we talk?
This is where we get into me not being a fire expert, but obviously [at] the moment right now we are watching flames to the left of us, flames to the right, and down there, climate change and drought are certainly even worse...We really have to take how we are going to handle fire here seriously and really try to protect these wild spaces around us. To make them the most resilient they can be is what we have to do.
A theme I’ve picked up on is that few people really get to experience or know the wilderness. How do the writers respond to those facts?
The writers treasure it and treasure how wild it has stayed, going back to Aldo Leopold, who proposed the wilderness there because he felt like it was already getting overused in 1922. So I think there are various forms of protecting it. There is the Wild and Scenic River bill that Martin Henrich is pushing to Congress and people are excited about that...I think people don’t want to see it completely overrun but you know, it would be hard to overrun it. Even in Beto O’Rourke’s essay he tries to go see these hot springs where he has this amazing image of his dad…and it takes him like three times to find it. It’s just a rugged place. It’s not an easy place. You are not going to find a lot of people on the trail. It’s a Yellowstone-sized chunk of wild country.
We weren’t able to reprint the essay by Priscilla Solis Ybarra, an associate professor of Latinx literature at the University of North Texas, but I recommend our readers get the book so they don’t miss what she has to say.
I love what she has to say. For one thing, we hear all about Aldo Leopold. His wife [Estella Bergere Leopold] was from New Mexico, she was a Luna and she has a great legacy here of her family being connected to the land. And Priscilla writes, ‘Why does the Mexican-American background of one of the leading families of American conservation remain hidden in plain sight?’ [Estella] was a conservationist along with her husband and their five children who became scientists, academics and conservationists...When we hear about the Leopolds, we think about Wisconsin and Sand County Almanac, but there was a real Mexican-American/New Mexican connection.
What did other writers have to say about the themes of race and what did you learn from them?
What expanded my knowledge is the many threads of human conservation that have gone into a place like the Gila. Jakob Sedig is an archaeologist and says we can learn a lot about drought from the Mimbres culture and the droughts that hit it twice and how they handled that. From Joe Saenz, a Chiricahua Apache council member and outfitter, who is like, ‘We’ve traveled this land for centuries. This is how we live on it and we know how to live on it. We should be part of deciding how it is used.’ Priscilla Solis Ybarra writes in her essay that if you ask a Mexican-American, a place like the Gila Wilderness is not wilderness at all—but that it is built on lands held by Mexican-Americans and before them countless Indigenous peoples. She writes in her essay, ‘What does it mean to be a father of American wilderness, anyway?’ There is a much longer history of taking care of the land and a much bigger future that is not just going to be the descendants of John Muir.
EXCERPTS from First & Wildest
HEAT: From “Fire Bird” by Renata Golden
The bird flew across Signal Peak Road with the distinct undulations of a woodpecker—a graceful glide on the downbeat, rhythmic wingbeats on the upstroke. It had launched from the long shadows of the scorched skeletons of trees on the right-hand side of the road. The bird settled on a tree to my left, its dark body almost impossible to see against the charred black bark. As suddenly as it appeared, it returned to the other side of the road. In its flight I saw the smoky black of its shoulders, the smudged white on its back. It was an American three-toed woodpecker, a bird I had only seen in field guides.
A topo map showed that I was standing at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. I was surrounded by the vestiges of the Signal Fire, a “human-caused fire with an undetermined ignition source,” according to the official statement from the US Forest Service. The Signal Fire burned 5,740 acres before it was suppressed. Perhaps a camper got careless with a cooking fire. Per-
haps a celebration at a family picnic got out of hand. Whatever the cause, someone holding a lighter or a lit match didn’t seriously consider the danger in a forest in the middle of a mega-drought. The fire started on an especially windy Mother’s Day in 2014; two years and two months later, I could still smell the smoke.
I tiptoed into the gloom of the standing snags to get closer to the bird. It was hard to imagine the vibrant green life that once thrived here. Signal Peak Road is a fire-lookout access road that climbs to nine thousand feet, through an area once thick with ponderosa pines. The fire had created a somber atmosphere but allowed me my first glimpse of this woodpecker, an opportunistic bird that survives amid devastation.
New Mexico had experienced record-setting fire seasons during two of the three years before the Signal Fire, and some of those fires were here in the Gila National Forest. In 2012,
lightning sparked two separate fires in the Mogollon Mountains east of Glenwood. When they converged, the combined White-water-Baldy Fire raced across almost three hundred thousand acres—bigger than the land area of San Antonio, Texas, and roughly the size of the city of Los Angeles—to become the largest fire in New Mexico history. And the drought continues.
Although there is no legal definition of drought, we all know it means there is not enough water. The US Drought Monitor began recording precipitation totals around the country in 2000 and comparing this data to long-term averages. The findings show that the longest-lasting drought in New Mexico began in May 2001 and ended in August 2007. In January 2021, exceptional drought—meaning migratory birds changed their flight patterns and no surface water was available for agriculture—was affecting more than half of all land in New Mexico. Some experts predict that the extended drought experienced here in the early 2000s will be the norm by the middle of this century.
FLOW: From “Goyahkla” by Leeanna T. Torres
Somewhere near the top of Raw Meat Canyon, I sit waiting for the time to pass. The treatment is almost complete. The bucket slowly leaking toxic fluid into the middle of the stream is almost empty. This mountain canyon of the West Fork of the Gila River is made of trees and rock and water, and I sit here in the heart of the wilderness, wishing I had another sandwich, wishing it wasn’t raining.
Crouched under a tree, I hold the hood of my jacket steady over my head and face. The pines above me aren’t enough to keep the rain off; water falls right past their needles. The rain
seems to leak right through the Gore-Tex, its waterproofness long ago worn away on field trips like this. Our trip began with a one-night stay at the Heart Bar. Owned by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the small two-bedroom cabin serves as a base camp for the scientific community. It’s a small, humble house full of spiderwebs and whiskey. There were seven of us set to pack in; we looked more like renegades than scientists, already dusty, already drinking on a Tuesday night before eight days of solid work in the Wilderness.
There is no magic about our work. We kill non-native fish in order to reestablish native Gila trout, one of the original species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The US Fish
and Wildlife Service is responsible for these restoration efforts, and I work for the agency. I am a biologist working on saving a fish. But to save one fish, we have to kill others.
We treat the streams with antimycin, a chemical piscicide used in fisheries management. It’s all applied science, here in these mountains. The basis for this trip, and all the work, is science, strictly science, and yet since we left the Heart Bar, I have been distanced from this thing called science. Instead, I am distracted by a spirit.
Geronimo is said to have been born in these mountains, near the source of the Gila River, around 1823. He was given the name Goyahkla, “the one who yawns”—the appellation Geronimo would only come years later, bestowed by Mexican forces during their many conflicts with the Apache people. I think of him fishing in this same stream as a young man, so much struggle and battle and death still ahead of him. History tells us that Mexican soldiers murdered his mother and wife, his three young children.
Our team had set out into the Gila Wilderness on horseback, with pack mules trailing behind. I’d done this seven-hour ride before, but still I took in all the scenery like a tourist. Pines and bluffs, blue sky and heated sun—riding into the Gila is always like seeing things for the first time. We passed through the large section of piñon and juniper burned in a 1996 fire. We passed by cliff dwellings not sketched on any map, and through the valley of McKenna Park, with small yellow flowers blooming between the grasses. Throughout the ride, I thought of only one thing: Goyahkla’s ghost, lurking somewhere near, as close as all my insecurities and fears.
HOWL: From “Still Burning Bright” by Martin Heinrich
On my first trip into the Gila, I went searching for wolves. It was 1996, and I’d just taken an AmeriCorps position with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with the group working on Mexican wolf recovery. Mexican wolves are the most endangered and genetically unique subspecies of the North American gray wolf.
They had been extirpated from the Gila and the rest of the Southwest by the mid-1900s and had only survived thanks to a small number of wolves captured from the wild in Mexico in the 1970s. By 1996, plans to restore the lobo to its home range were moving forward. My AmeriCorps colleagues and I were tasked with gathering data to dispel the rumors—persistent among some ranchers and other opponents of wolf reintroduction—that Mexican wolves still populated the mountains, mesas, and forests of the Southwest.
How does one do that exactly? I was about to find out. Two of us at a time would load a well-worn Fish and Wildlife truck with camping gear and head out into the backcountry for ten days at a time, surveying huge swaths of New Mexico and Arizona. Typically, we’d hike or drive a route, stopping every mile to howl into the darkness, once in each cardinal direction. Then we would record the responses.
A proper wolf howl starts high, drops an octave, and ends with a mournful tremolo. Despite our best efforts, no wolves ever responded. We did, however, record a plethora of coyote calls and—surprisingly—an amazing array of owl hoots, ranging from Mexican spotted owls to tiny elf owls. One Mexican spotted owl responded to my howl by flying up to the top of a dead tree fifteen feet away and inspecting me sharply, as if to say, “You don’t look like a wolf.”
In the process, we created a data set that was used to successfully defend the recovery project in court when it was challenged as unnecessary. As a result, by 2020, 186 endangered lobos called New Mexico and Arizona home, 114 of those in the greater Gila region.
The Gila was also my first exposure to such a huge and dynamic landscape. I will never forget sitting at the edge of Cooney Prairie, north of the rugged Gila Wilderness, and watching wildlife mingle like wildebeest and impala on the African savanna. Elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope came and went as I watched through binoculars from under a tree at the edge of the massive grassy park. Wildlife I had only ever spotted in ones and twos populated the landscape in herds. It felt like getting something back that I didn’t know I’d lost—finding a home that I never knew I had.
SEEDS: from “Ojo” by Gabe Vasquez
Did anyone ever teach you how to hold a crawfish without getting pinched? How about a hellgrammite? And if so, did they teach how to find these larvae, capture them, and use them for bait?
The natural world has much to offer us humans if we make the time to explore it and, more importantly, to protect it after we unlock its secrets. The Gila is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, the nation’s first designated Wilderness, home to incredible biodiversity, history, culture, and people. It represents the abundance of desert riches for us to enjoy and help care for here in southern New Mexico.
If we’re lucky and privileged, we learn those lessons when we’re young. But the majority of New Mexicans don’t, and that’s an injustice on its own. Wild places like the Gila, and all their
gifts, are often reserved for those with the economic means, the physical ability, and the experience it takes to get there. But mentorship and companionship may be the most important keys to access.
Just ask thirteen-year-old Jose of Anthony, New Mexico. On a warm spring morning Jose woke up to walk around camp in the Cliff-Gila Valley. A collection of fifty-dollar tents flapped in the breeze, encircling the remnants of the prior night’s bonfire, and two discos were already heated up and ready to receive a healthy heaping of chorizo con huevos before a morning hike. Jose nodded and smiled, giving thanks in his own way for waking up to receive the world’s greatest portable hiking meal, the breakfast burrito.
“Mister, what is this?” Jose asked. He pointed to a walking-stick cholla, admiring its radiant purple flowers as he called over a group of friends emerging from their tents to admire the long, spiny cactus.
I told Jose it was a cholla and told him it made one of the finest walking sticks around. He laughed and said, “Very funny.”
I pointed to a dead cholla stick under a tree, and replied, “Go get that—it’s the same cactus you’re looking at now. When they dry, they make for fine walking sticks—no needles. Go ahead, give it a try.” A forest secret unlocked.
We would spend the next three days camping in the Gila Wilderness—nine youth from the Juvenile Community Corrections Program in Las Cruces, two adult chaperones, and two volunteers from the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, which works to ensure that people from frontera, or border, communities have access to the outdoors.
We learned about the proposed Gila River diversion, about the native and invasive plant and aquatic species of the Gila, what to do if we encountered a black bear or a mountain lion (that was a popular question), the differences between wilderness and forest land, the Native peoples and cultures of the Gila, and so much more.
We fished for catfish, bass, and Sonoran suckers at Turkey Creek. We caught crawfish and hellgrammites at the Gila Box campground in Cliff. We poked a dead egret with a stick at Bill Evans Lake. We swam in the Gila River and jumped into swimming holes from magnificent sandstone cliffs. We stayed up telling ghost stories and making late-night tacos, and for the first time for many of these youths, we saw the Milky Way in all its glory. Of course, the youth also eagerly explored every mountaintop surrounding camp to see if they could get cell phone service (they couldn’t).
For these young people, whose upbringing was filled with conflict and trauma, unlocking the secrets of the Gila Wilderness was more than just a trip to the forest. It was an opportunity to see the world in a different way. Among the many benefits that the Gila provides, its impact on our mental health and our understanding of ourselves is one of the most important.
You see, the Gila is more than spiraling mountain chains dotted with aspen and Douglas fir. It is more than its lowlands, with juniper, oak, and cactus. It is even more than one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and more than the nation’s first Wilderness. It’s a place where we, its visitors, inhabitants, and admirers, can better understand our place in the world, and where we can develop a genuine appreciation and conservation ethic for all things wild.
First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100 Reading from Pam Houston, Renata Golden, Priyanka Kumar and Laura Paskus
Garcia Street Books 376 Garcia St.
5 pm, Thursday May 12
Editor’s note: An early version of this story gave the wrong geographic location for the Gila Wilderness. That’s been corrected.