Notes from the Greater Gila Bioregion

Deep in the heart of the American Southwest lies the Greater Gila Bioregion, a place that is larger and more biodiverse than Yellowstone, as rich in cultural history as Bears Ears, as wild as the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, and the birthplace of the wilderness ideal. WildEarth Guardians believes that the Greater Gila can and should be America’s next, great protected landscape. Photo by Leia Barnett.

The following piece was written by Leia Barnett, Greater Gila Campaigner with WildEarth Guardians. – mk

Last week, I fell in love with country. Not This Country. Not Our Country. Simply country. I perched atop peaks above 10,000 feet and peered out across distances incomprehensible. I squatted beside rivers that swayed and snaked for hundreds of miles, wild from source to sea, flexing their hydrologic muscle to carve canyons and move mountains. I star-gazed, open-mouthed and full of wonder, remembering what’s small and what’s precious and what’s worthy of protecting. I saw black hawks and blue jays and arching sycamores and barking elk and trundling bears and trotting wolves. Yes, trotting wolves! Three of them to be precise. Yipping and stalking and howling and moving something inside me that once was wild and fiercely free.

All in the Gila, that seemingly eternally unfolding expanse of hills and vales and mountains and vistas and wild silences that spread themselves across southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, what we at WildEarth Guardians refer to as the Greater Gila Bioregion. This is a landscape long inhabited by the Mimbres and Mogollon cultures, and later the Apache, Navajo, Acoma, and Zuni. This place is anciently sacred, humming with the footsteps of Native Ancestors seeding Indigenous Knowledge Traditions deeply prescient for their time. This is a place ecologically abundant, tending to a biodiversity greater than that of Yellowstone. This is a landscape that has known a fire regime and management practices more progressive than anywhere else in the West, where the long-lived cycle of over-grow-burn-regenerate has been allowed to persist with minimal human intervention. This is country wild, where humans have come since time immemorial to travel softly and fit themselves snuggly into the astounding web of living selves, to rest beside Mogollon Death Camas and Mimbres Figwort, to gaze upon Gila chub and Loach minnow, to become, once again, quiet dwellers rather than raucous extractors.

This is the country we need. It requires no undiscerning patriotism, no flaring bias or political unilateralism. It only asks that we give our attention to a greater sense of self, that we assume our membership in this grand community of bipeds and four-leggeds and root-growers and wing-flappers, and that this membership rise to the top of our list of things to be tended to. You may leave your flag and your fearful ideologies at home. Come with me to the Gila, where we may all, once again, fall in love with country. 

6 thoughts on “Notes from the Greater Gila Bioregion”

  1. Fluffy rhetoric aside, what would be the practical consequences of designating this massive region as Wilderness? How many roads and motorized or mechanized trails would be closed, depriving thousands of people of recreational opportunities on public lands they currently enjoy? Do you even know? Has WildEarth Guardians conducted a thorough route inventory on these lands and consulted with other user groups to verify its accuracy? Would they be willing to cherry-stem conflicting routes to prevent their closure? And while it’s not my primary concern, I assume companies that have plans to extract mineral resources in this area would be affected as well. What would the consequences be for them?

    Once again we see one environmental group unilaterally declaring that a massive region should be designated as Wilderness, with absolutely no thought to how existing users of those lands would be impacted. Pretty much the same as SUWA has done in their quest to see all BLM land in Utah managed as Wilderness, everyone else be damned. Because once you start talking about “doing it for the animals”, nothing else matters. Just once I would love to see an acknowledgement from these groups that public lands are the shared heritage of the American PEOPLE (not animals), and that their interests in these lands actually matter.

    • Hello Patrick!
      Thank you for your thoughtful response. What Guardians envisions for the Greater Gila is NOT in fact a sweeping wilderness designation. What we imagine is a large landscape protection campaign that would allow for multiple stakeholders to have a say in how the land is managed. We recognize that humans have been on this landscape for a very long time, and that the most effective management strategies moving forward will be those that strike a balance between human and non-human interests. This includes the traditional uses of Indigenous peoples, recreational users, sportsmen, and the rural communities that have depended on the land to sustain themselves for generations. People’s interests absolutely matter. AND, here in the Southwest, where drought continues to bear down on our human life ways, not to mention the life ways of whole ecosystems and countless other threatened and endangered species, we believe it is a mandate for management agencies, conservation organizations, and interested communities, to begin to think in terms of climate resilience and connectivity. The Greater Gila offers a unique opportunity to experiment with what a new management paradigm might look like in a region in the midst of a megadrought and facing increasing aridification, where extractive industries are not the end all be all economic support system, and where we can explore alternative strategies that foster resilience for the entire ecosystem, humans included. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my fluffy rhetoric. My hope is that we can increasingly build relationships through shared love of and concern for our land, aka country. And that all perspectives may be included.

      • Leia, I agree with much or what you are saying, and you say it beautifully, but I can’t get from what you say to the steps you envision.

        Just reading them, your words sound much like…forest planning.. or an “all lands all hands” approach to things like wildlife corridors. I know that forest plans do think in terms of climate resilience and connectivity.

        So it’s not exactly clear to me what you are talking about doing differently.. a mega- all lands plan that incorporates state, county, and federal planning? Or a vision that would inform such planning?

        Some would argue that (some) current collaborative groups do this “My hope is that we can increasingly build relationships through shared love of and concern for our land, aka country. And that all perspectives may be included.” But perhaps their scope or scale is not what you are thinking?

        • Hi Sharon!

          Forest planning is certainly a big part of our vision for the Gila. With Aldo Leopold crafting his land ethic while cutting his teeth as a forest ranger in the Gila, and later spearheading the effort to designate America’s first wilderness area there, we feel like the Greater Gila would be a prime landscape to exercise a bold new approach to forest planning and management, with an even greater emphasis on climate resilience and connectivity. The scope of our vision is certainly large, and our campaign has many moving parts, but I don’t see any of it as outside the realm of what’s achievable for management agencies and rural communities. It might just require baby steps in the direction of a paradigm shift (excuse the cliche!). Looking at your bio and current and historical areas of forest service and interests, I’m wondering if my manager Madeleine Carey and I might sit down with you one day to pitch our Greater Gila vision and ask for your feedback? I’d be honored to have your expertise and considered perspective inform our campaign. Please feel free to email me at [email protected].

  2. Leia

    Sorry to hear you say all stakeholders have a say. But you left out the most important ones-who should have primary. I expect WildEarth Guardians to be just that–a Guardian for Wild Earth, not a guardian for various “stakeholders”. How about the native wildlife, who I might add have been there a lot longer than any humans. Why the continued emphasis on human desires. How about putting ecosystem integrity first. That is what I want from any conservation group. You sound like some WOKE representative–let’s put humans first again. Isn’t that the big problem-we always put humans first?


Leave a Comment