The Gila River in Cliff-Gila Valley, N.M. All Photo Credits: Jenna Kurtzweil


By Jenna Kurtzweil


The day dawned cool and overcast in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, its fingers crossed for the late-blooming monsoon. But the serenity of the scene did not extend to me and my traveling companion Taylor Jennings. While the season’s first true rain sent locals running excitedly for their gauges, it offered less-than-ideal conditions for two Midwesterners taking their first pass at mountain driving. Fortunately, the summer rain turned out to be just that; the sky cleared as we took the switchbacks at a brisk 15 mph.

A view of the Gila National Forest from Route 15.

Our hand-drawn map led us northbound on Route 15, a road that could only be breathtaking from the passenger’s seat — for a driver, it was all white knuckles, hugging the inside lane, and stealing glances at the quilt-like sprawl of hazy blue mountains and green canopies below. We paused with the windows down at every outlook and overhang, soaking up the silence and sagey high-altitude aroma. Philip Connors, a veteran fire lookout on the Gila, has written about  “those mornings of fresh-scrubbed serenity that made the forest look like a world at the dawn of time.” This was one of those.

We more or less stumbled into our first close-up encounter with “New Mexico’s last major free-flowing river.” We were passing through a secluded campground, sequestered from the casual tourist by two hours of hairpins and cattle guards. Tucked away between tree trunks and beneath rocky ledges, patterned with the shadows of circling turkey vultures, a modest slice of the 650-mile-long waterway wound into view. For us, it was a low-key introduction to the iconic Gila River, a cherished natural resource of the West now subject to a controversy that has brought centuries of political wrangling and cultural conflict to a boil. We were here to trace the history of that controversy, which turned out to be as sinuous and rich as the river itself.


‘Wilderness with a Capital W’

In 1924, famed naturalist Aldo Leopold coined the term “Wilderness Area,” referring to spaces devoid of roads, today’s cell towers, and any lingering ghosts of the Industrial Age. In the same year, the U.S. Forest Service protected an unprecedented 500,000 acres to form the first-of-its-kind Gila Wilderness. The adjacent and aptly named Aldo Leopold Wilderness was designated in 1980.

A monarch butterfly along the Gila River.

Fast-forward to 2019. The Gila National Forest is home to not only America’s first Wilderness, but its most threatened river. According to America’s Most Endangered RiversⓇ of 2019, two threats contribute to the Gila’s vulnerability. The first is climate change: rising temperatures threaten to shrink the mountain snowpack that feeds the Gila’s headwaters, disrupt the region’s indispensable monsoon, and catalyze extreme wildfires (which Connors calls “the most photogenic expressions of the Anthropocene”). The second — and most immediate — reason we had taken up our sunscreen and ventured southwest is a proposed dam diversion on the Upper Gila that would not only put the river itself at risk, but the myriad flora and fauna it sustains.

As rain resumed pelting the windshield, we headed back to our night’s lodging, weaving in and out of spruce-fir forests, potholes, and spotty cell reception, already won over by America’s First Wilderness and the river that wound through it. It was easy to understand Connors’ description of the region as “Wilderness with a Capital W,” and equally easy to see how so many communities — human, flora, and fauna alike — had a stake in its future. Exactly what those stakes were, though, we as yet had only a dim understanding. In the days that followed, the Gila community gave these two students from faraway Illinois a crash course in environmental politics we won’t soon forget.


Damn the Diversion!

Silver City, a vibrant New Mexico community just south of the National Forest, was our home base for the week and the place to be for all things Gila.

USDA Forest Supervisor Adam Mendonca at the Sliver City Ranger Station.

Our first meeting was with Adam Mendonca, USDA Forest Supervisor of the Gila National Forest. A Silver City local, he had served on the Gila Fire Crew before transitioning to fighting bureaucratic blazes in the office. Mendonca explained that the Forest Service’s role is often to mediate from “the middle of two polar opposites” — between interest groups ranging from mountain bikers and horseback riders, to ranchers and American Indian tribes, to the state and federal governments. Our request for a “simple summary”  of the Gila River dam diversion was met with raised eyebrows that clearly said, good luck.

Mendonca emphasized that the forest service’s management goals are “based on communities’ connections to the landscapes they live around.” The more conversations Taylor and I had, the more this point crystallized: Stakeholders on the Gila River differed wildly in mission and motivation, but were united in their drive to engage with the landscape in the way they thought was best (“best” being the contested and highly subjective term).

Attempts to optimally allocate Gila water have been underway for years, but the most relevant legislation occurred when President George W. Bush signed the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) in 2004. Then, in 2015, a total of 15 New Mexican water users representing  agricultural interests — the so-called NMCAP Entity — assembled to implement a major project that involved a Gila River dam diversion. The NMCAP Entity had been allocated $66 million and 14,000 acre-feet of water per year, with $62 million tacked on should the project involve diverting the Gila and/or San Francisco rivers. Diverted water would be used for local ranching and farming irrigation, with excess either stored for times of drought or (more controversially) sold.

The GRIP office in Silver City, N.M.

Taylor and I didn’t have to travel far in Silver City to find passionate opponents of the dam diversion scheme. The Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP) office, wrapped quaintly within downtown Silver City’s mural-patterned storefronts and eclectic antique shops, was identifiable not by the sign swinging from the doorframe, but by the DAMN THE DIVERSION bumper sticker emblazoned on a car parked outside.

In the little office, we found representatives of GRIP, the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance (UGWA), and the Gila Conservation Coalition (GCC), who have joined forces to defend the Upper Gila River Basin’s wilderness areas and their rivers. Seated at a wooden table piled high with maps and brochures, we posed a question to directors Allyson Siwik and Donna Stevens: “Why are these areas worth protecting?”

Stevens’ response was succinct and immediate: “Because they’re there.” She added, “The river can’t speak for itself, and it needs defenders.”

The Gila diversion has driven a stubborn, highly ideological wedge between groups like the GCC and the NMCAP, a wedge so polarizing, claimed Stevens, that reconciliation might be impossible: “The water that we have, we have to treat it with respect! And the people on the CAP Entity don’t look at it that way, they look at it as a resource.”

Siwik and Stevens consider “the most junior project on the river” to be solely motivated by the government’s subsidy. Without the government dangling a $62 million carrot in front of the NMCAP, the diversion wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — happen. According to them, it would be better to use those funds for climate change resiliency and help with resource management for local communities. (Similar reallocations are demanded of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who publicly opposes the diversion.)

The exasperation in the room was palpable. At one point, Siwik asked: “Can’t we as a society say the Gila is a special place? It’s one of the last special places we have in the state.”

Ninety-five years ago, Aldo Leopold posed the same question. His famous “land ethic,” published in 1949 to encourage respect toward nature, was holy writ in the GRIP office 70 years later. Taylor and I left with a stack of informational materials in hand, and a fast-growing realization that this issue ran deeper than we could have ever imagined.

“Go jump in the river!” Stevens called as we passed the DAMN THE DIVERSION bumper sticker. “You’ll be charmed by it, I expect.”


‘Dollars and Cents’

Western New Mexico University (WNMU) sits on a hill overlooking Silver City, and it was there that we turned for answers on our last full day in town. With Stevens’ and Siwik’s impassioned testimony fresh in our minds, we pooled our curiosities and asked Sam Schramski — current WNMU Research Affiliate, social-ecological researcher, and climate change expert — the impossible question. Who is right, and who is wrong?

Western New Mexico University Research Affiliate Sam Schramski.

Schramski painted the situation as a spectrum. Far to one side are the GCCs, UGWAs, and Leopolds of the world, defenders of the cottonwoods and willow flycatchers, who, like Connors, equate the diversion to “the death of the river below the dam.” On the other end is the “crude dollars and cents calculation.” But, Schramski cautioned, “It’s not just a dollars and cents conversation.”

Throughout the trip, we struggled to understand the dam proponents’ position on such a spectrum. Typically, the NMCAP — composed mostly of farmers and ranchers — aligns with the financial short term rather than the environmental long term, their priority being the upcoming growing season. This is especially true in the American Southwest, where farming in itself is not particularly lucrative. So, why do it?

Sam explained:  “The ranching identity, independent of how lucrative it is, is huge.” Ranching on the Gila watershed traces to the mid-19th century’s mining boom. Seven-odd generations later, many of those families still farm the same land. Staunch environmentalists and economists alike might objectively question the use of Gila resources to sustain such a small (and, as statistics suggest, aging) cluster of heritage farms. But for the farmers themselves, it’s anything but objective — it’s their life.

As the binary of the impassioned environmentalist vs. crude economist dissolves, a right-and-wrong conversation quickly sours. Earlier in the summer, Taylor and I had connected via email with an NMCAP representative from the Gila Farming Irrigation Association, who expressed that the organization’s endgame desire was to ensure the river’s protection — an opinion that would surely have been contested back in the GRIP office.

Clearly, this issue’s gray area spreads far and wide — making it not only more difficult to digest, but more difficult to arrive at a crowd-pleasing conclusion. “In an ideal world,” Sam offered, “you displease everyone a little bit.” It’s the classic compromise: everyone succeeds and everyone suffers. But right now, it was all too clear that the suffering party was the river itself.


Down To the River

Taylor and I left WNMU and headed to the Cliff-Gila Valley in Cliff, N.M., one of the three proposed diversion sites. Our brains cycled through reflections on cows, compromises, ranching, and rivers as we motored toward a mirage-like spine of mountains looming low in the distance.

The Nature Conservancy’s Martha Cooper takes the authors on a tour of the Gila River Farm.

A half-hour outside Silver City, we pulled onto Box Canyon Road and counted mailboxes: one, two, three … turn right. We’d arrived at the Gila River Farm, a property of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and were greeted by Martha Cooper, a TNC Field Representative. Like Stevens and Siwik, Cooper spoke fondly of the Gila’s riparian landscape and the organisms that call it home. Like Mendonca, she occupies a role of supposed official objectivity, as the TNC has hands in irrigation and environmentalism alike. Like Sam, she sees the sore need for compromise between the two.

“People were pretty cordial and friendly early on (when the AWSA passed), and this has been so contentious,” she said. “At times, it’s made these relationships seem really fragile, because people pick sides. … That, to me, is just a lost opportunity. You have a wad of federal money, like what an opportunity to do great things! And instead it’s just like ‘no, let’s just spend our energy fighting.’ ”

After our chat, Cooper suggested we refill our water bottles and “go on down to the river.” Despite the heat and mosquito warfare, she graciously treated us to a walking tour of the property. But when we arrived at the river site, ready to take Stevens’ advice and jump in, there was no running water to be seen — just a crater-like puddle in the center of a dry riverbed. The Cliff-Gila Valley, Cooper explained, is a hotbed for over-irrigation, and the Gila River Farm is a prime example. Two irrigation ditches in the vicinity had realized one of TNC’s worst fears for the Gila: low flow rates. Proposed diversion action could result in further dewatering — a problem exacerbated by the effects of climate change and the increasingly tardy monsoon.

We weren’t the only ones surprised by the Gila’s less-than-riverlike state. Recently, the Children’s Water Festival was held at this location to allow Silver City fifth-graders to experience the river. “The weekend before the Water Festival,” Cooper said, “the irrigators redid their dams and dried up the river. At the end of the day one of the kids (asked), ‘When are we going to the river?’ ”

Truth be told, Taylor and I felt much the same way.

On the sun- and sweat-drenched trek back to the farm, we picked our way around gopher holes as Cooper explained what she found most compelling about the current controversy. Urging us to steer clear of the political weeds, she expressed that she is “way more interested in the place, and what it has to offer to nature and people. … To me, it’s the story of the place that is threatened by both climate change and the AWSA.” She paused to pick up a plastic bottle cap that had fallen onto the path. “People love this place,” she added, thoughtfully stowing the piece of trash in her pocket. “That’s true whether you’re enviro or whether you’re descendants of a homesteading family. And I think there is a commonality that we completely … forget about because our values are so different. But people love this place.”

We left feeling emboldened, inspired, and — thanks to Cooper — more hydrated than we had been when we arrived. With our shoes muddied and skin sunburned, we felt like we’d really “met” the Gila that day … even though we hadn’t seen much of it at all.

As we raced mounting storm clouds back to Silver City, we hopefully dialed one last phone number: Joe Saenz, a member of the Apache Nation and owner of the local store Wolfhorse Outfitters. Saenz had returned from leading a week-long pack trip through the Gila Wilderness accompanied by just one fellow hiker, their two horses, and what supplies they could carry. We were able to get in touch and arrange a meeting for the next day.


‘It’s Our Homeland’

Like most of the West, New Mexico’s water policy is allocated according to prior appropriation: “first in time, first in right.” On that basis, one could argue that the seeds of today’s controversy were sewn thousands of years ago. Certainly, there can be no discussion of the Gila River without foregrounding the indigenous communities who have historically relied on the river’s resources for survival.

Joe Saenz discusses the Apache Nation’s historical homeland along the Gila River.

On our final day in Silver City, Taylor and I pulled up chairs in the front yard of Saenz’s home, which doubles as his place of business. We were lucky to end the trip with beautiful weather: sparrows hopped around our feet; crickets chirped from nearby trees and grasses; the small herd of horses snorted from their enclosure out back, restless for their next adventure. Saenz began the conversation by discussing his role as a representative of the Chiricahua Apache Nation, whose ancestral territory lies at the convergence of northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

“It’s our homeland. This is our traditional country. The history that you have been told has been a lie, regarding our occupation and our presence here. …We have been here much longer than anybody realizes,” he said. “Our history, and our understanding, and our knowledge, and our relationship with this land has never changed.

“What we believe is that there is a reason why the Gila is the last free-flowing river in the state, and why the Apaches here were the last tribe to be settled.”

The Gila Wilderness — “center of the ‘northern stronghold’ and traditional ‘summer grounds’” for the Chiricahua Apache — was permanently colonized by Europeans in the late 1800s. After centuries of conflict with Mexican, Spanish, and European forces, 20 years of intense warfare with the U.S. military, and Geronimo’s surrender in 1886, “the Chiricahua tribe was evacuated from the West and held as prisoners of war … in Florida, in Alabama, and at Fort Sill, Okla.” Now, “greater numbers (return) to (the Chiricahua Apaches’) traditional territory every year.” Saenz considers himself a part of this return, bound for reclamation and recovery.

“We’re trying to come back to the area to establish that standard of relationship with this land. And it’s been really difficult,” he said. “People are nervous. … There’s three major Apache organizations now in the area that are all trying to establish (ourselves), and use our history and empirical knowledge of what this land is about.”

Recognizing historical parallels is crucial to the Gila’s current situation, riddled as it is with miscommunication. “The philosophies were so different that it led to war,” Saenz said of 19th-century colonization. “But that war was between two different cultures, and what we see right now is a war within a culture. … What we see is a culture that has two extremes, and that’s why this fight over this land and over the resources (is) going on.”

While groups like the GCC are allied to the cause, the battles are slow-going and fraught with opposition. “The problem with a lot of this perception of this country is (that it’s) sacrifice country,” Joe explains. “Not that many people are out there, or the people out there don’t matter much.

“That’s going to demand a lot of pushback, and that’s where we are. We’re here to push back, we’re here to complain, we’re here to make noise.”

With Saenz, we felt traces of the exasperation present in the GRIP office; we also felt the same resolve. Saenz outlined the odds he sees himself up against: “The American corporate mentality is … take, take, take, and if it falls apart, who cares?” Clearly, he not only cares deeply, but is determined to pass on his conviction to others. Amid inequities, marginalization, and racial oppression still rampant in the region, Saenz campaigns from the courthouse and with his business for fair treatment of the land and its occupants. “Our effort here is to restore balance,” he summed up. “Cultural, social, economic.”

After returning our lawn chairs to their rightful locations, we strolled over to the horse enclosure, where the interested herd ambled our way. Whenever the horses turned their backs, Saenz reassuringly patted them on the rear (it’s how they’re trained not to kick). “We’re pretty stubborn,” he concluded, giving a black-and-white horse named Oreo a gentle pat. “We don’t want to give up.”

For better or for worse, we thought, driving west out of Silver City for the final time, this is a community of people who don’t want to give up.

The Gila Box Riparian Preserve in Safford, Ariz.

For the remainder of our trip, we traced the Gila’s path back to Arizona in the most well-traveled vehicle ever rented from Tucson International. We spent a 105-degree afternoon at the Gila Box Riparian Preserve in Safford, Ariz., where the river left a blue-and-green snail trail on the otherwise arid landscape. We passed through the San Carlos Apache Reservation, home to the Gila-fed San Carlos Reservoir and one of the communities that “refus(es) to be a party to virtually any aspect of the (dam diversion) project”. Our westernmost stop was Gila Bend, a small town built circa 1872, named for the river that gave it life. We cruised through deserts, saguaro forests, mountain passes — seeing traces of the Gila at every turn. Nobody wanted to give up, it seemed, not even the river.

Saenz spoke of a war for resources, a war between factions of a culture divided. The Gila is only one of this war’s many battlefields. Several interviewees referred to the river as a microcosm, a signal river — for New Mexico, the Southwest, America, the world. An example of what’s happening elsewhere and a harbinger of what’s to come. And the Gila’s future is no doubt coming soon. Maybe, as Connors hopes, 2020 will bring “the death of the dream of a dam on the Gila.” Maybe not. Either way, the outcome will ripple across the worlds of water management, conservation, and environmental justice far beyond this watershed. In the meantime, the words of one of the passionate defenders of the Gila echoed in my head:

“Go jump in the river! You’ll be charmed by it, I expect.”

A dry riverbed at Cliff-Gila Valley.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s good news for the Gila! As of Dec. 20, 2019, the U.S. Department of the Interior officially rescinded the NMCAP Entity’s right to the $50 million for the dam diversion project. By rejecting the Entity’s requested extension to their timeline, the DOI has effectively stalled development indefinitely. For more information, read the letter from the Department of Interior or the news release published by the Gila Conservation Coalition.

About the Authors …

Jenna Kurtzweil is from Inverness, Ill. She received a B.A. in English with a minor in German and earned the Certificate in Environmental Writing (CEW) in May 2019. She served as an iSEE Communications Intern and the Q Magazine Student Editor for Volume 2, Issue 1. In September 2019, iSEE hired Jenna as a Communications Specialist — and she now serves on the Q Editorial Board.



Taylor Jennings, a former Q writer and iSEE intern, assisted Jenna in research for this article. A St. Louis area native, she received a B.A. in English and a B.S. in Global Studies in May 2019. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Journalism at New York University. 

Jenna and Taylor’s research trip to the Southwest was sponsored by a generous donation from Janelle Joseph.