June 20, 2024 | By:

Exploring a Wilderness Milestone – Gila Hits a Hundred

Conservationists around the country and the world have marked two big, related milestones this year: the 75th anniversary of the publishing of Aldo Leopold’s landmark book A Sand County Almanac, as close to a bible as the North American conservation community has, and the 100th anniversary of the establishment – at the urging of Leopold – of the Gila Wilderness.  The Rewilding Institute has joined many other groups in celebrating these pivotal gains. Still, we are also reminding our colleagues that these landmarks are not finished products but grounds upon which to grow.  This week, Rewilding Earth is giving special attention to the Gila Wilderness and the much larger Mogollon Wildway of which it is a fundamental building block.

At The Rewilding Institute, we strive to live Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: A thing is right if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.

We applaud the designation of the Gila and adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas – at over 700,000 acres, the largest Wilderness complex in New Mexico – but also insist that to be ecologically viable for the long-term, this Wilderness must be expanded and reconnected with wildlands along the Spine of the Continent, particularly along the Mogollon Wildway to Grand Canyon National Park and beyond. With Wild Arizona and other partners, we are charting a Mogollon Trail (on existing footpaths) that would link the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail with the Arizona National Scenic Trail and build support for rewilding Mogollon Wildway. The rewilding actions we especially espouse here are Mexican Wolf (Lobo) recovery, which we’ve championed for decades, and Jaguar and Grizzly Bear reintroduction. We also call for restoring populations of diminished species like Gila Trout, Gila Chub, and imperiled songbirds and amphibians. In short, we see the Gila Wilderness as a monumental achievement and the southeast anchor of an ever-wilder habitat link along the Mogollon Rim & Plateau to the Canyon Country northwestward.

Entering Gila Wilderness

Entering Gila Wilderness © Jason Kahn

So, as conservationists celebrated the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Gila Wilderness in southwest New Mexico, four of their community hiked across the first officially designated Wilderness in the world to celebrate its protection and promote its expansion. They were Danny Giovale, founder of Kahtoola, leading maker of traction devices and gaiters; Joelle Marier, executive director of National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance; Jason Kahn, The Rewilding Institute president; and John Davis (me), TRI executive director. Danny’s company Kahtoola generously sponsored the other three of us, so we could explore how better to conserve and restore lands and waters within and beyond Mogollon Wildway – the globally significant wildlife corridor linking the Gila/Blue Wildlands complex with the Grand Canyon wildlands complex 300 miles to the northwest.

We thought to traverse the Gila Wilderness west to east, to better understand where might go a future Lobo (or Mogollon Rim) National Scenic (or Heritage or Recreational) Trail – a wild way to gently promote a Wildway.  As the trip instigator, and a returning explorer of Mogollon Wildway, it fell to me to choose a route.  Alas, I am notorious among friends for simply choosing start and end points (Florida Keys to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula the most glaring example) then either planning as I go (usually) or leaving regional colleagues to do the planning. On this Gila traverse, my vague suggestion was that we hike eastward on trails across the northern part of the Wilderness. Thankfully, Joelle is a real wilderness trip planner and recalled the recent conflagrations in the Gila/Blue wildlands complex, which have charred hundreds of thousands of acres and obliterated scores of miles of trail. Late the day before we were to start hiking and minutes before Memorial Day Weekend began, Jason squealed the wheels of my Ford Ranger (fitting name for what we soon faced!) into US Forest Service headquarters in Silver City, and in we rushed to plead for information on trail conditions. The kindly ranger delayed his office closing to show us on maps where high-severity wildfires had burned in the past fifteen years. The red patches covered much of the western half of Gila Wilderness; and where fires have lately burned, trails are likely to be covered in debris. In short, many of the scores of trails in Gila Wilderness are as hard as bushwhacking these days; and Forest Service trail crews cannot keep up with the burning and falling trees, shrubby regrowth, and spreading exotic species (particularly cheatgrass).

Atop first climb in Gila

Atop first climb in Gila © Jason Kahn

Our first day of hiking was glorious, over small pine-studded ridges, in and out of Rain Creek and West Fork Mogollon Creek, with occasional distant views of Mogollon Baldy and frequent songs of migratory birds, particularly Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers. Joelle, Danny, and Jason fell into relaxed conversation over past and future hikes and paddles, while I stayed back a few steps, trying to recall the Gila’s flowers and birdsongs (mint in my back pocket, in hopes of attracting a Cougar).

Day 2 we climbed a big ridge atop which waited for us a comely Desert Horned Lizard. Danny showed us how to charm a lizard, coaxing this handsome reptile onto his chest to enjoy the tender attentions of all of us admirers.  Then we descended to Mogollon Creek, across which the hiking trail weaved, sometimes visible, sometimes covered in shrubs or fire debris. As the heat increased and the tread diminished, we more and more just walked up the stream, sinking into pools when the sun got too hot. Several pools held small to mid-size fish that we hoped were native Gila Trout and Gila Chub. (We were more certain, later, of our identification of another of the Southwest’s many endemic fish species, a Desert Sucker [which name I suspect my colleagues called me a time or two], foraging a pool in the Middle Fork Gila River, where we hiked farther into our exploration.)

However sound our fish identification, we were soon high and dry, thrashing up Judy Canyon thru scrub oaks, rose bushes, and other shrubs that colonize burned areas.  By late afternoon, we were (depending on each’s tolerance of heat) either sweltering in long clothes or bleeding from countless cuts.

Danny G. on overlook above Gobbler Canyon

Danny G. on overlook above Gobbler Canyon © Jason Kahn

Occasionally, we’d find short stretches of the old trail (as Joelle and Danny skillfully used their GPS map programs), but these were quickly lost in thick shrubbery. We sought to buoy our spirits by talking of the habitat-enhancing benefits of wildfire; but trudging thru the blackened tangles, it was hard to focus on the many creatures, woodpeckers and owls among them, who benefit from burns, even severe burns, fire ecology is now telling us. A splendid cinnamon-colored Black Bear took our minds briefly away from the heat and scratches, as he (I’m guessing by the hefty size) watched us curiously from across a ravine, probably the strangest people he’d ever seen and possibly the first.

Late on day 2, I briefly redeemed my flagging reputation as a wilderness explorer by finding the old trail down into Gobbler Canyon. The last half mile that day was almost normal hiking and led us to a sight as thrilling as the bear: cool, clear water.  To our immense joy, Gobbler Creek was running, shallow but clean.  There we made camp amid sign of bear, Lobo (Mexican Wolf scat), and speedy recovery from recent fire.

Day 3 began cold but cheerful, as ever-energetic Danny had gone ahead alone the evening before, to clear the first mile of trail up Gobbler Canyon.  By the time we were in direct hot sun, though, the trail was disappearing again in charred downed logs and regenerative (but not to human skin!) early succession plants.  We stopped periodically to soak our shirts and filter water. When Gobbler Canyon divided, a thousand or so feet above Mogollon Creek, water flow suddenly stopped. We filled our water bottles in the last pools, shouldered our heavy packs again, and labored upward, zig-zagging to lessen the steep grade and move from shade patch to patch beneath remaining Doug-firs and Ponderosa Pines.

Thankfully, we all gained the ridge crest without injuries worse than scratches — though a broken ankle or punctured hand could all too easily have happened. We rested a short while in the thin shade of a tall snag and enjoyed listening to woodpeckers enjoying a snag forest repast.

Mogollon Baldy Trail

Mogollon Baldy Trail © Jason Kahn

Leaving heavy packs behind, we hastened up Mogollon Baldy, at 10,700+ feet, the third highest peak in Gila Wilderness but first for views, if Forest Service’s decision long ago to put the fire tower there is assumed correct.  The fire lookout person there, Sarah, had just arrived for the season, for the 43rd straight year, and she kindly pointed out features across the big, wild, and connected landscape, including where we could find water. She expressed condolences that we had climbed Gobbler Canyon, saying that before the severe burns of the last twenty years, it had been a beautiful and carefully crafted trail, with more than fifty switchbacks in the upper steep part, to ease the ascent.

That third evening was our only dry camp of the trip, fortunately, in a lovely old Ponderosa Pine stand on a ridge near Cub Mesa.  I sought to regain my friends’ trust by descending to a dark ravine, where I did succeed in finding a trickle of water to augment our half-full water bottles. Danny revived our optimism with a delicious vegetarian chili dinner, and Jason made us laugh with his tales from decades of teaching Earth sciences to 8th graders (a noble pursuit, rewarded more comically than financially).

Hiking across Cub Mesa on day 4 was wonderful, with nearly half shade cover from the park-like pine cover, songbirds and wildflowers, and only modest heat.  When we reached White Creek, we each rushed to find a pool in which to plunge overheated, dusty, char-stained bodies, not even bothering to remove clothes, for they needed rinsing, too, and would dry quickly in the arid air, the evaporation keeping us cool.

Our next stop became “White Crustacean” when Joelle asked about the ranger outpost at the confluence with the Middle Fork of the Gila River, White Creek Station, and the four oldest ears heard it as a mysterious pallid arthropod.  The gentle ground between White Creek and the Middle Fork was purple-hued in many places with patches of lupines and (where snow had recently melted) irises.

Snack time in Nat Straw Canyon

Snack time in Nat Straw Canyon © Jason Kahn

Day 5 was a blissful watery walk down the Middle Fork Gila River. We crossed the small but vital river scores of times (long since accepting wet boots), sometimes amid towering pines, cottonwoods, and Doug-firs (what an unexpected juxtaposition of arboreal giants!); sometimes between huge walls of tuff, basalt, or limestone; usually amid birdsong and flowering herbs; occasionally in sight of fresh Beaver work, including small dams. In sheer numerical terms, the Gila Wilderness may be modest, but its overall diversity and wildness are exemplary.

We also explored side canyons of the Middle Fork. Whenever the going got vertical, Danny led, gracefully free-soloing then setting up belays for the rest of us. Belying its name, Hell Hole Canyon was perhaps the most spectacular of the tributary canyons. The rocks therein were endlessly fascinating; Jason the geologist explained the kinds and sources of rock we were admiring.

We decided that a future Lobo, or Mogollon Rim, National Scenic, or Recreation or Heritage, Trail should not follow any of the Gila or other main river segments. They are too precious to so many sensitive wildlife species. Among creatures we saw that day who might be upset by a heavily used trail were Beaver (dams and chewed sticks, none of the hefty rodents directly in sight), grosbeaks, tanagers, and other forest nesting songbirds; native trout; and gallery forest trees.  We also explored another side canyon, Grave, that day, finding wondrous pools and alcoves, water-polished rock, lush understory beneath old conifers reaching for the rims, places where Pumas lurk…

Day 6 we reluctantly walked out, leaving the Wilderness for the popular recreation lands around Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument – which, despite their popularity, are surely sacred still even in this fallen time.  We were duly humbled as we looked at the centuries-old homes and contemplated making a living in this arid environment, as Mogollon peoples had and some places still do.

View east from Cub Mesa

View east from Cub Mesa © Jason Kahn

On June 1 we began The Rewilding Institute’s Gila Wilderness celebration – honoring the 100th birthday of our country’s first designated Wilderness and planning how to effectively expand and reconnect it along the Mogollon Rim & Plateau to Grand Canyon National Park and beyond – how to complete a Mogollon Wildway. About thirty of us gathered at Gila Wilderness Lodge for this working party.  Many important things were said, which I partially summarize thus:

Kelly Burke and Nikki Check of Wild Arizona explained their effort to get the Upper Verde River protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. This work goes well and designation may happen soon, protecting one of the major waterways draining the Mogollon Plateau.

Craig Miller of Defenders of Wildlife charmed us all, as he always does, with his strong measured explanations of the politics of carnivore recovery in the Southwest. Craig, who could be a brilliant and uncharacteristically ethical politician if ever he entered that field, noted that the word ‘politics’ can be dissected as poly, meaning ‘many’, and ‘ticks’ which are blood-sucking invertebrates. Despite his political skepticism, Craig sees ways to make gains for carnivores and other wildlife of the Southwest in coming years.

Turtle Southern, The Rewilding Institute’s coordinator of Jaguar recovery, nearly stole the show. Once she started talking about the Western Hemisphere’s greatest cat, everyone wanted to plot recolonization routes northward thru Mogollon Wildway.

Hamish Thomson reminded everyone that water is not only fundamentally important and limited in Southwestern ecosystems, but also it is universally valued by people, including land-owners and even bureaucratic institutions.

Nizhoni Baldwin of the Dine people (Navajo Nation), volunteer and community engagement coordinator for Wild Arizona, spoke eloquently of how our conservation efforts along the Mogollon Rim can help rectify social and ecological injustices of the past. She came bearing a gift from the Forest Service, whose officials recognized her critical role at the larger Gila Wilderness celebrations in Silver City and awarded her with a beautiful Gila Wilderness poster, which she shared with the group.

John Stepleton, hiking buddy of Dave Parsons (the two having been backpacking together yearly since serving in the Army together decades ago), spoke of how special is the Gila Wilderness, comparing it favorably to wild country in his home state of Colorado. In Colorado, John S. said, the back-country is so popular these days, that it’s hard to find solitude – another argument for expanding and reconnecting Wilderness and other protected areas.

Jean & Peter Ossorio, veteran Mexican Wolf watchers, shared some of their experiences camping in Lobo country and occasionally finding the endangered canids. Jean & Peter (who generously helped sponsor this gathering) have probably logged more hours tracking and watching Mexican Wolves than have any concerned citizens, and their photo albums bespeak hope for a wilder future.

Sam Hitt, co-founder decades ago of Forest Guardians which is now the powerful group Wild Earth Guardians and more recently founder of Wild Watershed, summarized the conservation mapping of the Mogollon wildlife corridor that he and conservation scientist Dominique Della Salla recently did. This mapping, together with the maps and report authored by the late and legendary Southwest conservation leader Kim Crumbo, set priorities for lands and waters in Mogollon Wildway most needing our attention.

TRI president Jason Kahn asked the assembled wildlands luminaries to think about how we can most effectively combine our efforts to achieve the protections needed for a viable regional wildway. Jason also shared some amusing anecdotes from the Gila Wilderness traverse he and Danny and Joelle and I had just completed, drawing out the “Ohhh noooo” a Forest Service horse-packer had answered when Jason had told him we’d hiked the erstwhile trail up Gobbler Canyon.

TRI’s new development director Tom Skeele shared lessons from his past work as executive director of Predator Conservation Alliance and as a long-time explorer of the Yellowstone ecosystem.  Yellowstone is, arguably, one of the few ecosystems in North America south of the Taiga more intact than the greater Gila ecosystem, in that it still has Grizzly Bears and Lynx (Gila should have Grizzlies and Jaguars).

Michelle Lute, Wildlife For All co-director and TRI vice president, reminded us that wildlife governance reform is a prerequisite for many of our rewilding efforts, and told of Wildlife For All’s work to make wildlife management in each state ecologically sound and democratic. Michelle also reminded us to keep in mind the well-being of individual animals as well as the health of populations, in our work to restore missing or diminished species.

Kirk Robinson, executive director of Western Wildlife Conservancy, reinforced these lessons from Michelle. He also spoke of the need for a new land ethic, if we are to achieve our rewilding goals.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity updated us on threats to and gains in Gila ecosystem protection. He gave us the encouraging estimate that perhaps 80% of the Gila Wilderness is now free of cows and sheep, partly because of lawsuits over endangered species persuading the Forest Service to retire some grazing allotments.

Dave Parsons (Lobo Dave, as he is affectionately known to us TRI colleagues), who organized this Gila summit, told us of Mexican Wolf restoration efforts (which he oversaw in the early years) decades ago and what must now be done to assure a viable future for Wolves and other native species. He also provided an ecological context for why a Mogollon Wildway is critically needed.

Gila Wilderness View © Turtle Southern

Gila Wilderness View © Turtle Southern

The second day of our three-day Mogollon Wildway meeting we devoted to walking in Gila Wilderness.  Multiple parties went in varying directions. Ever fascinated by natural history, I opted to tag along with Lobo Dave so I could ask him biological questions. Our little group early in the morning enjoyed a fine view of five Javelinas, browsing across a draw. These distant relatives of pigs have moved north with a warming climate, and are now being seen as far north as Flagstaff.  (I enjoyed one of the earlier sightings of Javelinas in Gila Wilderness in 2013, just before hiking across the Wilderness with Dave P. and Hamish as part of TrekWest.)  I affixed myself even more firmly right behind Dave (whose hearing has diminished) after he twice walked past rattlesnakes without hearing their warning. (Readers, please see photo and help us decide what species these gorgeous snakes were; I was guessing Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes.)

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake?

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake? © Jason Kahn

Being Dave’s ears for the hike, I called his attention to a male Painted Redstart sweetly singing from a nearby cottonwood tree; then Dave coaxed the warbler closer with a birder’s phishing sound, and we watched the divine little creature flitting about just feet away. We also marveled at a spring-moistened ravine fairly festooned with Yellow Columbine flowers. Just above the Middle Fork of the Gila River, we admired one of the largest Fremont Cottonwood trees any of us had ever seen, at least five feet in diameter. Old-growth forest like you can find on the Gila River and some of its tributaries is a rare and precious type of ecosystem, forming oases in the desert.

Two days later, we all left the Gila Wilderness celebration with re-doubled commitment to protecting a wide and expanding Mogollon Wildway, with the Gila Wilderness as its southeast anchor. Rewilding Earth will provide regular updates on our shared work with the aforementioned and other conservation partners for Lobo and Jaguar and eventually Grizzly Bear recovery, and reconnecting people with wild Nature in this region via a Mogollon Rim Trail.

            —John Davis,
writing initially from Gila Wilderness and finishing the draft in Adirondack Park

See Joelle Marier’s reflection on the hiking trip described above: “100 Years of Wilderness: Reflections on the Gila Centennial.”

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