History of the Gila Wilderness


The Gila Wilderness area is located within the Gila National Forest in Southwest New Mexico. As John A. Murray writes in his book, The Gila Wilderness: A Hiking Guide:

Perhaps no other wilderness area in the Southwest or elsewhere so much embodies and reflects this national history and natural philosophy as does the Gila. Many of the important events in the development of the region, from the first expedition of Coronado in 1541 to the more recent raids of Geronimo, occurred either directly in the Gila Wilderness Area or in the immediate vicinity. The cliff dwellings of the ancient Mogollon civilization are present here, as are the campsites and battlegrounds of the Apache and the U.S. Cavalry, the abandoned cabins of pioneers, the secret retreats of outlaws, and the remnants of once active mines. A peculiar human richness abounds throughout the Gila country, and the hills and valleys resonate with a multitude of historical associations while at the same time offering the spectacular beauty of the desert uplands (1988).

Montage of wilderness photos; scenic view, pictograph and Aldo Leopold

Historic and Prehistoric days on the Gila

No one knows exactly when the first human settlers came to the Gila. Limited evidence of hunting by Paleoindians, the earliest inhabitants of the Southwest (9500-6000 BC) has been found in several highland areas of the Gila, but little is known about the extent of their occupation of the area. Archaeologists have found widespread evidence of an Archaic culture, referred to as part of the Cochise Culture (6000-300 AD). These people were exploiting a wide range of plant, animal, and mineral resources in the major river valleys of the Gila. In the later part of the period, Archaic peoples were cultivating corn and squash and constructing pit houses for seasonal occupation.

The following culture, the Mogollon, was probably an evolutionary development of the Cochise. By this time the people seemed to have become more sedentary, cultivating much of their food and living in pit houses, pueblos, and cliff dwellings. In general, there was a steady increase in population and a spread of sites into many different areas. Pottery making began in the early phases of the Mogollon culture, reaching its zenith with the wonderful black and white pottery of the Mimbres people of the Mogollon Culture.

As in other areas of the Southwest, the 13th century was a time of immense change. The Mogollon, like the Anasazi to the north, disappeared. Sites which had been occupied for generations became empty, perhaps due to climatic changes, depletion of local resources, or conflict. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Apache, a nomadic culture from the north, started moving into the area. They primarily hunted and gathered for their subsistence, living in portable tents and other temporary structures. Early historic documents record that grizzly bears, wolves, and the now extinct Merriams elk roamed the mountains and canyons while river otters inhabited the permanent streams and beaver ponds. Most of the pine stands featured large trees in an almost park-like setting.

The roughness of the land probably contributed to the Apache cultural stability, keeping the onslaught of newcomers to a minimum, at least for a while, during the early years of contact. Some of the prominent names in Apache history who struggled to protect their own way of life during this time on the Gila were Cochise, Victorio, Geronimo, and Mangas Coloradas.

By about 1800, Spanish explorers were making their presence felt in the area with copper mines supplying Spain with coinage. The Gila became a part of Mexico in 1821 with the revolution against Spain. After the war with Mexico in 1848 and the resulting Gadsden Purchase, the Gila became part of the United States. Some give the Apaches, with their fierce protection of their land and resources, credit for keeping the Gila Wilderness wild and free from much development into the 1880s.

The later half of the 1800s were times of exploitation in America. The frontier was shrinking, the Indians on the Gila and elsewhere were for the most part gone or put on reservations, the buffalo were gone, the beaver populations in many rivers were depleted, forests in the east were decimated and they were being seriously harvested in the west as well. Areas around the mines and mills were denuded of trees, with old photos showing stacks and stacks of wood ready for the furnaces to power the mills and to support the town. Concern over the reckless abuse of natural resources and the response to the vanishing frontier led to the rise of a conservation movement in America.

National Conservation And Preservation

The conservation movement in the early years sought to protect areas of natural beauty for the enjoyment of the American people. The first National Park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. There was not yet a concern for a wilderness experience or the loss of opportunity for such an experience. While scenic areas were being put aside, development plans were being formulated to make the areas readily accessible to the people who would come to see them.

Having land set aside today as wilderness is a result of the efforts of many people. George Catlin had seen the drastic changes in the lives of Indian cultures, the slaughter of buffalo and the disappearance of wilderness landscapes. Henry David Thoreau and other writers of his time wrote about the importance of wilderness to the human spirit. John Muir spoke and wrote eloquently about the experiential value of wilderness. The idea of wilderness became a great force among leaders of American thought and culture.

Soon after 1900, it was obvious to some people in the Forest Service, which then administered the area, that vegetation and wildlife was changing. Market hunting, predator control, fire suppression, and other forest uses were partially responsible for the change. The Forest Service became interested in looking at the non-consumptive uses of forest lands, and in 1917 commissioned Frank Waugh to conduct a national recreation use survey. Waugh recommended that sight-seeing, camping and hiking be given equal consideration with the consumptive uses of timber and grazing.

Establishment of the Gila Wilderness

Aldo Leopold looking across the Gila wilderness It took Aldo Leopold, a Forest Service employee working in New Mexico, to initiate a federal wilderness concept. He argued against the proposed expansion of a road system in the backcountry of the Gila National Forest and proposed instead that a large area be left roadless and preserved for wilderness recreation. Arthur Carhart, an early landscape architect with the Forest Service, had succeeded in stopping development around Trappers Lake in Colorado to preserve a more natural setting for recreation. Like Carhart, Leopold thought that this type of recreation helped develop individual and national character. Leopold's efforts backed by local community support to establish a wilderness area were successful.

On June 3, 1924, 755,000 acres were set aside by the Forest Service, as the Gila Wilderness, the first designated wilderness in the world. During the early years of wilderness designation, the area was under the supervision of District Ranger Henry Woodrow, who had been working in the area since 1909. According to Woodrow's diary, in the years just preceding and immediately following wilderness designation, trails were practically non-existent and the grizzly bear still roamed.

The Gila Wilderness Today

View across the Gila River from a rock shelterAfter numerous changes and modifications, the original acreage was divided and expanded and is now recognized as the Gila Wilderness with 557,873 acres and the adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness with 202,016 acres. There are now over 800 miles of trails in the two Wilderness areas combined.

The 1924 designation of the Gila Wilderness by the Forest Service marked the beginning of a national system of Wilderness areas and the National Wilderness Act of 1964. It also allowed part of the Gila Forest to remain wild and diverse for future generations. The uniqueness of the Gila Wilderness area does not stop at its designation.

The Rocky Mountains terminate in the Gila, as do the Sierra Madre mountains stretching north from Mexico. The Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts reach into the Gila contributing their unique brands of plants and animals. From elk to gila monsters, aspen trees to prickly pear, the Gila is rich with biological diversity. The opportunities for outdoor recreation in this rugged, rocky country provides a challenge even for the experienced.

Aldo Leopold foresaw the day when there would no longer exist opportunities for escape from progress and development. He also saw the importance of preserving the biological diversity and natural systems giving way to development. Leopold noted these needs in the early 1920s. As we move forward in this new millennium, the importance of protection of natural places becomes increasingly evident.

We now have a global perspective on the environment. Students learn about global systems and environmental concerns, land management agencies and organizations work on international teams, and the world wide web gives us access to information from every part of the world. National wilderness areas and Leopold's efforts have become increasingly important over time.

As evidence of an increasing need to experience wild lands first-hand, we see the rise and growth of the eco-tourism industry. Designated wilderness areas provide an opportunity for a person to find solitude, challenge oneself, and become inspired by the natural world which supports human existence. For those who do not interact directly with wilderness, there is satisfaction in knowing it exists.

The Gila Wilderness is a place where visitors can enjoy the natural beauty and walk in the footsteps of prehistoric Indians, the Apache and the settlers of long ago, where natural systems can function, and the diversity of plant and animal species can be maintained.

Suggested Readings

  • Cunningham, Bill., and Burke, Polly. Hiking New Mexico Gila Wilderness., Falcon Publication
  • French, William. Recollections of a Western Rancher. Silver City, NM: High-Lonesome Books, 1997.
  • Hendee, John C., George H. Stankey and Robert C. Lucas. Wilderness Management. Golden, CO: North American Press, 1990.
  • Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Murray, John. The Gila Wilderness: A Hiking Guide. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.
  • Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
  • Roth, Dennis. The Wilderness Movement and the National Forests. College Station, TX: Intaglio Press, 1990.
  • Steen, Harold K. The U.S. Forest Service. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.
  • Strong, Douglas. Dreamers and Defenders:American Conservationists. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Other Wilderness Resources


Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center
20325 Remount Rd., Hudson, MT 59846; (406)626-5208

Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute
P.O.Box 8089, Missoula, MT 59807; (406) 542-4190


  • Wilderness.net
    an Internet-based tool connecting the natural resource workforce, scientists, educators, and the public to their wilderness heritage through ready access to wilderness information.