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Gila Wilderness

Celebrating a Century of Solitude

Tracy Farley and Adam Collins-Torruella
Washington Office of Communication/Office of Communication and Engagement, Southwestern Region
May 29, 2024

The Gila Wilderness area is located within the Gila National Forest in Southwest New Mexico and is excited to join with friends and partners to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Gila Wilderness Area in 2024! (USDA Forest Service video by Preston Keres)

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television,” Aldo Leopold from “A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There”

This week, the Gila Wilderness celebrates a significant milestone – 100 years of Wilderness designation.

“In 1924, a young forester by the name of Aldo Leopold advocated for this land to be set aside to be the first officially designated wilderness in the United States and in the world,” said Ryan Merrell, Gila Wilderness Centennial Coordinator. “And 40 years after that, we were able to have the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, codifying this as an official code and land management tool. Since then, Wilderness has taken up almost 5% of U.S. total land mass and has been adopted by 60 countries across the world.”
 

An older black and white photo of a man with hat, long leather boots, sitting on a large stump with his dog.
Forest Assistant Aldo Leopold and dog "Flip." (Photo by J. D. Guthrie, from the Forest History Society Photograph Collection)

“Aldo Leopold was a bit of a radical,” said Merrell. “Back in 1924, he was a young forester who had an idea to set aside land specifically to be conserved for recreation in a time period where those sorts of ideas did not exist yet. This became the first wilderness because a road was being planned to be constructed in it, and in a way that would be seen as disruptive to the natural ecosystem and processes that they had there.”

Rugged and Vast, Haven and Sanctuary

The Gila Wilderness, located in southwestern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, is a remarkable and vast expanse of protected land that holds a special place in the history of conservation and outdoor recreation in the United States. Established in 1924, the Gila Wilderness was the world's first designated wilderness area, predating the Wilderness Act of 1964, which paved the way for the creation of many other Wilderness areas across the country.

Covering over 558,000 acres of rugged and diverse terrain, the Gila Wilderness is known for its stunning landscapes, including deep canyons, high mountain peaks and the Gila River, which meanders through its heart. This area is not only a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers but also a sanctuary for numerous plants and animals, making it a vital part of New Mexico's natural heritage. With its rich history and beauty, the Gila Wilderness continues to inspire and captivate all who venture into its historic landscapes.
 

The sun rising over mountains, behind clouds, creating multiple sunbeams.
The sun rises over the Gila Wilderness from Emory Pass. (USDA Forest Service photo by James Apodaca)

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.

Wilderness designation carries with it specific management principles in an attempt to keep it from looking trammeled by humans, with no mechanized equipment allowed. The basic mode of transportation into the Gila Wilderness is by foot or hoof.

“Leopold took it upon himself to determine a plan of how to protect this area that he really cherished as a space of recreation and as a space for wild things to be free. What we're marking here is the 100-year anniversary of that dedication to this land and of Leopold deciding that this is a special place and going forward with a radical solution to protect it,” said Merrell.
 

Man in cowboy hat holds lead rope of horse beside him.
Zack Law, Gila Wilderness packer prepares for his day teaching FS employees horse etiquette and riding techniques before they trek into the Gila Wilderness. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

Into the Wilds

Zack Law, a Forest Service Packer on the Gila National Forest’s Wilderness Ranger District, gets the opportunity to experience the Wilderness, much as it was when Aldo Leopold was initially advocating for the Gila Wilderness.

Historic black and white photo of horseback riders in the Gila Wilderness, looking up at a sheer rock wall.
Horseback riding for recreation in the Gila Wilderness. Inspired by the writings of Aldo Leopold, the Forest Service made the Gila Wilderness first of the many national forest wilderness areas. (USDA Forest Service photo by W. H. Shaffer)

“Packing a mule and riding a horse hasn't changed a whole lot since 1924, it's basically the same thing,” said Zack Law. “It's a pretty unique and rare opportunity in this day and age that you get to do a job that hasn't changed a great deal.”

Whether it’s packing in gear for firefighters, months of food supplies for Fire Tower Lookout operators, or stocking live Gila Trout—a threatened species of fish—in streams and rivers, Forest Service packers help numerous resource managers accomplish what they need, while keeping to the tenet of no mechanized equipment.

Law explained, “The only way that large amounts of gear, anything big and bulky and heavy, gets in and out of the wilderness is if it’s on your back or on these mules and horses.”

“Visitors do come ride in the wilderness. It's pretty rare, especially these days, to see big pack strings among general visitors. During hunting season there may be a little bit more with outfitters taking folks in. You'll see some of that. But mostly it's day rides. Those people are just seeing the edge of my office,” Law observed. "They're just stepping through the door. You get, 15 - 20 miles in there and it's a different world. I thrive on being that far away from civilization, it's a different feeling that a lot of people in this world don't get to experience. Twenty miles from a paved road in this day and age is remote. You're in the middle of nowhere.”

For more information on Aldo Leopold, check out The Aldo Leopold Foundation | Where Ethics Meet Earth.

For more information on the Gila Wilderness Centennial celebration, check out https://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/Gila100
 

A deer with its ears pricked forward and its tongue sticking out of its mouth slightly.
Mule Deer, and many more wildlife, graze on the Gila National Forest and Wilderness. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

 


https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/gila-wilderness