The GILA WILDERNESS at age 95; losing a legacy?

I recently made my 10th visit to the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico—the nation’s oldest wilderness lying along a vast ridge and valley landscape with forests of ponderosa pine and oak-pinyon-juniper on ridges above Middle and West forks of the Gila River. It was a nice trip—but only because we avoided favorite areas where trails are now impassable. I posted our visit as “The Trip We Didn’t Do.”

The Gila wilderness is oldest in the country—its centennial will be 2024. Famous conservationist Aldo Leopold first came to this area in the early 1900s, formed many of his ideas about wild lands and ecology here, and in the 1920s lobbied Forest Service superiors to name Gila a wilderness. Regional Forester Frank Pooler classified it as Gila Wilderness in 1924—40 years before the Wilderness Act of 1964.

The original area was 755,000 acres and also included the west half of what is now Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area.

In 1964 the Wilderness Act named most of the Gila among wilderness areas in the U.S. The New Mexico Wilderness Act of 1980 increased Gila Wilderness acreage to 558,064 acres and created a 202,000-acre Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area to the east.

The two wilderness areas range in elevation from 5000 to nearly 11,000 feet, including rich riparian habitat and the some of the largest remaining stands of old-growth pine in the world—highly valued for logging.

As University of Arizona students in the 1970s, we often visited the Gila—only four hours from Tucson with 700 miles of trails. A Forest Service planimetric map (one-half inch to mile scale) was all we used as trails were easy to follow. Some trails were built by early sheep and ranching interests, others to access fire lookouts; some probably were rebuilt to gentle grades for stock use by the Forest Service or Civilian Conservation Corps which had 17 camps on or near the Gila National Forest from 1933-42.

Patrolling and maintaining trails was part of Forest Service work in the early to mid-1900s. Trails accessed fire lookouts on mountain peaks staffed every summer, along with backcountry guard stations which served as launch point for summer work such as patrols, fire suppression, marking boundaries, building fence and checking cattle numbers and range condition.

Fairly stable forest vegetation and temperature ranges throughout the 1900s (unlike recent trends towards higher temperatures) helped. For example, the mixed conifer forests in higher elevations and ponderosa in mid elevations kept needle blanketed paths mostly intact with little maintenance needed other than cutting out an occasional down tree.

The past 10–15 years of big fires has magnified trail maintenance needs, which continue many years after fire. But federal funding and presence is going in the opposite direction.

An oddity of federal fire management funding is almost unlimited fire-fighting budgets through national administration for large fires but post fire administration returns to local administration where funding is much more limited. Gila Wilderness is case in point. Some $23 million was spent to combat the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire and another $10-11.5 million on restoration efforts. Some funding was available for trail work for five years after the fire, but post-fire trail needs continued after this period.

Much of the Gila trail system was impacted by the fire and results such as downed logs, New Mexican locust and other fire-stimulated vegetation, and post-fire floods that washed out creek trails. Most trails west of the Mogollon Crest are impassable and trails up to the Crest damaged.

On the Gila and other southwestern forests that we have visited over the years, field-going trail champions are retiring. John Kramer, wilderness manager for most of the Gila and the Aldo Leopold, kept a seasonal trail crew working in the wilderness for decades with proactive grantsmanship. He got grants from entities such as Coca-Cola interested in clean water by arguing that repairing trails reduced watershed erosion. But Kramer has retired and Gila National Forest officials decided to transition to a forest-wide trails crew not dedicated to wilderness. Heart of the Gila, a local non-profit, has assumed as much wilderness trail maintenance and restoration as possible, working with partner groups and volunteers. But their trails website tab notes “We are losing our Gila wilderness trails.”

On a “moonscape” crawl in the Mogollons three years after the big fire, we learned the hard way you can no longer waltz into the Gila with a simple map and expect a serene hike. Hike planning now requires phone calls with locals, GPS work and consultation with Google Earth imagery. It is particularly annoying that topographic maps—basis for GPS and most new map editions—have not been field checked by the U.S. Geographical Service developers since the 1990s; so no trail maps are current after large fires. Heart of the Gila is a rare resource—keeping a running inventory of “trails cleared” and “trails not recommended” for Gila Wilderness.

Other southwestern wilderness such as Chiricahua, Mount Wrightson, Miller Peak, Mazatzal and Sierra Ancha exhibit similar problems. Large fires from 2000-2013 demolished most high-country forest, contour and streamside trails. Some fire ecologists think that stand replacing fire every few centuries may be the natural regime for mixed conifer. While natural post-fire recovery proceeds on Gila Wilderness parks and forests, the trails will not recover naturally.

Meanwhile, Forest Service officials are much more desk-bound by appeals, process, and administrative work. Only commercial outfitters, hunters and equestrian groups ride the trails; most backcountry Forest Service guard stations are mothballed, leaving the agency with little incentive to keep trails open for its work.

I have met many wilderness “heroes”—whether agency field people, rangers or volunteers—scrabbling together volunteer projects and a little contract work to keep priority trails open. But as one Arizona trail coordinator told me, “It’s a moving target.” Moving downwards.

Fewer trails also add to wilderness overuse in areas where trails and information are good—something we call the “trails-solitude inverse.” It would be good stewardship to retain our vast network of legacy trails to disperse people and ensure the solitude envisioned in the Wilderness Act. This may not be an issue unless you hike or ride in the wilderness. But if you have glided along legacy trails in western wilderness, then return to find them unusable, you may share my concern.

“A well maintained well distributed trail system is essential to protect the wilderness,” noted Bill Cunningham, a lifelong wilderness advocate, former Gila backpacking guide, and coauthor of a 2017 post-fire Gila hiking guide. “Otherwise you will have concentration of use in hot spots.”

Most wilderness advocacy goes towards protecting wilderness. Trail loss might seem like a minor issue given other threats to public lands. But public access to wilderness is diminishing from loss of legacy trails damaged by climate change related events, while management agencies have less incentive and funding to keep trails open. I applaud the volunteer stewardship groups stepping into the gap, but can they do all needed restoration?

The Trails Stewardship Act of 2016 allows credits for trail work to outfitters, expands volunteer partnerships and allows off-duty federal fire crews to work on trail maintenance. Pay incentives (usually hazard pay and extended hours for staff on a fire) may be lacking and some crews may balk at using traditional tools like crosscut saws required by Forest Service in wilderness. But it’s a start. (By the way, we saw chainsaw cuts on some trees in the Gila Wilderness after the Mogollon-Baldy Complex fire indicating possible exemption to use chainsaws in wilderness. Perhaps such an exemption could be extended to post-fire trail rehabilitation in some situations.)

The Wilderness Act of 1964 states that wilderness areas are to be designated and managed “unimpaired” for “future public use and enjoyment.” If the public cannot “use and enjoy” wilderness, or, by default, overuses a few known areas, we miss the social purpose for wilderness and deprive the next generations of wilderness users.

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