Wishing the Gila Wilderness a Happy 98th Birthday

I’ll be honest: this is meant to be a note wishing the Gila Wilderness a happy 98th birthday today, June 3.

But I’m finding it hard to muster a celebratory mood. Of course I love the Gila. Of course I want to commemorate all that this place stands for—an emblem of wildness, a landscape with a sacred Indigenous heritage, the home of our only population of lobos, and the inspiration for a new land ethic that fundamentally changed who and what we perceived public lands to be almost 100 years ago.

But the Gila is on fire. In fact, it feels like half the state of New Mexico is on fire. The human-caused Black Fire, currently 262,000 acres and the third-largest fire in New Mexico history, continues to burn in both the Aldo Leopold and Gila Wilderness areas, fueled by exceptionally dry conditions perpetuated by the megadrought that has been bearing down on the American West for decades, by bad grazing management, and by climate collapse. The human-caused Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Complex Fire just set the new state record for size at over 316,000 acres. There’s no rain in the forecast. The winds continue to whip. Many national forests in the state are closed. And the best we can do is hunker down with our air filters and fire maps and solemnly say to one another, “Pray for rain!”

Here at Guardians, one of the requisite qualifications for incoming staff is that they foster a “healthy sense of rage.” Rage at the inadequacy of national laws and policies that are meant to protect the lands, water, wildlife, and climate that we all depend upon for our health and ability to survive and thrive. Rage at the political quagmire that is preventing us from making the radical changes necessary to face the threats of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. Rage at agency allegiance to extractive industries that continue to exploit and devastate public lands and waters and pollute our air. Rage at the Herculean (at times Sisyphean) effort it seems to take to hold governments accountable for protecting the most vulnerable of our human and more-than-human communities. And on this, the 98th birthday of what one community member called “the clean air and water factory of our nation,” the Gila Wilderness, my instinct is to rage, rage against the machine.

But wait. Before we join the conflagrations of the moment, ignited by our rage, consider this. A few weeks ago, First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100, an anthology of essays published by Torrey House Press, edited by Elizabeth Hightower Allen, hit bookstores around the West. To celebrate the Gila’s birthday, Torrey House Press will donate 20% of all First & Wildest purchases to WildEarth Guardians, just use coupon code “WILD” at check out.

We’ve helped organize a few events to launch the book. And its reception has been exceptional. At each event, a torrent of love has poured forth from contributors and attendees alike. It has been a cooling balm for my spirit to witness the power of shared love of place, to hear so many speak to the way a landscape can give us a sense of purpose, a prevailing peace, a belonging that feels like the only grounding force in so much social, political, global, and ecological loss. That’s not to say there’s not a simmering sense of outrage at the threats faced by this beloved wilderness. But through the process of compiling the words that fill the pages of the book and launching them into the world to see what work they’ll do, we’re renewed with a hope that love can prevail. That our shared connections to the land will be the threads that weave the net that ultimately protects it for us and for the next generation of humans and Chiricahua leopard frogs and Mogollon death camas and wild, howling lobos.

So with that, we’ll say, “Happy Birthday, Gila.” We love you and the love you inspire. Your centennial isn’t far away now, and we pledge to continue to mobilize our adoration in service of the big, bold vision of protection that you deserve.

P.S. If you’re looking for more ways to celebrate—and learn about—the Gila, we teamed up with some of our exceptional partners at the Center for Western Priorities, Advocates for the West, and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation to talk about the Gila’s 98th birthday, First & Wildest, and other conservation-related topics.

Leia Barnett is a Greater Gila Campaigner at WildEarth Guardians.