On October 2, 1922, Aldo Leopold penned a plea for the preservation of a wilderness area in New Mexico. As a U.S. Forest Service employee stationed in the Land of Enchantment, Leopold lamented the loss of areas fit for wilderness designation that recently had been lost to the rise of automobiles. In his plea, he wrote “during the last five years the following areas which might have been suitable for the same purpose [wilderness designation] have been opened to auto travel and are no longer available. …Only two other areas remain in the Southwest that might be used, but neither is as attractive as the Gila.”[i]
Located in southwest New Mexico, the Gila Wilderness was originally home to myriad Native American peoples including the Archaic,[ii] Mogollon, and Apaches. However, Spanish explorers penetrated the Gila in search of copper mines near the start of the 19th century, mirroring other natural resource exploits across the North America at the time. As a result of Mexico’s revolution against Spain in 1821, the Gila became a part of Mexico. However, by 1854 the Gila returned to the jurisdiction of the U.S. from the Gadsen Purchase.[iii]
Less than 100 years later, saving the Gila became the objective of American conservationists like Leopold. Mistreatment of beaver, buffalo and the all but disappearing of forests across the U.S. gave rise to the American conservation movement. Seeking to preserve areas of natural beauty for the general public, the conservation movement spurred the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.[iv] The General Land Office’s forest division took over administration of the Gila by 1900, and the philosophy of that division – which became the Bureau of Forestry and then the U.S. Forest Service – was rooted in the conservation movement as well.
Leopold’s 1922 proposal became a reality less than two years later when on June 3, 1924 the U.S. Forest Service set aside 755,000 acres as the Gila Wilderness, the first “wilderness” designation in the world. Despite this milestone, it took another 40 years until Congress passed the National Wilderness Act of 1964. Alterations and changes to the Gila Wilderness have occurred since 1924. In honor of Leopold’s vision the original Gila acreage was divided and simultaneously expanded. Today the 557,873 acres of the Gila Wilderness sits adjacent to the Aldo Leopold Wilderness’ 202,016 acres.[v]
– Stephanie Milne-Lane
Editor’s Note: From time to time, SHRA comes across fun, interesting and notable items in the archives that we think would be of interest to our readers but that don’t warrant a longer blog post. This piece is one of a series of vignettes that we hope will bring some of these discoveries to life. If you’re looking for one of our longer pieces, click on “Features” under “Categories” in the left navigation column.
[i] “Report on Proposed Wilderness Area,” Inspection Report: Gila National Forest, 1922, Box 3, 9/25/10-11: Forest Service Records, The Aldo Leopold Archive, University of Wisconsin-Madison Digital Collections
[ii] Part of the Cochise Culture (600-300 AD)
[vi] “Report on Proposed Wilderness Area,” Inspection Report: Gila National Forest, 1922, Box 3, 9/25/10-11: Forest Service Records, The Aldo Leopold Archive, University of Wisconsin-Madison Digital Collections