Skip to main content

My District: Is Home to the Gila Wilderness

The rugged area of New Mexico was the world’s first designated wilderness.

By Eric Peterson  |  May 13, 2024
Luis Terraza New Mexico
Siah Correa Hemphill New Mexico

The Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico was established in 1924, making it the oldest designated wilderness area on Earth.

The rugged 558,065-acre tract earned the designation after conservationist Aldo Leopold, then a supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service, spearheaded a push to ban roads and other use permits from the area surrounding the headwaters of the Gila River. It became the nation’s first congressionally designated wilderness area under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Marked by numerous 10,000-foot peaks and diverse forests of aspen, spruce, fir and pine, the Gila is crisscrossed by more than 400 miles of trails, including the iconic catwalk, a half-mile-long bridge suspended above a creek, and an alternate branch of the Continental Divide Trail alongside the Gila River.

NCSL spoke with Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D) of District 28 and Rep. Luis Terrazas (R) of District 39 about the wilderness area and its importance in their districts.

What does the Gila Wilderness mean to your district?

Hemphill: It’s an incredible place where people can go and celebrate the beauty of a wilderness area. In large part thanks to the conservation efforts of Aldo Leopold in the early 1900s, we were able to preserve this beautiful wilderness area where people can go and fish and hike and backpack and ride their horses and just be out in nature and enjoy open space.

Terrazas: It’s one of the biggest assets that we have in Grant County and the whole district, for tourism, for recreation and for our local residents. It’s priceless. It’s just incredible that the wilderness was designated such a long time ago. We have enjoyed it ourselves with our family and friends. It’s a beautiful place to walk and hike; it’s absolutely beautiful.

Of your past visits to the Gila Wilderness, what stands out to you?

Hemphill: My husband and I have spent over 20 years backpacking in the Gila Wilderness. We’ve done backpacking trips in the winter, in the summer and spring and fall, with and without our kids. The trails are incredibly rugged. You can go days without seeing anybody.

In the early 2000s, my husband and I went for a week during the winter up to Hillsboro Peak, and we spent a week up on the peak with blizzards and snow. It snowed almost the whole time, and it was really empowering to use survival skills in the blizzards and below-freezing temperatures. It was incredibly beautiful, peaceful and serene.

A few years before that, I had been driving over the Black Range, which takes you to the foot of the wilderness area where the trailheads are. I was trying to get back home from the airport in January and it started snowing the higher I got. I ended up getting stuck there overnight, and it was absolutely terrifying. I was alone and thought I was going to die. So, a few years later to have learned the skills to be able to survive not in my car, but in a tent with very little for shelter, that was really empowering, to be able to face my fears of the snow and being stuck in the wilderness.

Terrazas: No. 1 is the Continental Divide Trail. Depending on where you want to go, it cuts across the Twin Sisters; it cuts across all of Grant County. Between the wilderness and the forest and all the natural beauty that we have there—and then having the Continental Divide Trail go right through it—it’s just incredible. But there are hundreds of miles of trails. There’s too many to mention.

As the Gila Wilderness celebrates its 100th birthday in 2024, why is it important?

Hemphill: We have such an incredibly rich history in New Mexico that I really am grateful that we have things like the Wilderness Act that protects these areas so younger generations can learn about how important it is to protect the natural habitat for future generations, and not just continue to grow and develop. It teaches all of us how to be respectful of the lands and how connected everything is. If we’re not protecting our water and our soil and air, we are all negatively impacted by that.

New Mexico is really high in substance use disorders, low workforce participation rates and high poverty. To combat that, I think the most helpful thing is to understand what is very conducive to mental well-being and mental health. Certainly, being out in nature is one component of that, where you can go to unplug and enjoy the silence and experience that restorative connection to nature.

Terrazas: A lot of the people in our community care about and love that forest, because we have so many memories there. Although we have on occasion a bad actor who leaves trash, you also have for that one probably 50 or 100 people who are not like that and care about it and keep it clean, and want it to be there for generations to come.

The wilderness designation has hindered the maintenance when it comes to fires. I think that’s the only thing that I really have seen that has probably been a downside of the designation. Although it’s incredible, the designation also doesn’t allow the Forest Service to maintain it. It’s supposed to remain as natural beauty, so they can’t take equipment in and so forth. We want to preserve it for years to come. If it burns down and it’s overgrown and we lose it that way, what good is that?

What else is special about your district?

Hemphill: I particularly am really empowered and inspired by the stories of the labor movement beginning here where the women joined together with the children, and they held the line on strike. There was the Empire Zinc Mine here, and there were really poor working conditions and living conditions for the Hispanic workers. The Hispanic families and the women, working collaboratively together, were able to create systemic change and improve working conditions, and get running water and electricity to the homes where a lot of the Hispanic families lived.

Stories like that can really teach us how empowering it is and how important it is to work collectively to create systemic change to improve conditions not only for ourselves and our families, but for other families as well.

Terrazas: First of all, this is copper country. We call the mining district Colibri, the Spanish name for copper. You’re looking at the mines that our parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents all worked at. We also have Western New Mexico University, where I went to college and many of my friends and relatives have gone to college. We are blessed to have a nice campus that allows kids to get a good education in a small town.

The climate here is just wonderful. They used to say that we have four gentle seasons; they’re not kidding about that. My wife and I would probably never leave this place just because of the weather.

Also, our red and green chiles. I’d probably have to arm-wrestle a lot of the representatives and senators around the state, but we can go toe to toe with any place. We have wonderful food here.

“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events and destinations to the fun facts only the locals know. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.