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Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Statement on the 100th Anniversary of the Designation of the Gila Wilderness, America’s First Wilderness

WASHINGTON, June 3, 2024 – Today, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued the following statement celebrating the 100th anniversary of the designation of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, the first-ever designated wilderness in the world.

"A century ago today, the U.S. Forest Service’s designation of the Gila Wilderness began a national tradition of preserving unique and treasured landscapes. With more than 800 federally designated wilderness areas in the U.S., comprising over 111 million acres of protected land today, the Gila Wilderness set a precedent for wildlife and wild land protection. Wilderness areas are beloved for their opportunities for recreation, wildlife habitat, and their contributions to rural economies. They play a crucial role in mitigating the impacts of climate change, including through carbon sequestration, and protecting precious freshwater resources.

"Today, we also honor the Indigenous peoples who stewarded this landscape for thousands of years, and we recognize conservationist and former Forest Service employee Aldo Leopold who proposed wilderness protection for the Gila landscape. First established on June 3, 1924, today, the Gila Wilderness encompasses 559,688 acres, with the adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness adding another 202,016 acres. While the Gila set the stage for numerous wilderness designations by administrative action, it wasn’t until 1964, forty years later, that the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson to establish a National Wilderness Preservation System.

"On its hundredth anniversary, we celebrate but a moment in the life of this remarkable landscape. The Gila has provided sustenance, inspiration, and solace for thousands of years. As we move forward in this new millennium, as the Gila Wilderness continues its journey and us with it, the importance of preserving natural lands, including our most wild places, becomes increasingly evident. The USDA and its Forest Service are honored to be the most recent stewards of this remarkable landscape, ensuring its protection for future generations.”


Background on the Gila Wilderness

The Gila Wilderness, located in southwestern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, is a remarkable and pristine 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 750,000 acres of rugged and diverse terrain, the Gila Wilderness and adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness are known for their stunning landscapes, including deep canyons, high mountain peaks, and the Gila River, meandering through the heart of this land. This area is not only a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers but also a sanctuary for numerous species of flora and fauna, making it a vital part of New Mexico's natural heritage. With its rich history and untouched beauty, the Gila Wilderness continues to inspire and captivate all who venture into its historic landscapes.

Aldo Leopold, a Forest Service employee working in New Mexico, first initiated 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.

This land had been and continues to be the homeland of Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, including the Mimbres, Mogollon, Early Puebloan, and Warm Spring, Chiricahua and Chihene Apache. For the Apache peoples, the Gila landscape also represents a painful narrative about forced removal and dispossession from their ancestral homelands. The Apache peoples were faced with successive waves of exploitation and subsequent forced dislocation. It was within this complex and fraught context the U.S. Forest Service first set aside 755,000 acres as the Gila Wilderness. After numerous changes and modifications, the original acreage was divided and expanded and is now recognized as the Gila Wilderness with 559,688 acres and the adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness with 202,016 acres. There are now over 800 miles of trails in the two Wilderness areas combined.

As we face climate change, the science and knowledge of Indigenous peoples will be crucial in preserving its character. The Forest Service is committed to integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Western science as part of our tribal trust responsibilities.


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