For more than 25 years, the New Mexico program has focused much of its conservation efforts along the Gila and Mimbres Rivers and their watersheds.
A New Mexico Treasure
The diversity of the plant and animal life of the Gila-Mimbres Headwaters area is exceptional and surprisingly intact. However, many of these plants and animals are threatened with extinction due to a variety of historic and current human-induced changes to the land. Protection of the watershed is also important in safeguarding water quality for the region.
There are no dams along New Mexico’s portion of the Gila River — a rarity among most Western rivers. It supports an astonishing array of plant and animal life including 40 at-risk species. The Conservancy’s Gila Riparian Preserve currently protects more than eight river miles, adjacent to one of the oldest wilderness areas in the country, and features exceptional examples of cottonwood-willow forests.
In 1999, the Conservancy purchased the Gila River Farm and subsequently transformed the main house into the Lichty Ecological Research Center, a home and laboratory where scientists and students can live and conduct research relevant to the Southwest. Past studies include an examination of the effects of flooding along the Gila River and Cliff High School project measuring water quality along the river. On the Gila River Farm, we are planting native trees and grasses, creating wetlands and establishing farming practices that are compatible with the conservation of a free-flowing, biologically-rich river.
In 2007, the Conservancy and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish purchased the Gila River Iron Bridge Conservation Area.
The Mimbres, a small closed-basin stream, supports the country’s only remaining population of the Chihuahua chub, a native fish, and one of the largest remaining populations of Chiricahua leopard frogs in the world. In October 1994, TNC established the Mimbres River Preserve, which provides excellent habitat for the Chihuahua chub and the Chiricahua leopard frog. Farther downstream where perennial flows persist, additional parcels were added to create the Lower Mimbres River Preserve.
In 2000, the Conservancy launched an innovative experiment in conservation ranching. The Headwaters Ranch covers 165,000 acres spanning the headwaters of the Gila and Mimbres River watersheds in the Gila National Forest. The Conservancy created the ranch with the USDA Forest Service and local ranchers Greer & Winston Ltd. to protect and improve watershed and stream conditions.
The Conservancy and the Gila National Forest jointly hired a fire ecologist to determine priorities and guidelines for forest restoration, and identify opportunities for prescribed burns, tree thinning and other rehabilitation practices. The Gila National Forest is already among the nation’s most progressive national forests in restoring fire’s natural role and with the Conservancy’s fire management innovations they can provide even greater leadership nationally.