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New Mexico celebrates 100 years of Gila Wilderness preservation

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(New Mexico News Connection) New Mexico's Gila Wilderness is special - not only for its natural beauty, but also because it received the world's first-ever "wilderness" designation, 100 years ago today.

Conservation groups are working to preserve the Gila for future generations, while also keeping it open to hunters and those who fish its abundant waters.

Elle Benson is the Rio Grande program manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Born and raised in the town of Gila, population 175, Benson knows the area well.

"The Gila Wilderness is our state's largest wilderness area," said Benson. "It has the headwaters of the Gila. Whitewater Baldy is the highest peak within the Gila Wilderness - it's just under 11,000 feet in elevation."

Benson said much of the partnership's federal funding goes to smaller watershed collaboratives doing state restoration work.

Conservationists, along with local and state representatives, have been trying for nearly a decade to get Congress to pass the MH Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act - which would protect nearly 450 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers and their tributaries.

Much of the credit for the 1924 Gila Wilderness designation - 40 years before Congress passed the Wilderness Act - goes to Aldo Leopold, often called the father of wildlife ecology and modern conservation.

Benson said it was Leopold proposed setting aside the 755,000 acres while working as a forest supervisor in New Mexico.

"There's recreation that happens out there because of the biodiversity," said Benson, "so, hunting, fishing, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, etc. And I've seen coatimundi out there."

If you're not familiar with the coatimundi, it's a mammal that looks like a combination of lemur and monkey, but is officially part of the raccoon family.

Several New Mexico events will commemorate the 100 year anniversary, including the Gila River Festival, starting on September 27.