One of many river crossings! West Fork of the Gila River. Photo credit: Danny Giovale

2024 is a year of many wilderness milestones. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law on October 3, 1964. Congressionally designated Wilderness (the capital “W” refers to wilderness areas designated by Congress under the Wilderness Act) has been around for sixty years, but the concept of protected “wilderness” began over a century ago when Aldo Leopold, who was then a Forest Supervisor in New Mexico, proposed setting aside the land that is today the Gila Wilderness to protect its biological diversity and natural systems from unchecked human development.

Agave in the Gila Wilderness. Photo credit: Joelle Marier

The Gila Wilderness, administratively designated on June 3, 1924, then congressionally designated with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, was the first of its kind – the first designated wilderness area in the world. I had the good fortune to spend the week leading up to the centennial anniversary here, immersed in a landscape bursting with culture, biodiversity, solitude, history, and adventure with friends from the Rewilding Institute and Kahtoola. With wet feet from countless creek and river crossings, blackened skin from travel through burned areas, and scratched legs from the thorny shrubs grown over long-lost trails, I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a week. One hundred years of protection makes a difference. This homeland of Pueblo and Apache peoples is also homeland to rich and diverse plants and animals who thrive amidst steep, rugged canyons, arid shrublands, desert rivers, and subalpine forests. Thousands of years of stewardship by indigenous peoples followed by a century of protection has preserved a wild and magical place that all Americans should feel proud to call a part of our home. In an American culture and economy driven by consumerism and growth, it’s important and even essential to have places like Wilderness where we are forced to exercise restraint and allow natural processes to endure.

Scratched, dirty and having a blast in the Gila! Photo credit: Danny Giovale

      

A camo lunch companion and Gila views. Photo credit: Joelle Marier

As an endcap to this amazing adventure, I drove out of the Gila National Forest and into Silver City, New Mexico to attend and staff NWSA’s booth at the Gila Centennial Celebration in Gough Park and catch the excellent film series created by the students of the Gila Film School. New Mexico is a place where many cultures meld and the people celebrating the centennial, both at the park and the film screening, reflected this beautiful and rich diversity, coming together around this place and this milestone, sharing a love of the land, life, and culture it supports. Senator Martin Heinrich spoke about his connection to the Gila Wilderness, the Forest Service honored the indigenous people connected to this landscape, traditional dancers shared dances and songs under the warm sun, people gathered to watch (or compete in) a crosscut saw competition, and a range of organizations and local business welcomed visitors to the booths scattered around Gough Park. The sun was hot, but people were in good spirits, enjoying community and celebrating the Gila together. It felt good to be part of it.

Gila Centennial Poster Contest Winner. Photo credit: Joelle Marier

As we look to the next 100 years, I hope we can look to milestones like the Gila Centennial to not just celebrate but also learn and grow. The Gila and the Gila community have much to teach us about cultures coming together, about love of place, about connections, about the importance of wild landscapes, and about the incredible beauty and simple complexity of all life. These things are not specific to wild places, but they are often more easily experienced in connection with them, at least for people like me. As modern humans, it is our responsibility to listen and apply this wisdom to the rest of our lives and the rest of our world. I’m grateful to have the community of the Gila, both wild and human, to inspire these actions in me.

Backcountry camp above Mogollon Creek, Gila Wilderness. Photo credit: Danny Giovale

Joelle Marier is the Executive Director of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance. When not guiding this ship, she's likely outside connecting with nature and wild things. A born and raised Minnesotan, her love of wilderness was ignited by time spent in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and she's been exploring and working for wild places ever since. Joelle's work and travels have spanned much of the western U.S. and Alaska as well as a mix of land management agencies, private, and nonprofit organizations. She currently resides in southern Colorado and is happy to call the American Southwest home with its diverse mix of culture and landscapes.