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A Blank Spot On The Map

We travel to New Mexico's Aldo Leopold Wilderness to understand the roots of the preservation movement and see just how far we've come.

Leopold was, among other things, a brilliantly observant man. What he saw on the land concerned him as a scientist and pained him as a sensitive soul. “One of the penalties of an ecological education,” he wrote, “is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

As one means of healing those wounds, he began thinking about the concept of wilderness as a management tool as early as 1913. Throughout his life he would sharpen and redefine his thinking on the subject, spelling out the importance of wilderness for science, for recreation, for preserving far-ranging species like wolves and grizzlies, and struggling to put into words his belief that wilderness was vital to us as a culture. “Raw wilderness,” he would write, “gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.”

In 1921 came “Leopold’s trumpet call,” as one contemporary called it. It came in the form of an essay published in the Journal of Forestry, in which Leopold urged that “representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness.” In that one article he defined wilderness (“a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man”); he set limits on the extent of such a system (“only a small fraction of the total National Forest area-probably not to exceed one in each State”); he even gave an example: the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico.

“I expect some opposition,” he later said of his proposal, which he knew would be “rank heresy” to some. Yet, there was surprisingly little. Leopold was, by then, a respected forester, a maverick for sure, but a “responsible maverick” as biographer Curt Meine called him. And he was an insider with the Forest Service. As fit his nature, Leopold had done his homework, laying out his proposal in detail, combating every possible argument with the combined force of fact and eloquence.

Leopold was not the first, or the only, person to raise the idea of saving the wilderness. But, he was the right man in the right place to make it a reality. All that remained, Leopold said, was “for the Government to draw a line around each one and say, ‘This is wilderness, and wilderness it shall remain.’”

On June 3, 1924, they did exactly that. The nation’s first designated wilderness, the Gila Primitive Area, was born.

I am thinking of something else-Leopold, wilderness, breakfast, anything but wild turkeys-when there it is, all flapping and feathers and gobbling. As my heart finally slows down, I realize I have startled a wild turkey and its two chicks. I move off behind a fallen tree to watch them.

We are up early, breaking camp before sunrise, before breakfast, to take advantage of the cool hours to hike. But the morning is just too beautiful along Las Animas Creek for fast hiking. We have broken from the lush green tunnel of trees to where the horizon runs up against a series of sheer-walled cliffs. The land looks turned up on edge-spires, hoodoos, rocks sticking up orange as the fins of salmon in the early light. And there is water.

Freed from the burden of having to carry so much water, we decide to linger most of the day along the creek. With our packs stashed near the mouth of East Curtis Canyon, we disappear into the country, off-trail, off-time, “like the river, we were free to wander.”

In the quiet hours of wandering, I ponder what Leopold would think of his wilderness today. “It will be much easier to keep wilderness areas than to create them,” he wrote. But it hasn’t been very easy to keep them either.

The original boundaries of the Gila Primitive Area took in 755,000 acres. In 1931, it was bisected by a road so hunters could get to the “excess” deer. The larger section to the west became the Gila Wilderness while the smaller piece to the east, the section that would become the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, was renamed the Black Range Primitive Area. In 1944, the boundary of the Gila Wilderness was again redrawn, this time to allow a fluorite mine in its southwest corner. More recently, there have been rumblings of slicing off yet another corner to allow development of the Hummingbird Ski Area. With each cut or threat of a cut, the “big stretch of wild country” Leopold envisioned gets a little smaller. “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.”

Yet it is not just bites off its boundaries that are making wilderness shrink. It is also being eaten, one bite at a time, from within. Although Leopold saw a place for limited grazing in wilderness, he railed against overgrazing as early as 1924. Almost 75 years later, his wilderness has become the poster child for overgrazing and the focal point in the controversy over wilderness grazing rights throughout the West.

The Diamond Bar Ranch, until recently, held the largest grazing allotment in New Mexico: over 145,000 acres, 85 percent of it in the Gila and Leopold Wilderness areas. As many as 1,200 head of cattle roamed the allotment, devastating the landscape, increasing erosion, altering natural fire patterns, and threatening species such as the Gila trout with extinction.

“It was ecologically horrible what was happening in there,” says Susan Schock, director of Gila Watch, a local conservation group that challenged the grazing in court. “Aldo Leopold would be absolutely appalled if he came back today.” Leopold’s own son, Luna, himself a respected scientist, agrees. “My father was a very keen observer of the status of the ecological system,” he said after a 1995 tour of the overgrazed areas. “He would be shocked.”

Yet, Leopold also understood the land’s ability to heal, if given the chance. His wilderness may now have that chance. Recently, after a six year battle, Gila Watch won a decision that reduced the number of cattle allowed to graze in the wilderness. Already the land shows signs of healing. “You can see new growth along some of the creek beds,” Schock says. “The land is greening up.” The decision affects not only the Aldo Leopold Wilderness but sets a precedent for wilderness grazing. “This decision will affect as much as 18 million acres of designated wilderness West-wide,” says Schock. “It’s nice that such a precedent was set on a wilderness named for Aldo Leopold.”

Despite all the threats, all the problems, on a sunny day hiking along Las Animas Creek, it is still possible to recapture that sense of boundlessness that wilderness should have. We wander all day, stopping to watch a rattlesnake coiled in the shade. We sit along the creek in silence so pure that we can hear the rustle in the wings of a hawk when it swoops in to land on a branch.

Nor hiked it in June. On what is left of old FS Trail 117-just a few ancient blaze marks and a guess-we are making our way up and out of East Curtis Canyon, back into the high country, and right into the teeth of an afternoon charged with thunderstorms.

What bits of old trail we can find lead us up over knife ridges of exposed rock where the air seems to shimmer with electricity. On every ridge there are charred remains of trees cracked by lightning, snapped off with slivers flung 150 feet in all directions. There are others still seeping from the tell-tale spiraled wounds where bolts of lightning clawed them like huge cats. We walk in silence through a boneyard of trees.

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