By Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2020

SILVER CITY, N.M. (AP) - Some environmental groups are concerned that a proposed management plan for the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico falls short of protecting more than 3 million acres (12,140 square kilometers) of mountains, hills and range land.

Forest officials recently released a draft of the plan, triggering a 90-day public comment period. Public meetings are being held over the next week.

Environmentalists and wilderness advocates contend the plan maintains the status quo for resource extraction and motorized recreation rather than establishing migration corridors for wildlife or imposing greater protections for the Gila River and its tributaries.

“We want to see a strong forest plan that protects wilderness, streams and watersheds, wildlife habitat and forests,” said Donna Stevens, executive director of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance. “Because of climate change, the Gila National Forest may be dramatically altered in the coming decades, and we want the Gila’s revised plan to protect the forest for future generations.”

The plan recommends adding another 110,000 acres (445 square kilometers) to the forest’s wilderness inventory, but environmentalists say there are more areas within the forest’s boundaries that are qualified for such a designation.

The Gila National Forest already holds a unique distinction as the home of the world’s first designated wilderness. The idea of managing some areas within the national forest system as wilderness was first applied in 1924, with the administrative designation of the Gila Wilderness at the urging of conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold.

Now, nearly one-quarter of the Gila consists of congressionally designated wilderness.

The forest’s current management plan was first adopted in the 1980s. It has been amended nearly a dozen times since then to reflect changes in social, economic and ecological conditions across the Gila. The proposed draft being considered now was developed over the last few years through several rounds of public engagement and a series of technical meetings.

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