New Mexico Director Letter, Fall 2010

"There aren’t many places that you can actually watch—year after year—get better. The Gila River is one of them, thanks to important conservation that you’ve made possible."

Terry Sullivan, New Mexico State Director

Dear Friend:
To find the heartbeat of the Gila River, I had to get my feet wet. Walking along the river at its confluence with Mogollon Creek, my feet sank through soft soil and water squished up from below to pool around my boots. This was a muddy sign, a reason for hope.

When I first visited this same spot on the river nearly two decades ago, I witnessed a very different scene. The river bed was barren, and covered with cobbled stones. There were a handful of old cottonwood trees, and in the distance I could hear the squeals of ATVs motoring up and down the river bed. But on this day, nearly two decades later, I could barely make my way through the lush, thick gallery forest of willows and cottonwoods, which now houses one of the planet’s greatest concentrations of nesting Southwestern willow flycatchers.

And on this beautiful June day, the only sound in the air was the squealing of a rare black hawk warning me away from its nest. There aren’t many places that you can actually watch—year after year—get better. The Gila River is one of them, thanks to important conservation that you’ve made possible. The Conservancy has worked along the Gila for more than 25 years, and over the past 18 years I have watched with amazement and great satisfaction as the river has steadily become healthier.

How does a healthy river act, you ask? It’s so simple, really. A healthy river needs the freedom to flow, to pulse with early spring surges, summertime ebbs, and monsoonal storms that send water rushing through overflow channels and into temporary wetlands. This constant change is the heartbeat of a river, a natural give and take that supports the amazing diversity of life found along the Gila. Natural ebbs and flows sustain a river and all the plants and animals that depend on it.

By protecting the floodplain from inappropriate grazing and vehicle use, and by letting the Gila act on its own, we’re allowing life to return, an approach that has been incredibly successful. Along the Gila, cottonwood-willow and sycamore forests are regenerating, recruited naturally by seasonal flooding. Hundreds of migratory birds are coming back to nest in these forests each year, including the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a species whose population is in trouble elsewhere in its range.

Getting Down to Work

With your support, our restoration work is speeding up the Gila’s natural recovery. Through funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Partner’s program, we’ve been transforming an abandoned agricultural field, filled with weedy annuals and many nonnatives, into a native floodplain. In addition, volunteers this spring helped plant native trees and shrubs, which will also create habitat and food sources for wildlife over time. 

  • On our Gila Riparian Preserve, we’re controlling invasive star thistle plants, and removing non-native trees such as salt cedar, tree-ofheaven, Russian olive and Siberian elm. In their place, we’re planting native grasses, shrubs and trees. New fences are being built to protect against unmanaged grazing pressures.
  • As we work to better understand and support natural river flows, funding from the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish is allowing us to study the river at numerous sites along our Gila Riparian Preserve. This research will help us develop long-term water management strategies that benefit people and nature, and reduce the likelihood of negative impacts on the river as a result of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act.
If Rivers Could Talk

We are so fortunate to have been able to work continuously on the Gila River for more than 25 years. This dogged continuity of purpose has continued as a result of generous people like you. Quite simply, your support is helping this important waterway—and all the life that depends on it—to heal.

The Gila is the last of the Southwest’s major free-flowing rivers. This matters to me, and I know it matters to you. With your help, we have been able to let this river rediscover its natural floodplain. So on behalf of the Gila, we say “thank you.”


Terry Sullivan

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