Places We Protect

Gila Riparian Preserve

New Mexico

The Gila River flowing past a rocky bank in the foreground with trees and grasses on the far banks.
The Gila Riparian Preserve New Mexico's last free-flowing river. © Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy
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New Mexico’s last free-flowing river.



About the preserve

The Gila Riparian Preserve protects more than 1,200 acres of the southwest's fragile riparian habitat and the verdant gallery woodland among the Gila River, the last of the southwest's major free-flowing rivers.

In 2009, TNC added 40 acres of important riverside habitat to the Gila Riparian Preserve. The new stretch inserts an important piece to this project area, which includes the preserve and more than 250,000 acres collaboratively managed by TNC, local landowners, federal and state agencies, and local organizations.

TNC's long-term vision for the preserve is simple: let the river rediscover its natural floodplain and enable new cottonwoods and willows to spring up, providing habitat for neotropical migratory songbirds, especially the southwest willow flycatcher—a species whose population is in trouble. A host of other rare animal species also use the preserve's habitats.

Thanks to the support of El Paso Electric Company and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, TNC completed a new shallow, winter wetland pond in 2021. When the wetland is filled with water from the irrigation ditch, migratory ducks and cranes use the off-channel open-water habitat for feeding and resting, particularly at night.


A portion of the preserve is owned by TNC in conjunction with the State of New Mexico pursuant to the Natural Lands Protection Act. Further down the river, the Conservancy was instrumental in protecting 560 acres in the Gila Lower Box which is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Lichty Ecological Research Center, located on the preserve, is a research hub designed to advance understanding of the Gila and Mimbres watersheds.


Students from Archaeology Southwest’s University of Arizona Preservation Archaeology field school have been visiting the Gila Riparian Preserve for five years. Their findings are revealing how people from different regions and cultures came to live together in the Cliff-Gila Valley of the Gila River between the late 1200s to the 1400s.




Hiking, birding, wildlife watching, seasonal volunteer opportunities


1,200 acres, encompassing over 5 miles of river

Explore our work in New Mexico

Plants and Animals

Bring your binoculars and keep an eye out for migratory neotropical songbirds.

The Gila River supports one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in North America and an astonishing array of plant and animal life. In the river are found several fish, including the loach minnow and spikedace, which are federally listed as threatened. A host of other rare animal species also use the preserve's habitats.

The rugged Gila Wilderness is home to bobcat and cougar, as well as mule deer, white-tailed deer and pronghorn. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and elk were both were reintroduced in the 1950s.

See some of the animals of Gila Riparian Preserve in our trail cam slideshow.

More Information

For more information about the Gila Riparian Preserve, please call the New Mexico Chapter at 505-988-3867. For more information regarding other activities, events and services in the Silver City area, visit The Silver Web.

Enjoying the Gila Farm Experience

A visit to Gila River Farm can be self-guided and very enjoyable. There are several trails that run alongside the Gila River. Come explore!

Gila River Farm Trail: A short ¾ mile loop follows a dirt road out to a trail on the floodplain. The loop can be extended to a 1.5 mile hike around the perimeter of the Gila River Farm, mostly on dirt roads.

Iron Bridge Trail: This 1.5 mile loop trail, with an out-and-back section to the river, is a foot-path on the mostly flat and floodplain of the Gila River.

Mogollon Box Trail: This three mile hike crosses Mogollon Creek, normally dry, and parallels the Gila River heading upstream. The hike continues up onto the mesa with excellent view of the mountains. The two-track continues upstream to the USGS gage site. Much of the hike is an out-and-back and can be shortened. 

Birding Boot Camp—Summer 2020

By Martha Cooper, Southwest NM Program Manager and Freshwater Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy

For those of us spending most of our days inside, the sight of a large or bright colored bird outside our window during these quarantine days can really cheer us up. Imagine the benefits of watching birds all day, outside? A small group of lucky students actually got paid this summer to spend their days chasing birds, learning to recognize them by sight and call, even hold them in their hands. With face masks, of course.

I met up with some members of the Ecological Monitoring Crew at Gila River Preserve's Iron Bridge Tract in mid-June, during one of their final days of bird banding, to learn more about how they spent six weeks of their summer. Most of the students are recent high school graduates from Aldo Leopold Charter School in Silver City, NM.

Crewmember Michelle Nariz says, “This is the longest time I’ve spent at the river and I’ve loved every second. My favorite part is dealing with the birds; there is so much potential and power in your hand. For the first few days, I couldn’t tell the difference between songs, but as time went on, I started to learn them, a transformation over five weeks. When I went camping with my friends, they called me the 'bird whisperer.'" Michelle is heading off to college in the fall to study environmental science and environmental engineering.

Four people stand socially distanced among shrubs with mountains in the background.
Birding Boot Camp Students Michelle Nariz, Toby Guck, Kenya Leahy and Hawk Fugagli © Mike Fugagli

Toby Guck has spent three years surveying birds at the Iron Bridge with educator, naturalist and philosopher Mike Fugagli. Toby is particularly curious about how the species of birds have changed over time, as the habitat changes. The main driver of change at the Iron Bridge is the exclusion of cows for the past 15 years; the site is still recovering from decade of overgrazing.

Dull-colored hummingbird sits in gray sphere-like nest in a tree.
Hummingbird nest As the habitat has changed, what birds are we now seeing?

Student Kenya Leahy explained that the crew was focused on what habitats different birds are using. The crew sets up mist-nets in cool, shady places that birds like, checking nets every 20 minutes to see if any birds are caught.

Hawk Fugagli, Mike’s son, loves the puzzle of disentangling the tiny feathered and sometimes fierce birds from the nets. The birds are gently placed in a small cloth bird bag (hanging from a tree in the shade) that keeps them calm and safe until the crewmembers collect data: age, sex, size, weight, feather-wear, presence of fat (an indicator of their fitness).

Kenya loved this, “It’s cool to have the bird in my hand, seeing them close up, seeing different colors. You get to know each one.”

Mike Fugagli says, “Some people have asked, ‘don’t you put those birds at risk?' We do. We put them at a low risk. To do this successfully, you have to understand that you’re putting them at risk. You have to understand that you’ve made a conscious decision, so they’re in your care. I love doing this activity with young people. No matter how much fun we’re having, everyone goes into first responder mode when they have birds in their hands. We have to get the birds safely banded and back out there. This is a metaphor for where we’re at globally. We know as humans that we’ve put the earth’s biological wealth at risk. There is a certain care that needs to go along with that risk.”

Young woman in with dark-framed eyeglasses and colorful face mask holds bright yellow bird.
Banding birds Student Michelle Nariz safely bands a common yellowthroat warbler.

Note: Bird-banding at the Iron Bridge is part of the MAPS program, a continent-wide collaborative effort among public agencies, non-governmental groups, and individuals to assist the conservation of birds and their habitats through bird banding.

Support Our Work at the Gila Riparian Preserve

We’re grateful for your enthusiastic support! The Gila River's future is uncertain, but you can help us protect its natural floodplain, riparian habitat and wildlife.