Gila Conservation Coalition Marks Its 30th Birthday

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gcc logoBy Richard Mahler

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of GetAGRIP.

”We were not incorporated, had no officers, and used my own post office box,” M.H. “Dutch” Salmon recalls. “But the pro-dam people began to pay more attention to us. In fact, I think we had a pretty significant effect.”

During a recent interview, the Silver City conservationist took time out to describe the early impact of the Gila Conservation Coalition, which Salmon helped organize in 1984 as a means of helping to protect the free flow of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers. A partnership of conservation groups promoting conservation of the Upper Gila River Basin and surrounding lands, the GCC was instrumental in stopping the Hooker and Conner Dam proposals put forward by government agencies during the 1980s.

“Thirty years ago the GCC was a loose coalition of river runners, canoeists, fishers, and enviros,” says Salmon, an avid fisherman, prolific author, and long-time board member of both GCC and GRIP. “In the beginning it was very informal. There’s no doubt that today the GCC is more efficient, better organized, and more effective than it was in the early 1980s.”

Salmon traces the genesis of the group to a desire to provide a counterweight to the Hooker Dam Association (HDA), a local entity that supported construction of a dam across the Gila River a few miles upstream from its confluence with Mogollon Creek, near where a gauging station operates today. “The HDA was having regular meetings about this proposal,” Salmon explains, “and I started to attend. For the first time it was not all pro-dam people at those meetings. Besides me and [the late] Bob Langsenkamp, there was attendance by Mike Sauber, Jim Goodkind, and Herbie Marsden. We began to throw a wrench into this thing.”

By the mid-1980s the Hooker project was abandoned. Yet close on its heels was a second dam-and-diversion proposal based on construction of the so-called Conner Dam. Public opposition, led in large part by the GCC, led to its withdrawal by late 1987. The group has also been active for many years in protecting scenic and ecologically sensitive areas from encroachment by motor vehicles as well as in improving such areas for low-impact recreation as well as wildlife protection.

Salmon notes that “except for an occasional letter to the editor” he was not involved in any kind of environmentalism prior to his first encounter with the Gila River in September 1982.

“I’d been living near Quemado, in Catron County, for two years prior to that time,” he says. After relocating to the Mimbres Valley, Salmon made a fishing trip to the Gila directly east of the Mogollon Box. “This was exactly where the Hooker Dam was being proposed. I remember seeing bighorn sheep and other wildlife on this great piece of river and I made up my mind immediately that I didn’t want to see any of it dammed.”

Soon after this Salmon met Langsenkamp, a State Land Office employee and a conservationist in active opposition to the proposed dam. “Bob thought we could beat [the Hooker proposal] and have a good time doing it,” says Salmon, with a wry smile. “There was no organized opposition at the time.”

“In spring 1983 I took a canoe trip—with my cat and dog—down the Gila which became the subject of my book, Gila Descending, which also resulted in a slide show that I took around the state for the next few years, speaking to members of various fishing clubs, environmental organizations, and other groups.”

The efforts of Salmon and the GCC paid off. In 1985 he became an appointed member of the Interstate Stream Commission, which studied and made recommendations regarding Gila River diversion and dam projects put forward by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Salmon believes the Conner Dam project died mainly because of potential conflicts involving endangered fish species, its poor cost/benefit ratio, and largely negative public reaction.

Yet a third proposal—the so-called Mangas Creek diversion—followed Conner and drew staunch GCC opposition. It eventually was judged to be too costly for the benefits accrued and dropped by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1990.

When asked what groups he feels are most responsible for pushing such schemes, Salmon cites “real estate interests, developers, bankers, the mining industry, and various chambers of commerce.” But much has changed over the past three decades, he concludes: “We have a greener business community now, particularly among small businesses. Over 300 were opposed to the latest dam proposal in early 2014. And now, with the AWSA, the ISC is in the driver’s seat, not the Bureau of Reclamation.”

As Salmon sees it, the BOR is following the state’s lead, but the ISC has its mind set on building a diversion project no matter what the cost. “They are bullheaded about it,” he says, “despite the win-win solution that is at hand. Use the $66-million in AWSA funding to implement non-diversion projects and keep the river as it is, preserving an irreplaceable resource for people and wildlife.”