Exhibits: The Lands: Gila Wilderness
The First Wilderness
Today, the Gila Wilderness protects 557,819 acres of the Mogollon Mountains, which rise up to 10,895 feet. The Gila River and its tributaries cut valleys 6000 feet below the peaks. Grassy river bottoms give way to forested slopes: pinon and juniper dot the slopes at lower elevations, and ponderosa pine grows toward the top. Both peaks and valleys shelter a variety of plants and animals, including mountain lions, coyotes, beaver, elk, mule deer, and black bears. Mexican wolves have been reintroduced to the forest, after being completely killed off in the early 20th century.
When the young Forest Service ranger Aldo Leopold was assigned to the Gila National Forest in 1909, he found a land still wild. As he mapped the Blue Mountains for prospective timber harvests, he began to understand that the work that he was doing for the Forest Service would spell the end of the solitude and splendor that made this area so special. As he continued his nature studies in the following years, he realized that to protect any one species, you must protect the entire ecosystem.
Leopold's proposal to protect large tracts of land was well-received by the Forest Service. Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect working for the agency, had already proposed that some areas are more attractive when undeveloped, so the idea of "letting an area be" was not completely revolutionary. The Gila Wilderness was designated in 1924, and later the wilderness was expanded, and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and the Blue Range Wilderness were also established, protecting surrounding areas.
Gila Wilderness Today
If you are willing to hike or ride a horse, over 800 miles of trails await you in the Gila Wilderness. Like all wilderness areas, all motorized and mechanized devices are prohibited (except wheelchairs), so you can't drive in, or even ride your bike. Once in the Gila Wilderness, you can enjoy taking pictures, watching wildlife, and wonder over artifacts left by the Mogollon and by the mountain men who roamed the area through the 1800s. You can fish in the streams, climb the peaks to discover glorious view, and fall asleep breathing the rich scent of the ponderosa pines.
After a little time in the wilderness, time slows down and you start to remember what is important in the world. But before long, the morning will come when you must stuff your sleeping bag back into your pack and hit the trail. Although the Gila Wilderness is by definition a place where you may not remain, even a short visit is enough to refresh your spirit and recharge your soul.
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