“The removal of Indigenous people to create an “uninhabited wilderness”—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.” – William Cronin
The Gila Wilderness in Southern New Mexico is the first ever designated wilderness area in the United States. It is home to 870 square miles of rugged country located where the Rocky Mountains end and the Sonoran desert begins, and encompasses desert, grasslands, pine forests, 10,000 foot mountain ranges, and the largest still un-dammed river in the American west, the Gila River.
The creation of the Gila Wilderness was a milestone of American conservation made in large part thanks to Aldo Leopold, a forester and writer seen by many as the father of the United States Wilderness System and wildlife ecology as we know it today. Leopold envisioned wilderness as a place to be protected both for, and from, humans. Aldo Leopold defined wilderness as “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man."
The irony of course is that this very same area had always been inhabited by humans, from the Mogollon cliff dwellers of thousands of years ago to the six different Apache tribes who lived in the region for centuries. “If the government’s idea of wilderness was putting the land back the way it had been, then why not put the Apache back?” asked backcountry guide Joe Saenz, a member of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. There is no specific word for “wilderness” in the Apache language he speaks, rather just a word for land: "benah."