Allyson Siwik has helped to protect and promote the Gila River. Photographs by Jay Hemphill.
THE GILA RIVER takes you on a journey. First, you spend some time on its banks, then a love for untamed flows, scattered petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and birdsong starts to swell, and that passion fuels a fierce desire to protect it all. That’s part of what has kept Allyson Siwik sitting through committee meetings and wading through paperwork—the real work of conservation efforts—since 2003. Now, Congress is considering granting the waterway Wild and Scenic River status to preserve it for generations to explore. The “secret sauce,” Siwik says, in making that progress has been building a coalition of supporters, who often first dip their toe in by bird-watching or kayaking during Silver City's annual Gila River Festival, which Siwik runs.
An Endangered Wonder: From trickles of snowmelt in southwestern New Mexico’s highest peaks, the Gila River runs through steep pink and gray canyons, then paints a ribbon of green through the Cliff-Gila Valley. “The Gila River is one of the last relatively healthy rivers in the Southwest, and it’s the last major undammed river in New Mexico,” Siwik says. “Because of that, it’s just got tremendous ecological importance.”
Starting Early: Siwik’s compass turned toward conservation efforts in college, where she capped her biology major with a project on Amazon deforestation. “We were starting to see these major changes,” she says. “I was very motivated to get involved in protecting our environment, understanding that human impacts were really getting pretty enormous.”
Learned Optimism: Siwik transformed the Gila Resources Information Project into an umbrella organization for groups fighting to keep the Gila River wild. Working closely with Gila Conservation Coalition founder M.H. “Dutch” Salmon helped keep her spirits up after their many setbacks. “He knew that in the end people would see it just didn’t make sense,” Siwik says. “And of course, he was right.”
Field Research: Siwik has repeatedly boated a 45-mile section of the Gila, a “super-wild, magical” place, she says. Traveling the river means dodging downed trees and braving rapids in a raft and kayak, exploring side canyons, spotting petroglyphs, and watching springs seep from rock walls. “Being in the wildness, sleeping under the stars right next to the river, hearing the water gurgling by, and getting in the flow,” she says, “you really feel like you’re one with the river.”
Spreading the Sparks: When she realized kids in Silver City had never seen the river from its banks, Siwik launched the Gila River Festival, which has offered kayaking, guided hikes, bird-watching, and poetry readings paired with interpretive dances, a film series, and talks by noted speakers. “We’re always coming up with different ideas to inspire people,” Siwik says.