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In 1922, the Assistant District Forester for Region 3, Aldo Leopold, spent part of the summer fighting fires out of the White Creek Station on the West Fork of the Gila River. One year earlier he first sketched his “Wilderness Idea” in the Journal of Forestry. And two years after his stay, the White Creek Station became permanently embedded almost twenty miles deep in the world’s first official Wilderness area. It seems likely that Leopold’s timely and immersive fire assignment on White Creek helped inspire the entire legacy to momentum.

We spent over a week at the White Creek Station this April. Since Leopold’s stay, the structure has been rebuilt (in 1933) and a F&G hatchery has come and gone. But there is still the grave of a homesteader killed by Mogollon Apache across the creek, still a great blue spruce introduced generations ago out front, and still the water flowing.

When Leopold died in 1948 he was again fighting fire. After working much of his life to grant autonomy to natural systems, even conceptualizing the “let burn” policies that remain controversial today, he worked against them as well—as everyone that works the land must do. One wonders if he died conflicted, trying to kill a fire in the interest of a neighbor’s farm when he knew that it could have offered benefits to the ecosystem at large—just as his job once required him to kill some of New Mexico’s last populations of Mexican wolves, as he watched his famous “fierce green fire” die.

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Our work assignment was similarly conflicted. The Gila trout exists in just five small breeding populations centered around the Gila Wilderness. They are vulnerable to interbreeding and predation by other species of introduced trout, and their genetic lineage entirely depends upon stream sections that are isolated from the greater watercourses by physical barriers—waterfalls. A natural fall on the West Fork protected the largest of these populations that reached into several tributary drainages. But after the Whitewater Baldy Fire in 2012 (New Mexico’s largest at almost 300,000 acres—augmented by climate change and a legacy of unnatural fire suppression) was followed by destructive monsoons and floods, the falls were buried in sediment and backed up into a series of stepped pools that allowed non-native trout to invade the Gila’s stronghold.

In many regards, nature was simply running its course: the fire was wild, and trout seek to move upstream whether we put them there or not. But the cumulative effect was unnatural and tragic: deep in the wilderness, a Threatened species was losing one of its last scraps of native habitat to human-introduced invaders.

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This assignment marked the beginning of my sixth season working as a Wilderness Ranger: it is a position that is always rife with contradictions. Ideally, wilderness requires no human intervention; anything that humans do to change it results in a product that is manipulated and removed from its very purpose. On the other hand, the Wilderness Act also holds “natural conditions” as an ideal. Because our entire planet is awash in runaway human influences, additional human intervetions can make things (seemingly) “more natural” that they would be simply running their courses. And what would be natural about a wilderness where the fish in the streams look like they’ve always been there, but carry foreign DNA? An animal that is evolved specifically to local conditions is a sort of gold standard of naturalness, an integration of life and land, and we are allowing too many to die away.

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These two standards of wilderness qualtiy are always ending up at odds. Our project, then, conisisted of heavy-handed manipulation of the boulders choking a narrow section of canyon (drilling and blowing them up) in order to restore “natural” conditions (a system of Gila trout). It is ironic that one’s interest in wilderness might place them in the position of implementing great destructive changes there. I swung a twenty-pound sledge, I helped place explosives deep into boulders, and I listened to the resultant explosions echoing up and down its canyons—it hurt but it didn’t kill me. Now the deed is done, and I can only hope that time will make sense of it all.

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