Michael Sebastian Mahl, Ella Jaz Kirk, and Ella Sala Myers lost their lives on May 23, 2014, while conducting aerial research on the Signal Peak Fire in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico. All three had just completed their sophomore year at Aldo Leopold Charter School in Silver City, New Mexico and were part of a YCC Ecological Monitoring Team.

Much of their work centered on monitoring the upper watersheds of the Gila River as it changed and responded to recent fires and floods. They knew the river well; it is where they lived, and where they learned. All three were gifted teachers and traveled to elementary class rooms teaching younger students about ecology, conservation and watershed health. Michael, Ella K, and Ella M are pictured above at the Children’s Water Festival held annually at the Gila River.

These remarkable teens touched everyone around them in life leaving a legacy of environmental activism and stewardship that continues to ripple through their community. Ella, Ella, and Michael knew protecting New Mexico’s last wild river benefits all of us, including the many species of rare wildlife that thrive along the Gila.

Your contribution to the project will help our film makers take the journey down the full length of the river, capturing her canyons, rapids, wildlife and forests on film.


Ella Sala Myers was an avid writer, artist and musician. She played and composed on violin and piano. She was honored for both her photography and video and two of her novels were recognized nationally. Ella was also an accomplished equestrian, runner and cyclist. Her photographic work can be viewed at Somewhere in Between.  



Ella Jaz Kirk was a determined activist who believed in our power to save the Gila River. She created a 2,500-signature petition to the Interstate Stream Commission and a 6,400-signature petition which she delivered to Governor Martinez to keep the Gila free of any diversion. She loved to play fiddle, find beauty and be near water. Ella planned to earn a doctorate degree in Aquatic Ecology and apply her research to saving wild places.


Michael Sebastian Mahl loved music and played guitar, drums, ukulele and mandolin. Michael had an adventurous spirit and traveled and camped extensively with his family. He was yearbook editor in 2014 and was admired and respected by his peers for his generous spirit and kind heart.  Michael had been elected by his peers to be Student Body President.

Why a heart?  What does it mean?

What is the heart of the Gila?
The heart is the river itself, at its source, where it begins and how it flows; like a beating heart nourishing the rest of the Gila landscape- the animals, the plants, and the human communities that depend on it.  We also use the heart to represent Ella, Ella, and Michael and their love for the Gila.  The precious  and pure nature of a child’s unconditional love.  But the heart  also represents us-all of us-and our love for the places we live. Being in the “Heart of the Gila” challenges us to give back to this special place by protecting it from threats.  Threats such as diversions, and dams.  It challenges us to keep working to keep the Gila River free and wild forever.

We all must be the heart that keeps our public places protected.  We do this for ourselves, for our children, for the future, and for all the creatures that inhabit the places we love.



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“This film project is a tribute to our children’s love of nature.  We expect “Heart of the Gila” to convey all the reasons to protect those things we hold most precious:  our children, our wild places, and our future.” – Patrice Mutchnick (Ella Kirk’s mom)