By Molly McCormick, Borderlands Restoration, Patagonia, AZ
Imagine yourself walking in the Sonoran Desert grasslands of Southeast Arizona, USA. It’s monsoon season—a time when thunderheads bring quick downbursts of rain, when golden grasslands morph into a green frenzy of life. The grasses are in bloom: the slender side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) stand tall with bowing seed heads, sprangletop (Leptichloa dubia) seems to leap up and shoot in all directions like a team of gymnasts doing acrobatics and the fluffy fingers of cane bluestem (Bothriochloa barbinodis) release a smell like blueberries. The grass fills in a larger habitat speckled with velvet mesquite trees (Prosopis velutina), and—closer to drainages—Fremont’s cottonwood (Populus fremontii), seepwillow (Baccharis salicifolia) and Arizona sycamore (Platanus wrightii).
As you walk towards the hills that dot the landscape, you come upon oaks (Quercus) of various species. Your gaze follows the edges where the sea of green grass meets the oaks and enters the world of Sky Islands—the Madrean Archipelago, which dots the landscape. This ecology is one of the gems of the desert Southwest, where the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts meet the Rocky Mountains and neotropical influences coming up along Mexico’s Sierra Madre. The texture of the diversity of this region is unique; full of sensitive, threatened and endangered species that depend on remnant niches of habitat harbored in these Islands in the Sky.
Founder of Borderlands Restoration ecologist Ron Pulliam wrote, “Because they often exist as small populations on the edge of their geographic ranges and in isolated mountain ranges, an unusual proportion of Sky Island species are rare and many are considered imperiled. An analysis of the NatureServe Explorer database for every county in Arizona and New Mexico reveals that the two counties encompassing this ecosystem have the highest density (species/area) of at-risk species in the region. In general, counties along the US-Mexico border have disproportionately more species, and those counties containing cross-border mountain ranges are especially rich in rare species.”
In these mountains, you can pet the succulent leaves of bartram stonecrop (Graptopetalum bartramii), admire the purple and white blossoms of large-flowered blue star (Amsonia grandiflora), watch monarch caterpillars feed on Lemmon’s milkweed (Asclepias lemmoni) or laugh at the playful violet-crowned hummingbird (Amazilia violiceps). Each evening in the spring, you can watch a zone-tailed hawk (Buteo albonotatus) mimic the flight of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) in an effort to trick dinner. It is in these Sky Islands that you can hear the call of the Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans), sit with a Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida) and contemplate life on the US/Mexico border.
However, there are more than just monsoon thunderheads looming over this region. The landscape’s ability to support unique diversity, human livelihoods and healthy communities is also at risk. The ecological fabric of this place is unraveling. Vegetation that once held soils in place has been denuded from 150 years of myopic land-use practices. Storm water from the beloved monsoonal storms carve arroyos (steep-sided gullies) and erosion channels into the earth, lowering the water table, trucking off valuable soils, leaving plants high and dry and threatening municipal water supplies. Migrating pollinators don’t have enough to eat because of gaps in nectar availability during critical times of year, which threatens stability at the base of the food chain. Ranchers are no longer able to make a living off the land and often divide and sell ranches, segregating important wildlife corridors. The US-Mexico border fence creates further barriers to wildlife, and open-pit mining in Coronado National Forest is an ever-increasing threat.
People here yearn to become better stewards of this land, to find a more stable way to inhabit this landscape. Conservationists like those at Borderlands Restoration are working with communities and ecosystems to realize this vision. Borderlands is an ecological restoration group based in rural Patagonia, Arizona that works to return natural processes and restore habitat in an effort to create an environment for people and all living things to reconnect and thrive. The organization builds erosion-control structures to slow rainwater and stabilize soils; its staff collects seeds, grows and plants native pollinator plants; and much work is done to provide opportunities for collaboration, education and jobs. Borderlands puts a lot of effort into understanding human relationships in this landscape and shifting these relationships towards something more sustainable, as a way to better support ourselves and our wild neighbors.
This type of collaborative work is likely needed in every landscape. Is it possible to work together, across habitats and political boundaries, to resolve degrading natural processes? How can you join together with your neighbors—wild and otherwise—to become a better steward of the land?Molly McCormick is the Restoration Coordinator/Outreach Specialist at Borderlands Restoration. Photos: Molly McCormick