From the air, west-central New Mexico is a sea of brown, lined here and there with a dry riverbed or peppered with juniper and mesquite. In places, the vegetation is so sparse that from 3,000 feet up, you can make out the pockmarks of kangaroo rat colonies.
"They look like
smallpox vaccinations," says Merry Schroeder, a former nurse and a
pilot for LightHawk, a troop of flyers who volunteer their time for
environmental causes. Schroeder flies a little Cessna 210 single
prop out of Santa Fe, and has offered to be my tour guide to the
Sky Island region of southwest New Mexico and southeast
The land looks barren from up here, but
the region is one of the most biologically colorful in the West.
It's the collision point of four major biological provinces: the
Rocky Mountains from the north, the Sierra Madre from the south,
the Sonoran Desert from the west and the Chihuahuan Desert from the
Here you'll find such incongruities as
black bears and Gila monsters, tropical hummingbirds and northern
goshawks. The Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona
harbors more plant species than the entire Northeastern United
States. According to biologist Peter Warshall, the region hosts
more kinds of ants, mammals and reptiles than anyplace else in the
country. And thanks to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
reintroduction effort, Mexican wolves are running here for the
first time in two decades (HCN,
"All the (national)
attention is focused on beautiful but biologically depressed
country, like Utah's redrock country," says Jack Humphrey, director
of the Sky Island Alliance, who has joined the air tour. "But we've
got beautiful places and some of the greatest biodiversity in the
Humphrey's leather jacket, black beard
and Native Spirit cigarettes give him the air of a preppy Hell's
Angel. Also along is Martin Heinrich, a long-time wolf advocate
with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, whose long hair hangs from
under a warped cowboy hat.
Humphrey and Heinrich
have big plans for this land. Heinrich's group is pushing Congress
to protect 2.5 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land as
wilderness. And Humphrey, working side by side with Dave Foreman
and the Wildlands Project, would like to protect enough public and
private land in between to create a web of wild country stretching
from the Gila Wilderness southwest of Albuquerque to Mexico's
"We still have
big open areas," Humphrey's voice sputters in my earphones over the
buzz of the plane's engine. "We still have stuff to save here."
Sky islands in
The term "sky islands' describes the
region's mountain ranges that jut 3,000 to 5,000 feet from the
surrounding desert. Their slopes are thick with piûon and
juniper trees and topped with ponderosa pine and spruce-fir
forests. Some sky islands, such as South Baldy lurking on the
southern horizon, are capped with alpine tundra.
The mountain ranges are home to endemic species of animals and
plants that exist no place else in the world, such as the Mount
Graham red squirrel, talus snails and fleabane plants. But many sky
islands are too small to support populations of larger animals like
jaguars and wolves, which must travel from one range to the next to
find territory, food or a
"Biologists say that if
a mountain lion or wolf can see from the top of one sky island to
the next, they'll travel," says Humphrey, pointing to Ladrone Peak,
which stands shin-deep in desert. Then, with characteristic
sarcasm: "Of course, they can't see major roads or ranchers with
guns that'll shoot anything they see."
with guns are just the tip of the iceberg. Roads, cotton fields,
copper mines, cattle grazing, logging, predator control, weeds and
urban development are turning the Southwest's desert seas into seas
For wildlife, this isolation
means a life of exile. Desert bighorn sheep in the Santa Catalina
mountains north of Tucson are a sad example. Early in this century,
more than 200 desert bighorns lived in the mountains, but as human
activity and development swelled, the sheep population
In 1978, Congress created the Pusch
Ridge Wilderness Area to protect bighorn habitat. But University of
Arizona biologist Paul Krausman says the wilderness designation was
"too little, too late." Suburbs hemmed in the sheep and the
remaining habitat suffered as Forest Service firefighters squelched
the flames that once kept glades open for the sheep. At the same
time, recreationists rolled in, bringing more than 1,500 unleashed
dogs each year, according to Krausman.
only a handful of bighorns remain in the Catalinas. "The increasing
human population in Tucson has literally pushed bighorn sheep over
the brink," Krausman wrote in a 1994 report.
A prescription for healthy
The people who manage and care about the
land are just as isolated as the wildlife, according to Jack
Humphrey. "We need one management plan for the entire region," he
says. "Right now one Forest Service district doesn't talk to
another." The same is true for conservation groups, he says, to say
nothing of agencies or the state and federal governments. "They're
isolated in their little islands."
By the end
of the year, Humphrey, Dave Foreman and the Sky Island Alliance
plan to release the "Sky Island/Greater Gila Nature Reserve
Network," a conservation blueprint they hope will bring the land
managers and conservationists, and eventually the landscape,
The alliance's plan is based on
protecting enough land to save, over the long run, a collection of
carefully chosen "focal species." The list includes Mexican wolves,
black bears and jaguars, which all need large, wild territories.
These "umbrella species' should help protect a host of other
animals and plants. Also listed are bighorn sheep, elk and Coues
deer, that will provide prey for the meat-eaters and help garner
Others, like prairie dogs and
beavers, are called "keystone species' because of their critical
effects on the landscape. "Beavers create whole ecosystems' by
damming streams and creating ponds and wetlands, says Humphrey.
"They're one of the most godlike creatures on the planet."
Finally, the group chose critters like the Gila
and Apache trout, the Chiricahua leopard frog and the endangered
Southwest willow flycatcher that serve as indicators of healthy
rivers and streamside habitat - crucial havens for wildlife in this
The Sky Island Alliance has also
hired bear biologist David Mattson to determine whether there is
enough habitat in the region to support a population of grizzly
bears (HCN, 11/9/98). "It's basically for human population control.
They eat babies. It's well documented," Humphrey jokes. "I wouldn't
be so brash as to call it a harvest or anything."
In truth, grizzly bears are both a symbol of
wilderness and a biological necessity, he says. A growing field of
scientific research points to predators like the grizzly as the
driving force that shape entire ecosystems. "Predators are the only
thing that can control prey populations," says Humphrey. "Hunters
are taking all the trophies and leaving the diseased and retarded
elk. They're genetically watered-down because there's nothing out
there nipping at their heels."
Wild fires and
native forests must also be restored, according to the alliance,
while exotic species such as tamarisk, bull frogs and rainbow trout
need to be controlled (HCN, 3/25/98). What is the group's vision
for human communities? Here, Humphrey is a little foggy, but he
says he foresees a shift away from cattle-ranching and other
industries toward wilderness-guiding and ecotourism. "Let's make a
big deal out of fishing, hiking, horse-packing and all that," he
says. "We've gotten everything we can out of the land. Grazing in
the Southwest is dying and not even the Cattlegrowers Association
would argue with that."
urbanization should follow ranchers out the door, he says. "We're
going to rage against development everywhere."