Can science heal the land?

  • A DESERT SEA: Sky island mountains north of Magdalena, N.M.

    Greg Hanscom photo
  • Jack Humphrey, director of the Sky Island Alliance

    Greg Hanscom photo

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 Arizona.

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 east.

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, 2/16/98).

"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 nation."

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 Sierra Madre.

"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 exile

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 mate.

"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."

Ranchers 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 of development.

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 receded.

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.

Today, 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 land

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, together.

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 public support.

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 dry region.

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."

Building and urbanization should follow ranchers out the door, he says. "We're going to rage against development everywhere."

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