• Ecology of the Southwest

Into the Wild: Leaving the "wilderness," finding our nature

On my way to breakfast this morning, I heard the Canyon Wren's song. It is a tune of descending notes, one pouring over the other in little waterfalls of pitch. He sits atop the Juniper near the bathrooms at camp, and you can hear him on your walk to the kitchen if you wake up good and early.

I'll miss this place. It's our last day here, and we've only scratched the surface of the Santa Rita Experimental Range. We know a few of its secrets. Connor knows where you might be most likely to see the tropical Elegant Trogon in flight. Hannah and I know where you can find a lovely little mountain stream of melt water from the peaks above - a perfect oasis for mountain lions and sweaty student researchers alike. Kim and Zoe know pretty much every species that grows near the range's gravel roads.

But there's a lot we don't know about this area. While the range is well protected under the University of Arizona, the proposed Rosemont Mine might be dug only miles away from the range - one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. The mine could drop the region's water table significantly, and pose a threat to numerous endangered and threatened species' migratory paths.

While the proposed mine poses a threat to this part of the Sonoran Desert, there are a lot of people doing a lot of work to help this ecosystem's resilience to disturbance thrive. We got to meet one of them last night, Brian Powell. Brian works for the Pima County Office of Sustainability and Conservation, and introduced us to a pretty neat project in his presentation last night.

The project, called the "Maeveen Marie Behan Conservation Lands System" after Brian's former boss, a woman who is known around here for her passion and effectiveness in Sonoran Desert stewardship policy in Pima County (which covers the majority of the Sonoran Desert's range in Arizona), has two main components. One of these is a detailed map categorizing all the land in the county by its ecological characteristics. Buyers hoping to develop land on the areas on this map marked as "Biological Core Management Areas" must conserve at least 80 percent of the land as undisturbed natural open space. The plan limits development to a level matching the land's potential to support high value habitat for vulnerable species. It also offers open space bonds to ranchers in the area.

Brian's presentation spoke to many of the questions about land ethics and human presence (and politics) that have bounced around in our discussions during our time here. In the last two weeks, we've gotten to hike and eat and sleep in undeveloped parts of the diverse Sonoran Desert. Being alone in nature is a huge reason many of us came on this trip. It's a special feeling, and one that we rarely experience at home. It was a huge driver behind the conservation movement of the early-to-mid 20th century, and is the principle idea behind national parks.

But this trip has made us think about "nature" differently. National parks in their very definition are supposed to be places "untrammeled by man." We get home from the office on Friday evening, pack a sleeping bag, tent, and flashlight, and leave real life for "nature." And it's great. It's one of the only ways we can see whole ecosystems at work in the modern world.

But what happens on Monday? What happens when we go back to "real life?" Have we truly left "nature" for offices and streets and cars? If nature is confined to lined-in recreational areas, doesn't that imply that we've contained it and that we don't, in fact, live in it?

A lot of this trip has revolved around the inherent fiction of this idea. No national park is actually untouched. In fact, there is essentially no area on earth that has not been affected by human activity, be it development or pollution or logging or agriculture or, the big kahuna, climate change. And many national parks and "natural" areas may be protected from development, but are extremely unhealthy due to human activity, much of it historic (think the mining years and early 20th century damming).

So should we continue to operate on preserving roped-off areas of segmented environment by calling them national parks and letting humans look (but not touch), even if their resilience as an ecosystem fails? Should we buy into the idea that preserving little chunks of habitat is sufficient for conserving the resources that humans and other species need - like water, soil and vegetation - even though we've seen how ecosystems operate holistically and in extremely complex ways? Or should we own up to the effect that human activity has had on these areas, and assist the land in reaching the a healthy, resilient state?

If we care about our resources and the health of our common habitat, we may need to flip the outdated "conservation movement" on its head, and replace it with one of increasing our land literacy (this means we'd all have to understand ecological phenomena in much more detailed ways), involvement in improving ecosystems' health (via controlled fire, floods, and invasive species management), and putting ourselves into nature. Because as separated as it often seems from our lives, we are nature.

Tomorrow we'll load up the vans and leave Santa Rita Experimental Range, but I think we'll leave with some new ideas in tow.

A research site in the valley below the range
Research site at 5,000 feet, Florida canyon. Perfect mountain lion habitat!
Michelle and Mitch, lighting it up in the kitchen