WildEarth Guardians

A Force for Nature

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When commenting on his impending inaugural expedition to space, Sir Richard Branson hinted at an exciting upcoming announcement regarding giving more people a chance to become astronauts because, as he put it, “…space does belong to us all.” It’s mid-July here in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, just a few hundred miles north of Branson’s launch site. And even though the blessed monsoon season seems to be upon us, providing the indispensable afternoon rain showers that prevent much of this great state of New Mexico from spontaneously combusting in the scorching aridness of our summer months, we’re still carrying the heaviness of “extraordinary drought” conditions; a term bestowed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on much of the American West.

I am reflecting on all this recent space pioneering, particularly as statements of opposition to such so-called “elitist space travel” have been perched upon the lips of so many politicians, from county commissioners to state senators to congresspeople roaming the halls of Capitol Hill. And meanwhile the big oil machine grinds on, frontline communities continue to suffer the brunt of the consequences, and landscapes like the Greater Gila whither under the duress of the twin crises. I often return to that ironically poignant bumper sticker, “Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?”

For anyone paying attention to the current catastrophic state here on Earth, it is nearly impossible to fathom why an individual would choose to pursue such a grandiose venture, at so great a cost, both economically and environmentally, and why a government would allow such hubristic endeavors in the first place. THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. We are attempting to provide hospice care to a planet in peril, species peeling off her surface nearly daily, drought and fire wreaking havoc on entire regions across the globe. And this is only the beginning.

And so I cringe, not only at the grossly misdirected enthusiasm for the cold, dark, lifeless bleakness of humanity’s Next Frontier, but also at Branson’s declaration that space belongs to us all. Particularly as he uttered it just a county over from where the Greater Gila, that landscape for which I advocate, waits in peril as the megadrought continues to suck away her life force. It is this attitude of dominion and proprietorship that was largely used to justify the rapacious human appetites of the last few thousand years. This planet does not belong to one species alone. Nor does the solar system through which we perilously careen. We are mere specks, blips on the horizon of a universal unfolding that we will never fully comprehend.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to my job as a conservationist, trying to persuade the world that places like the Greater Gila Bioregion are worthy of their own survival. Because they are. And as much as I wish their intrinsic value was as obvious to others as it is to me, I persevere because, in the more-than-human realm, there are no frontiers to be tamed. Life exists as a momentary unfolding, a tale of death and birth and sometimes violence. The sky spreads itself into the arches and valleys of the Mogollon Mountains and the Black Range. A wolf howls. A cow elk barks. A collared lizard scurries behind a Pebbled Pixie Cup lichen-covered rock. These are the places we need. The places we belong to. Space can wait. Let’s turn ourselves towards all that we have to lose here on Planet Earth.

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I have circumnavigated most of the Greater Gila Bioregion six times now. I’ve sped south on I-25, past the water mis-management incubus that is Elephant Butte reservoir, swinging west along the endlessly windy, unrivaled circuitry of highway that leads up and over the Black Range, stopping in Silver City to chat with a conservation partner over an espresso at Javalina Coffee House before tackling the sweeping north westerly arch of Highway 180, past the Cliff-Gila Valley where at least one black hawk and a whole assemblage of neotropical birds flit about on the banks of the wild Gila River.

Sometimes I’ll wipe my brow and steady my hands on the wheel for the harrowing and unparalleled driving adventure that is the trip to the old mining town of Mogollon, through the sprawling burn scar of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, creeping past the silhouette of Bearwallow Peak above the northern boundary of America’s first experiment with capital “W” Wilderness, the Gila Wilderness, to my favorite campsite along Turkey Cienega, where sometimes I see wolves, and sometimes I don’t. But the fact that their shadowy presence lurks in the canyons and along the ridgelines is enough to keep me returning, through winter storms and summer monsoons, the fiat of their survival a magnetic force of attraction.

If the Mogollon expedition is not on the itinerary, I’ll swing west again, crossing the stateline and the San Francisco peaks into Arizona, circumventing the iconic outline, oft traced by Aldo Leopold, of Escudilla Mountain. And then, finally, beginning an easterly jaunt back into New Mexico, past the dusty buildings that comprise Quemado and Pie Town, where the Pie Town Pies Cafe is reinvigorating the namesake. Across the expansive Plains of San Agustin, past the most creatively named astronomical radio observatory, the Very Large Array (VLA), reemerging north-bound on I-25.

The scope and scale of this landscape never ceases to electrify the engine within me that drives this desire to protect place. The fact that there is no short-cutting this circumnavigation because there are no major roads bisecting the landscape is another exceptional feature. We don’t get wildness of this size in this country any longer. Ecosystems are relentlessly fractured by highways, housing developments, mines, oil and gas extraction, and other forms of disruptive human encroachment. We increasingly press ourselves into and onto the land in ways that disturb, displace, or otherwise irreparably interrupt the delicate web of connection that sustains complex systems of life. And we are all feeling the effects.

Connectivity and corridors are the new gold standard for conservationists seeking to promote resilience for species in the face of the climate catastrophe and biodiversity collapse. The Greater Gila exemplifies both of these traits. And with further protections, we can ensure that the wolves, the Gila trout, the loach minnow, the narrow-headed garter snake, and the Mogollon death camas, all of which are on the threatened and endangered species list, can maintain the opportunity to thrive alongside us humans who love the landscape and find solace in its spaciousness. By supporting initiatives like tribal co-management, and the bold vision for our public lands expressed by our new Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, we can elevate and amplify those voices that have been excluded from the conversation for far too long.

The Greater Gila is the perfect landscape to demonstrate a new model of land management, one that adequately addresses the crises we face as a nation, and seeks to repair the historical oppressions we’ve perpetuated as a people. We can feel the momentum building. The time for change is now. Let’s make the Greater Gila the grounds to manifest all we know ourselves to be.

The Greater Gila region is an exceptional landscape. It is exceptional for its biodiversity, which is greater than that of Yellowstone. It is exceptional for its cultural significance, as it is the traditional homelands for 18 different federally recognized tribes. It is exceptional for its cultural history, which dates back to over 10,000 years ago. It is exceptional for its size and scale, at over 10 million acres, five different ecoregions, four different designated wilderness areas, and three separate mountain ranges. And it is exceptional for the place that it holds in the hearts and minds of many New Mexicans, as a place to backpack deep into the Black Range Mountains, a place to fish in our state’s last free flowing river, to star gaze under unparalleled dark skies, to experience the elk hunt of a lifetime. There is no other landscape in the West that is both an ecological and cultural nexus cherished by so many.

And the Greater Gila is under threat. The megadrought that continues to bear down upon the Southwest threatens the health of the rivers and the vulnerable plant, animal, and human communities that rely upon them. The continued livestock grazing of these distressed ecosystems perpetuates their increasing fragility. A Tucson-based company just proposed a new copper and gold mining operation in the Burro Mountains.The Holloman Air Force Base recently proposed expanding jet training over the Greater Gila, although this has stalled. For now. A private entity just received their preliminary approval for a water storage pump facility on the lower San Francisco River. And the persecuted population of Mexican Gray wolves continues to aspire to recover, but instead teeter on the brink due to agency mismanagement and a lack of meaningful carnivore coexistence legislation.

Each of these threats is representative of larger national issues that continue to jeopardize the health of our communities, the robustness of the ecosystems we rely upon, and the resilience of our planet. The F-16s that buzz the tops of the ponderosa pines and shake the hatchling chickadees from their nests high atop Hillsboro Peak are an expression of the increased militarization of the borderlands, a tradition that has shaped our national narrative since Woodrow Wilson first signed into law sweeping constraints on immigration. The United States Government’s often xenophobic border wall agenda has for too long come at the expense of human health and safety, ecosystem resilience, and equitable and just policies for all affected communities.

The General Mining Act of 1872 continues to expose our public lands to the rapacious agendas  of extractive industry. The laws established in this act remained mostly untouched and heavily in favor of mining companies until former Senator Udall and current Representative Grijalva made some modifications to them in 2019. But multinational mining companies still literally get away with murder. Anyone who’s seen the scar of the Chino Mine outside Silver City knows there is nothing eco-friendly about an open pit mine. The barren red and yellow canyon of that cavernous scar has become a lifeless landscape all to itself. Not to mention the environmental effects that will be felt in those surrounding communities for centuries to come.

Additionally, we know that Indigenous communities are fighting hard to protect their sacred lands from this misguided, monomaniacal enterprise. The San Carlos Apache and their representative non-profit Apache Stronghold have been fiercely fighting to save their sacred lands of Chi’chil Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, from the profit-mongering objectives of the multinational mining corporation Resolution Copper. The Apache were forcibly and violently removed from the Greater Gila landscape as recently as the end of the 19th century. The displacing effects of these unfettered, unregulated industries reverberate across the landscape of the American southwest.

And if we’re on the topic of resource exploitation, water should most certainly be included in the conversation. The Greater Gila houses the watersheds of several important rivers, including the San Francisco, the Gila, and the Mimbres. All three make up a portion of the Colorado River Basin, an already imperiled, over-used, and mismanaged hydrological system. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently issued a preliminary permit for a pump storage facility for a site near Lake Powell, similar to the one proposed for the San Francisco River. The ill-conceived nature of this project cannot be overstated. “Unsustainable use of the Colorado River has already taken this life source to its knees,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “If we intend to sustain this living river for future generations, we cannot ask the river to bear this heavy burden any longer. It is time to look elsewhere to wind, solar and other forms of power storage.”

The threats to the Greater Gila include threats to the rivers and threats to the wildlife that rely upon them. For over two decades, the critically imperiled Mexican gray wolf, or lobo, has fought its way back from extinction and the current wild population hovers just over 180. Ongoing acute conflict with livestock grazing on public lands continues to jeopardize the future of the species. The prioritization of beef production over biodiversity protection is part of an old west mandate that still permeates the culture of the agencies and leaves them hamstrung when bold, meaningful action is needed.

All of the things that make the Greater Gila special: the wildlife, the water, the quiet, the dark skies, the long running human relationships to the land, they’re all under threat. The Greater Gila is underprotected and the federal agencies entrusted with the management of these revered lands continue to prioritize profit over people, extractive industry over biological integrity, and rapacious corporate agendas over ecological resilience. We must change the mandate of administrative bodies like the forest service from “multiple use” to “sustaining for all”. It’s long overdue that our national forests be managed under the Department of the Interior rather than the Department of Agriculture.

There must be systemic land-management reformation if we are to save wild landscapes like the Greater Gila. We must start thinking at a scope and scale that appropriately reflect the gravity of the threats that continue to menace and endanger life as we know it. We need big, protected landscapes that revitalize and invigorate communities, that allow for a thriving, rather than a barely surviving. The time is now. Let’s protect the Greater Gila.

In a recent phone conversation with a group of friends, we were asked to speak about loss as a sort of cathartic recognition of the feelings of the moment, induced by certain biological, viral, and political upheavals: what were we afraid of losing, what had we already lost, what does loss mean, and how do we cope with loss? In my work in landscape conservation, I think a lot about loss. I frame appeals around it, use it to drive action, construct science-based arguments from it, implement it in policy asks, use it as a metric to motivate advocacy. In my personal life, it has become, in no uncertain terms, the lens through which I view the world. Loss is life, it would seem.

This isn’t meant to be the doom and gloom opening to a lugubrious reflection on living through the Sixth Mass Extinction and anthropogenic climate crises. While it may be true that spending too much time mired in reports of species die-off events, catastrophic wildfires, and ever-increasing CO2 emissions doesn’t necessarily breed optimism nor hope, there are some important lessons to be learned and practices to be implemented from living as a loser. And the results of these lessons and practices seem to be, at least in my experience thus far, generative of tremendous gains. In some strange Zen-like twist, I am winning through losing.

I started losing the fall semester of my senior year at the University of New Mexico. I was finally on track to wrap up my undergraduate degree nearly 17 years after graduating high school. I had enrolled in an introductory class in the Art and Ecology Department on the Sixth Mass Extinction, which, for those not familiar, is currently unfolding before our very eyes, and for the first time in global history, humans are driving the extinction bus. Our end-of-year project was to create an artistically-inspired work about something locally related to the Sixth Mass Extinction. I ended up using story mapping software to develop a narrative about a geographic feature just west of where I grew up, called the Pajarito Plateau. Pajarito is the Spanish word for “little bird”, and the plateau, which lies at the foot of the Jemez Mountains, had long been known for its diverse and abundant bird populations. 

That is, until anthropogenic climate change created megadrought conditions in the American Southwest, which led to increased vulnerabilities to certain fatal bark beetle infestations in trees, particularly the pinon pine in New Mexico. The pinon nut provides an important, calorie-dense food source for birds, and without it, numbers were dropping precipitously. So I learned about loss. And the more I learned about it, the more I longed to feel it. Not in the way reading a scientific paper full of facts and figures triggers an intellectual response that resembles a feeling. But in the way sitting on the land and noticing the gnarled corpses of pinon trees provokes an embodied, felt sense of something-that-was-that-is-no-longer. 

I’ve always sought the out-of-doors as a place of renewal and rejuvenation. Growing up in the rural Nambe Valley north of Santa Fe, most of my earliest memories include the bright high desert sun warm on my face, the quiet thrill of discovering some small nook between the rocks or behind a tree that snuggly fit my little body, or simply watching the magic of the slow birth and dissolution of so many clouds over the mesa behind our house. 

But somewhere along the road to “responsible” adulting, I forgot to notice. The writer and scholar Robert MacFarlane says, “Forgetting is an easy way to lose something.” And in forgetting to give my attention to the world, in that child-like way that inspires enchantment and adoration, I’d lost so much. Feeling the loss of los pajaritos brought it back. I began to notice the small details ever-present in the pinon-juniper woodland behind my home. I have come to recognize when a tree excretes sap in defense against a beetle infestation. I search for the hardened sap balls that are produced by the pitch tubes, near perfect spheres of golden amber. I spent the late summer months examining pine cones filled with pinon nuts, trying to determine what color shells reliably yield the meaty sweet fruit that I and so many other forest dwellers were seeking.

It was as if something had been returned to me: a sense of place, a knowing, a recognition. And though the weight of so much loss has not grown lighter on my shoulders or in my heart, the world has given me something to remedy my spirit. When you choose to attend to those others, to the feathered and four-legged and rooted ones, to notice the ways they engage with the world, the ways they create and give form to an inhabitable Earth, you can’t help but admire their resilience, their tenacity, their courage. This is all that I have won as I have lost. Forgetting is an easy way to lose something. We owe it to the great blue world to remember. We have a moral obligation to do as much.

When I first met the Mexican gray wolves of the Greater Gila, after researching their extirpation from the American West and then following their slow, tenuous reintroduction, I realized this obligatory remembering was not mine alone to carry. So many others, often guided by Indigenous allies who have not forgotten, and inspired by their Traditional Ecological Knowledge, are committing and recommitting to remembering, restoring, reclaiming and restructuring in service of a broader, more diverse, more cared for sense of community.

At this historical, political, social, ecological moment, so much is framed in terms of wins and losses. I think it’s safe to say no one victory is ever only triumph, and no forfeiture only ever deprivation. The world is far too complex to exist in such polarized binaries. Perhaps it is time we inhabit the space between, the interstices where life and lessons foment and bubble over, connecting us to ourselves, to each other, to the vast web of this existence, where no one is really ever keeping score. 

UPDATE (December 11, 2020): Thank you to everyone who wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the last month demanding that they not harm these wolves. Our understanding is that the livestock are no longer in the area and no wolves were captured or harmed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the agency tasked with recovering critically endangered Mexican gray wolves—is working right now to trap and remove wolves from the wilds of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico at the behest of livestock producers who are grazing non-native cattle on public lands for private profit.

Wolves from the Sheepherders Baseball Park Pack or the Pitchfork Canyon Pack are blamed for killing around 3% of one rancher’s herd of cows. In comparison, the federal government has killed about 3% of the entire wild Mexican wolf population this year in the name of social tolerance. It seems that tolerance only goes one way.

Help us stop this wolf removal! Send an email to mexicanwolfcomments@fws.gov today. Tell U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service why you support wild wolves over destructive, non-native cattle. Explain that the agency’s job is to protect and recover endangered Mexican gray wolves, not cows. Tell them to stop the removal of these endangered, wild lobos—fewer than 170 of which live in the American Southwest.

Please keep your comments civil, as hostile language is counterproductive. When you email, it is helpful to copy us (info@wildearthguardians.org) so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can’t claim to not have received your note. Thank you for taking action to defend lobos!

Learn more about this situation here.

When I awoke in the darkness, the first thing I felt was the soreness in my quads and calves. I wasn’t sure if it was the muscle pain or the hunger pains that had woken me. Maybe it was something else entirely—something stirring outside my tent.

That’s what it was—a sound. Not just any sound, but a sound I’d never heard before. At first, it was indiscernible. After a moment, it was unmistakable. Almost like a song. One voice, then two… then three… then, an entire chorus.

I tried to focus, but my damn sleeping bag was making all those crinkly sounds as I tried to settle my body into a comfortable position. When I was finally still, the singing grew clearer—not just the sound, but the echo as well. The echo of wolves—howling in some place that seemed, at once, both far away and very near.

It was the fifth, and last, night of our backpack into the Gila Wilderness. I had been longing to hear those sounds for many years and perhaps, in my wishful greed, to catch a sight of the wolves themselves. My only regret from that night is that I didn’t wake my wife, Terry. But if you knew her particular relationship with sleep, you’d understand.

The three-legged alpha male of the Middle Fork pack. Photo by the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team.

Weeks later, the wonder I felt that night transformed into sadness and outrage, as I realized those were the howls of the Middle Fork Pack, wolves that roamed the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Gila River.

I was saddened because I knew both the alpha female and alpha male of that pack only had three legs. Each victims of human cruelty—in one case, a gun shot wound.  In the other, a steel trap.

Nevertheless, these incredible animals persisted and persevered for nearly a decade. They successfully raised wolf pups in the wild canyons, pine forests and remote grasslands within and on the edge of the Gila—America’s first wilderness.

In a sense, those of us who care about protecting these wolves are working with one of our legs missing as well.

Seemingly every day over the last four years, the Trump administration has systematically dismantled the environmental safety net. Regardless of who is elected in November, we will be working at a greater disadvantage than we were just four years ago.

But, if we persevere, as the wolves did in the face of adversity, we can still accomplish much.  I believe that if we work half as hard as the wolves do, we can accomplish twice as much as we ever have.

We also can each learn something else from the Middle Fork wolves.  It’s that there is strength in numbers and that we are more resilient when we look after every member of our pack. There’s likely no way a three-legged wolf could survive on its own, but working together they overcame significant obstacles.

When I think about how many Guardians there are in the world—and by that I simply mean compassionate people who protect the vulnerable—I am heartened by people’s commitment.  But I am also aware that we are simply not enough people. We need more Guardians. I want every one of you reading these words to reach out to people you are not convinced share our value of protecting the vulnerable.

You may ask “why?” It’s because there is so much more at stake. It’s not just environmental protection that is being eviscerated, it is democracy itself.

But if we are to ultimately persevere in our quest, whatever it may be, we cannot focus only on the injuries from the past. I can’t imagine the Middle Fork wolves spent a moment in self-pity about their wounds. What propelled them forward was a fierce clarity about their purpose of protecting their pack. What will propel us forward is a compelling vision for the future. A key part of that vision is the recognition that we all share more in common than we usually think.

By focusing on what we have in common, rather than our differences, we can increase the size of our pack. In doing so, we will increase our political power and our ability to advocate on the behalf of the Middle Fork pack and the natural world in general. Doing this will require expanding our circle of compassion.

Perhaps it is naïve, but I believe the practice of compassion can be a compelling force. Many times, I have written about the need for society to expand the circle of compassion to include those who have historically been marginalized—women, minorities, the disabled, and the entire natural world. If we, as environmentalists, can expand our circle of compassion to include new, unlikely allies—I believe we will be more effective in achieving our goals.

Though the Middle Fork Pack sadly no longer endures, I hope their story becomes a part of your story about how we can be more resilient during these uncertain times. Let their story remind us that, with perseverance, we can overcome great obstacles.

Let us remind ourselves that we are members of a pack with room to grow, both in numbers and compassion. With that unified purpose, we will find strength and comfort, from ourselves and from each other, and together we will accomplish great things.

Ten years ago, some humans came to the table. We sat down together and looked at the facts. We looked at each other. Looked at the world. And looked at the facts again. The scientific facts. The planet is warming, we said to each other. Species are dying. The Sixth Mass Extinction, we murmured under our breath. What can be done. Must be done. So we made a pact. Signed a treaty. Nodded our heads and dusted our hands and went back to our respective countries. Masters of solutions. Inventive solvers of problems. Phew, we thought to ourselves. That was a close one.

Ten years later, we came to the table again. We stood with our hands on our heads, our eyes to the sky. We paced and fretted and asked why. And then asked how. The facts were still there. Only worse this time. More warming. More species. Gone. Our goals, unachieved. And now, a global pandemic. Fires. Floods. Birds falling from the sky. How? Why?

Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO) is the primary publication of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity is the primary organization attempting to gather members of the global community to address species extinction, as they did ten years ago, when almost every country in the world (sans the United States), signed on to an arduously negotiated and fastidiously researched treaty to mitigate climate change and species die-off events.

The 5th GBO was just published, and in no uncertain terms, we are failing at our goals. A New York Times article published on Tuesday summarizes the GBO’s findings nicely. The takeaway: we are doing far too little. Extractive and exploitative industries still maintain a vice grip on governing agencies and institutions that set policy regarding agriculture, transportation, and energy. In other words, the status quo is slow to go. No surprise there. 

But when life as we know it is on the line, perhaps we pay attention to the fire, quite literally, burning under our asses, and demand that systemic change is non-negotiable. Governments must act now. Nothing less than a complete overhaul is required for the integrity of posterity. For the perpetuity of the human species. For the future of our more-than-human cohabitants who now look to us for their survival. As the article states, “Without transformational change, all humanity will be affected, with Indigenous people and the poor bearing the worst effects.”

And so I ask myself, what do we write about when we write about loss? When loss comes in a new kind of weight that presses the human heart into submission…and then presses some more? It’s smokey here in New Mexico today. Some strange ochre filter scatters the sunlight into something eerie and unrecognizable, casting noon shadows and curtaining the rugged horizon. The landmark that, since March, has provided the only sense of constancy in what increasingly resembles a world run amok. 

Sixty-eight percent of animal life has been extirpated since 1970. We live now in a perpetual state of absentia, existing in relation to what is no longer here. The artist, philosopher and materialist poet Dario Robleto speaks about the moral obligation of memory. How as creatures so corporeally, spiritually, and emotionally tied to our ability to remember, we must responsibly wield this power for good. 

A Mexican Gray wolf howls in the dusk and the dark from Gilita Creek. The full harvest moon sways between tendrils of clouds above the Mogollon Mountains. She is a testament to our remembering. Teetering on the brink of extinction, we refused to forget the long history of coexistence between wolves and humans. It is our moral imperative to remember the colors of the yellow-billed cuckoo, the surreptitious movements of the jaguar, the lonely howl of the lobo. It is the debt we must pay as members of the species complicit in their slow dying. It is the least we can do. And it is not enough.

I find myself these days mostly engaged in what feels more like exuberant celebrations of life rather than solemn elegies of death. Much of this resilience and conscious turning towards joy is inspired by places like the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico. This irrepressible landscape is not only the focus of my work as a large landscape conservationist, it is also the source of my optimism. And if I had my druthers, it would be a model for a new type of public lands management, one that prioritizes connectivity, habitat corridors, climate resilience, and healthy streams and rivers. One that incorporates and elevates Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the wisdom of the Indigenous ones who know this land, have cared for it and loved it before the word “wilderness” even existed. 

The entire ten million acres of the Greater Gila Bioregion would be held up as a vision realized, as a signature achievement of the kind of protections mandated by the Convention on Biological Diversity. I am past the point of feeling paralyzed by the staggering predictions of loss and destruction. I invite all of us to exercise the force of our human memory, to lodge ourselves firmly in the desert sunflower-filled meadows of Collins Park in the heart of the Gila, where a wildness resides while bull elk bugle and bald eagles fly overhead. We know now, it is a scientific fact, that large protected, connected landscapes are one of the key solutions to species extinction. Let’s mobilize the power of this conscious remembering in service of those landscapes we love, the bird songs they foster, the quiet ways they make our lives more livable, more full of wonder and color and love. 

It feels strange to say it, but I am a child of drought. Not drought in any kind of metaphorical sense. Drought in the literal description, as defined by Merriam-Webster: a period of dryness, especially when prolonged. Perhaps this is the price of reveling in the beauty of the desert southwest. We are gifted daily with singular cloud patterns strewn across rugged skylines hued in incomprehensible shades of apricot and lavender as the sun dips below the horizon. We gaze across vast distances of hills flecked with juniper and pinyon, seceding to the erosive force of our wild Gila River, everything bathed in that kind of light that holds the eye as if a screen had suddenly been lifted or a filter removed. Sudden clarity of vision subtly stealing the breath, inspiring the mind, filling the heart. 

And yes, there is the dryness. Especially prolonged dryness. These days it’s often referred to as megadrought. Climate crisis-induced megadrought. 

“Unprecedented stress on limited water resources,” says one scholarly article

“The worst in 500 years,” warns Scientific American

A raven streaks across the sky above the Silver Fire scar in the Gila National Forest. Aspen saplings and New Mexican locust bring a relieving green to the charred, blackened hills. This is a landscape that has been “progressively” managed for fire. But how climate resilient is it? I wonder as we gaze north across the Black Range from the top of Hillsboro Peak. How resistant to the depredations of an unprecedented megadrought?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released their long-term weather forecast for the southwest. They predict 70-80% above normal temperatures and 40-50% below average precipitation for September, October, and November of 2020 in the American southwest. 

A group of three Mexican gray wolves lope through the matchstick remains of a ponderosa pine forest in the Whitewater-Baldy burn scar in the Gila National Forest. The rusty yearling sits back on her haunches to howl at the setting sun. I wonder if they’re parched, the nearby stock tank a cracked maze of bone-dry mud and withered grass. The wild ones are masters of survival. And water is life. Agua es vida. This is a mantra for all desert dwellers, no matter what language you speak. 

And what we ask for, as Guardians’ Greater Gila team, as children of drought, as lovers of Iron Creek, and Bearwallow Peak, and black hawks, and Gila trout, and Gooding’s onion, and the Gila thistle, is that managing for megadrought and climate resilience become the new mandate for land management agencies, conservation organizations, communities, and individuals alike. We all know the fractious forces of political allegiances are successfully sowing doubt and driving schisms at a time when we must care for each other and the planet more deeply than ever before. 

In a recently published article in LitHub, Barry Lopez asks us if, “…in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?” Despite my own skepticism and misanthropy, even in the face of megadroughts and megafires and some wild thirst parching our rivers and sucking our water tables dry, I say yes. It’s an affirmation based not on the latest science or administrative predictions. It’s driven by the connections and conversations I’ve had over the past six months working on behalf of the Gila. By the love and commitment I hear in the voices of Forest Service staff, professors, archaeologists, other conservationists, community members, politicians. It inspires belief, and dare I say, hope even. Yes, Barry. It is possible.

The World Economic Forum now ranks biodiversity loss as a top-five risk to the global economy. In the slow, unpredictable unfolding of my own understanding of why our world matters, nature’s economic value was never a personal driver of salvation motivation. I am typically more likely to be influenced by the display of awareness and tenacity demonstrated by a white-breasted nuthatch feeding in a Douglas fir, or the steady mutualism exhibited between the piñon jay and the piñon pine. But we are dwellers in a consumerist country where capital is king and money defines success and social worth, so I suppose looking at the current biodiversity crisis in terms of dollars must be a part of our strategy to make change.

According to the WEF’s study, protecting lands and seas creates increased, multisector economic output when compared to the status quo. The economic growth of the conservation and nature sector is largely driven by nature-based tourism, and outweighs the benefits of expanded protections for extractive industries like timber and agriculture. Additionally, protecting 30% of the world’s land and seas would cost just 0.16% of global GDP.

In addition to the above study, which was included in a working paper authored by nearly 80 scientists analyzing the economic implications of the 30×30 initiative (which concludes, by the way, that protecting at least 30% of the world’s lands and oceans provides greater benefits than the status quo, both in terms of financial outcomes and non-monetary measures like ecosystem services), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just released their latest guidelines for conserving connectivity through ecological networks and corridors. The two are related in that conserving 30% of terrestrial and marine ecosystems by 2030 (the goal of 30×30) will inevitably and by design provide ecological networks that include areas protected to various degrees and  the necessary habitat connectivity corridors, two restoration and rehabilitation mechanisms necessary to stem the tide of biodiversity loss, and bolster an increasingly insecure global economy.

We are learning that large scale conservation initiatives have economic value, in addition to ecological value. It is imperative that land management agencies begin to think in terms of the movement ecology of species, and not just the obvious charismatic megafauna like polar bears or elephants, but the slow migrators as well, such as trees and shrubs. As we face the escalating effects of the climate crisis, and the positive feedback loop of biodiversity loss it is feeding, floral and faunal stresses will increase and extirpation events will follow suit. We need governments and the land management agencies they oversee to think boldly and creatively about how to promote climate resilience and stem the tide of biodiversity loss. This includes upending the status quo, particularly in situations of commercial use that are no longer economically or ecologically viable due to climatic infeasibility. Livestock grazing in the desert Southwest is a perfect example of this. Check out Guardians’ grazing permit retirement campaign to learn more about the measures we’re taking to provide both ranchers and the land the opportunity to diversify and rehabilitate.

WildEarth Guardians’ Greater Gila Campaign is aiming to bundle all these factors together to form a new style of connectivity conservation to be practiced on several million acres of protected land spanning the New Mexico-Arizona border, a region facing dire water stresses and increased threats to already endangered species and ecosystems in a climate crisis-induced megadrought. We envision a large landscape designation that would set the stage for the ecological and economic benefits of land protections to be, for lack of a better word, capitalized on. What if, in this landscape that inspired Aldo Leopold’s visionary land ethic, the Forest Service fully mobilized the Leopoldian legacy in service of new standards of management that align with 30×30 goals and IUCN guidelines?

What if the Greater Gila Bioregion became a national model for what public lands management can become when we all choose climate resilience and biodiversity over asymmetrically distributed profits from extractive industries? What if the devastation wreaked by multinational corporations like Freeport-McMoRan and their Chino Mine in Silver City, NM was remediated and then abandoned in favor of a civil corps committed to custodial environmental efforts? The Taos Pueblo-Rocky Mountain Youth Corps just up the road in Taos, NM offers an example of a creative solution to both social and environmental issues. For 25 years they have been offering tribal youth the opportunity to learn valuable skills while contributing to the ecological resilience of their community. Similar federally funded programs are needed throughout the West, and ecological robustness is a good investment no matter how you slice it.

What if the contemporary and historical Indigenous relationship to land was valued as much as or more than its grazing or mining or drilling potential? What if our governance of public spaces became polycentric, orbiting around a commitment to fostering diversity of both human and non-human inhabitants, prioritizing respect and stewardship and education in order to ensure bio-integrity for many generations to come?

We need not speculate over every counterfactual. It is time to take the efforts of the World Economic Forum and the IUCN and run with them. We must run towards the incredible expanses of open space that define who we know ourselves to be. We must think in terms of the commons, for public lands are, at their core, common lands. We must honor their original and current Indigenous inhabitants. We must follow their lead on respectful cohabitation. Let’s make the Greater Gila the exemplar for connectivity conservation, multispecies justice, and a softer, more considerate way of being a human on Planet Earth.

Last week, I fell in love with country. Not This Country. Not Our Country. Simply country. I perched atop peaks above 10,000 feet and peered out across distances incomprehensible. I squatted beside rivers that swayed and snaked for hundreds of miles, wild from source to sea, flexing their hydrologic muscle to carve canyons and move mountains. I star-gazed, open-mouthed and full of wonder, remembering what’s small and what’s precious and what’s worthy of protecting. I saw black hawks and blue jays and arching sycamores and barking elk and trundling bears and trotting wolves. Yes, trotting wolves! Three of them to be precise. Yipping and stalking and howling and moving something inside me that once was wild and fiercely free. 

Mexican gray wolf track in the Greater Gila Bioregion. Photo by Leia Barnett.

All in the Gila, that seemingly eternally unfolding expanse of hills and vales and mountains and vistas and wild silences that spread themselves across southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, what we at WildEarth Guardians refer to as the Greater Gila Bioregion. This is a landscape long inhabited by the Mimbres and Mogollon cultures, and later the Apache, Navajo, Acoma, and Zuni. This place is anciently sacred, humming with the footsteps of Native Ancestors seeding Indigenous Knowledge Traditions deeply prescient for their time. This is a place ecologically abundant, tending to a biodiversity greater than that of Yellowstone. This is a landscape that has known a fire regime and management practices more progressive than anywhere else in the West, where the long-lived cycle of over-grow-burn-regenerate has been allowed to persist with minimal human intervention. This is country wild, where humans have come since time immemorial to travel softly and fit themselves snuggly into the astounding web of living selves, to rest beside Mogollon Death Camas and Mimbres Figwort, to gaze upon Gila chub and Loach minnow, to become, once again, quiet dwellers rather than raucous extractors. 

This is the country we need. It requires no undiscerning patriotism, no flaring bias or political unilateralism. It only asks that we give our attention to a greater sense of self, that we assume our membership in this grand community of bipeds and four-leggeds and root-growers and wing-flappers, and that this membership rise to the top of our list of things to be tended to. You may leave your flag and your fearful ideologies at home. Come with me to the Gila, where we may all, once again, fall in love with country.