Like the scenery in an old western, the mountain ranges of the Apache Highlands rise from the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. Residents of this border region of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico call the area Sky Islands, an apt description for peaks that comprise a unique ecosystem. Once upon a time, the virgin terrain comprised 13 million acres of grasslands, riparian forests, woodlands, and wet, marshy springs known as cienegas.
Over recent decades, local ranchers suffered as recurring droughts in the Southwest reduced livestock forage and rains eroded bare soil. Woody shrubs replaced grasses and sediment choked water sources. Animals with seasonal migrations like pronghorn were especially vulnerable to the loss of the grasses that fed them, and a wide range of native species — black-tailed prairie dog, ridge-nosed rattlesnake, Chiricahua leopard frog, American bison, Baird’s sparrow, pronghorn, white-sided jackrabbit, and jaguar — struggled as their grassland habitat vanished. Development threatened to fragment the lands that conservationists of all backgrounds, from ranchers to urban environmentalists, wanted future generations to enjoy.
Today, only two million high-quality grassland acres remain among the Sky Islands. But an extraordinary public–private partnership aided by NFWF is working to restore the ecosystem. NFWF’s 10-year, $15 million strategy is supporting conservation of key habitats through grassland management using prescribed fire, stream and wetland renewal through erosion control, and wildlife response monitoring.
NFWF’s partners in this intensive effort include the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, Pima County and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. They have been joined by ranching and watershed coalitions such as the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, Cienega Watershed Partnership, Malpai Borderlands Group, The Nature Conservancy, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation, and Sky Island Alliance.
With such widespread collaboration, conservation in the Sky Islands is gaining ground. “NFWF uses a winning strategy by investing in place-based groups willing to work as a team,” observed Mary Miller of the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to watershed and ranchland stewardship. “With NFWF funding, our prescribed fire and erosion control projects got rolling. Fire plans have lots of moving pieces, and each partner contributes their know-how to get things done on the ground.”