We climb up out of the Cajon Bonito on our way to the San Bernardino ranch, Keith at the wheel of Valer's truck. Giant foothills rise into view, their reddish rock crumpled and folded, cloaked in green upslope and farther down in billowing clouds of dry grasses, glimmering in the sun. Below, a snaking line of treetops marks the creek.
"Isn't that beautiful?" Valer asks. "That's the canyon where we were hiking."
As Keith drives, they never stop checking the landscape, though one wrong turn of the steering wheel could send us plunging into the canyon. "Now this is a possible area where we could raise bighorn sheep," Valer says, looking out over a hillside where slices of rock cling like lichen. "But I have to be quite convinced they will survive."
She points way up in the mountains to where Keith will hike tomorrow to install another camera, some of the wildest country she owns.
"I'd like to get you back there," he tells Valer, explaining that last year's fire and runoff destroyed a spring. "Bears would go in there and swim in the summertime. I think it would be a good place to put a small gabion."
Valer puts restoring the bears' swimming hole at the top of her to-do list.
After leaving Los Ojos, we head west on Route 2, a two-lane highway slated to become four. This will disrupt the migratory corridor much the same way that the U.S. border fence has—animals mill near the fence trying to figure out a way to reach their watering holes or breeding grounds or winter food sources on the other side—so Valer and Keith are scanning the area for the right site to put in an animal overpass. Valer is hopeful that the Mexican government will invest in the project.
Forty-five minutes later, we're driving on to the "ugliest" and potentially the most valuable of the Austin properties. San Bernardino was once that rarest of ecosystems: a desert wetland—an essential rest stop and watering hole for migrating birds and animals. Since 1900 half of the world's wetlands have been lost, but in the Sonoran Desert more than 90 percent of these oases are gone. In the mid-1800s, this wetland covered thousands of acres. By 1984 it had shrunk to 52.
Valer's truck bounces and rattles on the cementlike earth, kicking up dust. Tiny birds dart through the mesquite, chittering.
Dam-building was a much more difficult task here than on their other ranches. At San Bernardino, the Austins have no access to the water source up in the mountains. They own the bottomland, and during the rainy season the water thunders through here hard and fast. Again and again, the gabions they built were blown out and they had to start over, building them bigger and anchoring them into the ground. They even hired an architect to build one giant concrete dam and spillway.
"With this dam here, I backed water up all the way into the United States," Valer says, standing at the edge of the huge dam, now winter-dry except for some stranded pools. "I also backed up silt. Over half a mile." For her trouble she was threatened with a quarter-million-dollar fine by Homeland Security. In its rush to construct the border fence, a road was laid through a dry streambed, but Valer's dam caused the stream to run again, flooding the road. The fine is a sore spot with Valer. But as we survey the silt-raised riverbed beyond the dam, the grasses and sedges and the newly grown trees, all evidence of dogged determination paying off, Valer says she can breathe a little easier. "The first couple of years I was pretty nervous because there was an off chance I could've blown out Route 2," she says with a laugh. "I was sweating! Josiah told me he'd see me in jail."
Now many of those massive gabions are buried under silt and covered with vegetation. Recent measurements of the wetlands show they've expanded from 52 acres to 88, thanks in part to the Austins' land management and in part to the restoration work done by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on a refuge located directly across the border. Bird numbers are rebounding—they are often the first to repopulate an area because they don't have to walk or crawl to get there. Some birds that travel immense distances—from Alaska and Canada to Argentina and Chile—are showing up at San Bernardino, using it as a rest and refueling stop.
More than 500 species of native bees have been found in this valley, the highest concentrations anywhere on Earth. As honeybees worldwide disappear at an alarming rate due to colony collapse disorder, a condition that causes them to desert their hives, these native pollinators are thriving, and bee scientist Robert Minckley (son of the famed ichthyologist) is studying them while staying at the Austins' ranch house on San Bernardino.
Of course, this valley will never be what it once was—thousands of acres of wetland oasis. Too much land on both sides of the border has been sold off in small plots for housing, roads, golf courses, and malls, or drained for farming. The widening of Route 2 moves inexorably forward. Traffic along the border patrol road has deposited invasive weeds that threaten to wipe out the emerging grasslands yet again.
The Austins' aim is not to resurrect a past landscape but to create a variety of habitats, so as many native species as possible can benefit. A Garden of Eden, in miniature. As Bill Radke, the manager of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge across the border, puts it, "Variety is the spice of life, they say. But it is life, you know, in a place like this."