An Amateur Rancher Brings the Wastelands of the Southwest Back to Life
On their various Sonoran ranches, Valer surveys the land on horseback with her foreman, Francisco Somoza. They discuss possible sites for gabions; they argue, pleasantly. Valer has traveled down to the village where most of her workers come from. When they told her they had stopped building trincheras there because all the young people had to leave to find work elsewhere, Valer got the Mexican government involved with the Austins' foundation, Cuenca Los Ojos, in a program to pay young people to stay on the land and restore it.
We arrive at Las Anitas, one of their four Sonoran ranches, where members of Naturalia, a leading Mexican environmental group, are conducting a hands-on workshop for a dozen local ranchers on how to calculate their mule deer population by noting tracks and scat. An older rancher wearing a white Stetson shows Valer some photos on his cell phone of the trincheras he has built, but what he's most proud of are his pictures of woodpeckers' nests. As he brought water back to his land and the vegetation bloomed, the birds have followed. It's clear that these woodpeckers are his woodpeckers.
Valer tells me of another rancher who has jaguars on his property. Typically, cattle ranchers shoot them on sight, but this man is so proud of the jaguars that he has named them after his children. "So they're getting it, they see cause and effect," Valer says. "They're getting excited about it and they're becoming naturalists."
That afternoon, under a blue, cloud-brushed sky, the group carefully trolls the desert land, stepping through rings of creosote bushes, circling round prickly pear cacti, cowboy boots and sneakers scuffing the dry earth. A shout goes up. Two sets of scat have been found—from an adult female deer and her baby, it appears. Purple verbena dots the landscape. Roadrunner tracks shaped like an X. A fox's paw prints. The field trip ends with the discovery of "la casa de ciervo mulo," the house of the mule deer: a large mesquite shrub, six or seven feet high, hollowed out inside, shaded from the desert sun, the ground matted by hooves and warm bodies.
From Laz Anitas we drive east. Valer has said we're going to see the prettiest land first, the Los Ojos ranch, which is located in Cajon Bonito. And then the ugliest, San Bernardino, on the U.S. border. "If you can turn that around, you can turn anything around," Valer says.
We pass miles of scrubby desert landscape, pink mountains looming ahead, stubbled with blackened pines and oaks from the huge fires that raged through the borderlands in May 2011. Almost everything I'm looking at belongs to the Austins, and they have taken steps to ensure it will never be divided up and sold off after they are gone. As Josiah put it, "I want to protect the lands for future generations and against future generations."
All the Austin properties lie within the Madrean Archipelago, one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. This is where the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts meet. The temperate zone flows into the subtropical, and flora and fauna from mountains, grassland, and desert mingle. The Madrean Archipelago harbors over half the bird species of North America, more mammals than any other place in the United States, and over 3,000 species of plants, some found nowhere else on Earth. And yet that biodiversity is under siege. At least 70 percent of the vegetation has already disappeared and many of the animals found here, including the jaguar, the ocelot, and the Mexican spotted owl, are threatened or endangered.
At a Los Ojos ranch house tucked into a deep canyon, Gould's turkeys strut across the lawn, their long backs glossy with white and chocolate-colored feathers, their red wattles hanging to the ground. Nine years ago, the Austins were part of an effort to reintroduce the breed to the Chiricahua Mountains. The couple are also helping to bring back Coues white-tailed deer and are hoping to do the same for the desert bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, animals that once thrived in this part of northern Mexico but haven't been seen in decades.
Valer, photographer Keith Shallcross, and I hike along a creek that winds lazily through a ravine, twisting around stands of sycamore and cottonwood and islands of silt. Keith, a tall, soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humor, is a photo-trapper, and he has set up cameras throughout the Austins' Mexican properties to document the wildlife there. This morning we're hiking out to one of his cameras so he can change the memory card.
A half inch of winter rain earlier in the week sent water coursing down this canyon and now huge piles of brush are pushed up against stands of trees. They're nature-made dams, the kind beavers might build—another species Valer is hoping will one day return to the area. "Without these trees here, the floods would've scoured everything right down to the rock." We wade through the creek, the water cold and burbling, Valer in a calf-length dungaree skirt, ankle socks and sneakers. When she first left New York, her friends were sure she would miss the whirl and clamor of the big city and soon return. "I've never been bored a single day here," she says.
In these waters, there are nine species of fish, including one of the last Yaqui catfish populations in Sonora; the Mexican government is considering Los Ojos for a national fish preserve. Two types of native leopard frogs live here that are threatened elsewhere. A green, fleshy grass called equisetum has anchored itself into the soil and the water slides gently through the strands. When the Austins bought Los Ojos, this lush waterway was a dry, rocky wash, so deeply incised that buses used it for a road.
Alongside the creek, we find bobcat tracks, and later Keith will send me a photo of the exact cat that made them, caught with a foot lifted in the air as it padded by the camera one night in its soft, spotted cat's pajamas. Imprinted in a patch of moist sand are the two-pronged hoof prints of Coues white-tailed deer and a scrim of coati tracks that look like they were made by children's feet. As we watch, a gang of racoonlike coatis scramble up the red rock face of the cliffs ranging along one side of the canyon. Their small, reddish brown bodies end in long, barely credible tails, like exclamation points.
The motion-activated camera is set at the base of a cedar tree. A few feet away, Keith has doused a rock in Calvin Klein Obsession because animals will pause to sniff the new scent, ensuring a less blurry photo. The Obsession-drenched rock has made for some interesting shots: a dozen or so coatis mobbing it, some rolling on the ground and tumbling over each other; a hog-nosed skunk stretching luxuriously alongside it in amorous expectation; two black bears nuzzling and then, in a second shot, having sex. (Keith will caption that picture "Obsession really works.")
After he pulls the memory card from the camera, we hike to a waterfall and a huge bat cave. The water drops down over rock ledges and trickles through strands of maidenhair fern, making tinkling notes as it falls.