by Daniel Baker - September, 2001
You may have missed an installment of the "Gatekeeper News"
- a sort of "view from the land" update for Saguaro-Juniper
(S-J) associates. This lapse might be attributed to my employment
with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) some three years ago. Since then
there has been a coincidental lessening of my S-J land occupancy
at the Windmill where I have a camp, and where the Resource Center
for the Cascabel Hermitage Association (CHA) is quartered.
My impetus for being involved with TNC was a recognition similar
to that espoused by Allen Karcher in his letter read at the S-J
annual meeting, namely that we cannot build a wall high enough to
protect S-J and CHA land. We have to interact with neighbors, community,
government and society. As in the grand lesson of ecology, everything
is connected, and isolationism is not a real possibility.
If there is any accuracy though to the metaphor of building protective
walls at the S-J gate, it is not so much in building them higher
to exclude harmful invaders as to build them wider to include friendly
partners. Efforts at garnering Conservation Easements in Hot Springs
Canyon with like-minded landowners, at bringing a large farm that
is the hydrologic and demographic gateway to the Central San Pedro
Basin (our immediate environs) into a conservation status, and working
with the local community on various aspects of local environmental
awareness, have all achieved some hopeful results in that regard.
But, as I mused with Jim Corbett in our last conversation, it may
be time to bring the work back closer to home. Jim, in his usual
manner, had no advice. But he did strain to say, "We have to
show that subsistence living is not the way backwards, but the way
forward." Anyone familiar with Jim's thought knows that by
subsistence he did not mean poverty, peasantry or mere survival.
Rather he spoke of an integrated symbiotic relation with the land
that does not control or exploit, but that is co-creative in a sacred
parity of give and take. Jim's legacy to me and S-J is his tough
love vision of a way to walk peaceably upon the earth.
While we were all grieving at Jim's illness and imminent departure,
I was inspired by an offhand query from Pat to go check out how
the young sycamore in Hot Springs Canyon was doing. I took along
my 13 year old son Madison to find that the tree, not unlike my
boy, is a strapping, healthy sapling. Here in the midst of grieving
over death is the urgency of new life: a tree whose recruitment
has been severely curtailed in these broadleaf deciduous woodlands
of SE Arizona canyons, finding a way to some hope of resurgence.
I believe that we can take some solace in that tree, and in what
we are doing on Saguaro-Juniper land. This Spring, again with my
son, we went on a camp-out up Hot Springs Canyon. The flowers were
of course magnificent after a wonderful winter of rains. We were
thrilled to see a large tribe of coatis scrambling dead-up the green-lichened
faces of the nearly vertical granite outcroppings above the Yellow
Cliffs. Somehow it looked to me like travelogue footage from an
exotic South American location rather than our own back yard. I
was also personally thrilled to finally identify our native filaree
(Erodium texanum), which clearly outshines in beauty its more abundant
alien cousin that pervades our rangeland.
But so far as thrills go, nothing could match my excitement at seeing
the condition of Hot Springs above the Yellow Cliffs where we installed
the gap fence a few years back to manage cattle access upstream.
Cottonwoods were gaining a strong foothold along with willows, ash
and walnut, and the wash was channeling-up and creating distinct
banks. This after an October flood that saw bank to bank flows in
Hot Springs, the likes of which in years past (possibly due to a
century of unmanaged grazing) had tended to scour broad flats to
bare rock and gravel.
As a project that S-J could undertake, I can think of no more exciting
than the continuing improvement in riparian habitat and increased
perennial flow in Hot Springs Canyon - one of the most significant
tributaries of the threatened San Pedro River. I take heart from
studies like Elmore and Beschta, "Riparian Areas: Perceptions
in Management" in Rangelands, 1987 that show how degraded riparian
areas can be recovered to perennial flow:
"Summer flows have improved in a variety of streams in eastern
Oregon where riparian vegetation has been allowed to recover and
stream channels have begun to aggrade. Such responses are happening
in areas that receive, on average, only 10 to 15 inches of annual
precipitation. The important point is that streamside vegetation
provides the key to improving the productivity and stability of
riparian systems. This vegetation is also critical in reestablishing
perennial flow in degraded channels, where the slow release of water
from increased subsurface storage can more than offset the amount
used by streamside vegetation."
As our friend and neighbor Nathan Sayre recounts in the chapter
"Restoring Riparian Areas" in his recent book, The New
Ranch Handbook on a conservation rancher's similar efforts:
"Riparian trees have established and grown, and the creek has
returned to clear, perennial flow. Forage production has also increased.
cattle harvest ten times as much forage
before, but with far less impact on the plants."
Such an effort could mirror, on a somewhat larger scale, Jim's heroic
and so far successful efforts at reestablishing Sierra Blanca Spring
as a thriving riparian area. Large stands of Deer grass now collect
sediment there building up water absorbing capacity; cottonwood,
willow and walnut trees are thriving; and beautiful flowers as well
as other plant, animal, bird and insect life are all being attracted
Recently I sat beneath the old ramada at the Windmill and mused
on my acquaintance with Jim. It was here, in this shade and on our
land, that I most enjoyed him, and where he appeared most at home.
As I reflected on this remarkable man, I could not help but marvel
too at the remarkable land we share together. My observations at
the Windmill that weekend included: the coati tribe that often waters
at the holding tank had well over a dozen new members - the kits
looking like nothing so much as little monkeys as they climbed over
one another in their scramble to get at the water; an elf owl brood's
visitation at my tent; a Sonoran Whip Snake sneaking right into
my tent, and a Red Racer dancing in lacy limbs atop high mesquites
in an effort to elude me; two Mule Deer bucks with velvet racks
bounding by; the yips of coyotes awakening me in the morning, and
the hoarse barks of Gray foxes attending my falling asleep; a dozen
varieties of grasshoppers, some of exquisitely bold coloring, as
well as incredible arrays of other insects and spiders; SE Arizona's
"second Spring" of wildflowers going strong; and without
the benefit of binoculars or much attention or birding acumen, well
over 30 species of birds (as I tick them off in my mind), the most
interesting of which to me were the Yellow-breasted Chat and the
Rock Wren, which I had not observed there before.
As I come to know this land better, it occurs to me that Saguaro-Juniper
is aptly named. It reflects an unusual association of species and
habitats. That can indeed be said of this place, as it could also
well be called "Sonoran-Chihuahuan" in tribute to the
desert types which clearly meet here, or for that matter, "Rockies-Madres"
in recognition of the "Sky Island" Galiuro and Rincon
Mts. that flank us. What could really be exciting, and an homage
to Jim Corbett's light, is if we could also call it "Homo-Tierra",
a place where humans and the earth co-habit peaceably and creatively.