GATEKEEPER NEWS
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. In fact,… cattle harvest ten times as much forage… than 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 there.


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.