Our resolutions to make 2018 a whole lot better

For all of us who care about our fellow humans, clean air and water, and sharing space with other creatures, 2017 was a roller coaster ride, and 2018 is starting out with more of the same. I’ve spent the first part of January taking stock and thinking about what we can do in 2018 to make things a whole lot better. Together, we can accomplish a lot.

In 2018, we pledge to hold fast to our ambitious vision to sustain the Sky Islands as a place where nature thrives, where open space and clean water are available to all species, and where people are deeply connected to the region and each other. We’ll continue to dream big, stay focused, and persevere, because that’s what jaguars, frogs, and our community need. Here are our resolutions for the new year.

We resolve to redouble our work on the ground to help wildlife and ecosystems respond to climate change.

Rapid and intense climate change was the story of 2017 in the Sky Islands. Every month last year had average temperatures above normal—with three months of the year being the hottest on record. Climate change isn’t going away, and neither are we. This year we will work to bring ecosystems back to health, protect Sky Island wet oases, and replace non-native vegetation with plants that provide food and cover for wildlife. We will provide refuge and support species as they adapt to these changing conditions.

We resolve to stand for healthy communities by fostering healthy ecosystems with flowing water.

So many of the ecological gems in the Sky Islands pivot on water—and so many of these water sources are exploited and disturbed by human use.  In 2018, Outstanding Arizona Waters like Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon are threatened by interests that seek to remove their protections so they can be more easily exploited and polluted. We can take charge and decide how we want to live in the Sky Island Region, with true appreciation and respect for how the ecosystems around us enrich our lives and our well being. This year our Sky Islands waters continue to be a key focus, understanding where water is found on the landscape, protecting these waters, bringing them back to flowing health, and recognizing the importance of our springs and streams in regulation and policy.

We resolve to build connections for wildlife large and small, terrestrial and aquatic.

With rapid and intense climate change, keeping wildlife and ecosystems connected is as important as ever. We want to give all animals, big and small, and the myriad plants in the Sky Islands the best chance possible to respond to climate challenges. We will continue to fight the proposed border wall and keep the Path of the Jaguar open for jaguars and all the plants and animals that live alongside them. We will continue to stand strong for policies and regulations that protect—rather than destroy—entire ecosystems and wildlife corridors.

In his most recent book, Half-Earth, E.O Wilson describes the Madrean Sky Islands as “one of the last great places on earth” and “a corridor permitting north–south expansion of species between the U.S. Mexican Plateau and the Cordilleras of Central America.” These corridors are critical to lessening the impacts of climate change, and we will work to preserve them.

We resolve to raise the profile of the Sky Island Region.

As a nation, we must recognize that the Sky Islands are worthy of our attention and investment and that the vibrant culture and environments of the Sky Islands are assets that benefit us all. Stronger recognition of the extraordinary natural and cultural values of the Sky Islands is essential to motivate people to demand and support protection for the region and reject actions that will diminish it. We will work to bring the story of vibrant Sky Islands worthy of protection to new and broader audiences.

We resolve to stand with science and empower young scientists, especially women scientists, to become forces for positive change.

Young scientists who love where they live and work and develop a deeper understanding of how to support and protect it are the hope for a thriving future in the Sky Islands. I came to Sky Island Alliance as a volunteer student studying science nearly 15 years ago. Now as Executive Director, I’m committed to raising the voices of young women scientists in our community. They bring creativity, commitment, intellect, and a passion that when fostered can change our world for the better. We will empower them this year with skills development, career mentoring, and opportunities to work directly on studying and protecting our Sky Island wonders.

We resolve to be united, focused, and determined

To us, being united means reaching across boundaries to build connections and community. As the only organization working to keep the entire Sky Island Region connected and thriving, we must remain focused and determined this year. We may be a small organization, but we stand for big ideals: a Sky Island Region that is not limited by political boundaries, and where unity and community thrive during these times of so much divisiveness. We will live these ideals in the way we run our organization and engage with all our Sky Island communities.

Want to feel better in 2018? Connect with the diversity of people that makes the Sky Islands a great place to live.

Come volunteer with Sky Island Alliance! Research has found that the overwhelming majority of volunteers feel mentally and physically healthier after a volunteer experience. Lower your stress, improve your mood, and build community with Sky Island Alliance this year as volunteer. We’ll be working in Sky Islands in the U.S. and Mexico throughout the year.

Volunteer Dispatch: The life of a desert spring, pt. 2

by Valarie lee James, Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring volunteer

Sky Island Alliance Volunteer Log
Monsoon 2017 Visit to the Spring

Our first visit to the spring at the height of the Sonoran Desert Summer exceeded our expectations, yielding water flow, nothing short of a miracle. Now, at the end of the monsoon season, we continue our mission to monitor the spring’s over-all health. September’s mid-nineties temperatures have us sweating under our leg gators.

We hear it before we see it: the spring’s resident Cicadas, the only insects capable of producing such distinctive, sometimes deafening buzz. The cicadas’ percussive audio – the sound of summer in the desert – blasts up the mountain and then slips down into the shade of the spring where massive Walnut and Sycamore trees spread their muscular arms.

Once there, we thrill at the cool air permeated with the fecund scent of rich black mud. We walk carefully, soft and silent on a carpet of moist plant matter: the lush cycling of nutrients in a riparian zone.

After monsoons, growth in the springs is expected to be high but my eye is virtually hijacked by an explosion of green. Knee high bunches of wild grasses and sedges line the banks of the spring. At eye level, seep willow saplings compete with young Walnut. Wild mint and grape vines spread long fingers through the trees. Like a desert animal, I want to drop right then and there, strip off my gators, and press the heat of my belly against the cool bottomland.

Measuring changes in flow through the seasons forms a picture of the year-round health of a spring.

But citizen science calls and we carry on, hiking up the vertical drift to the mouth of the spring where we will measure the length, width, and depth of the pool(s) and then the water quality: the temperature, the conductivity (a measure of dissolved salts), and the PH.

“Look how clear the water is,” my partner marvels. In between floating islands of healthy green algae, the water reflects a turquoise sky beaming through holes in the canopy.

I kneel on the bank and observe. There at the mouth of the spring, honey bees cluster at the smallest point of origin. Flame-skimmer Dragonflies jab the surface of the water, up and down, slaking their thirst. A huge White-lined Sphinx moth flutters down to the water to take a drink, then slips between the grasses on the bank, perfectly camouflaged. Across the water, dense spider webs veil the top of the grasses, successfully netting a multitude of winged food sources coming to water.

Next to me on the bank, ringed by stands of bull grass, spiraled turf presses down like a crop circle. It is a mark, a sign that wildlife has been here, no doubt drank at the spring, and then bedded down in the tall grass. I imagine a mother deer or a fawn resting, allowing themselves a moment to close their eyes. Unable to resist, I curl up too, in the center of the spiral and for a moment, close my eyes. Encircled by a steady hum of insects, I feel the deer’s wakeful rest.

Shortly after, hiking down the drift to the next pool, we pass bones: a deer jaw, small leg bones and hooves. A Deer track shines in the black mud like a carved relief and seed balls of scat dot the path. Farther down, I spot the back end of a coyote running silently through the shadows at the base of the trees.

Monsoon wildflowers swarm with life.

There are no signs of human habitation or visitation. A colorful Mexican blanket we saw on our last visit, woven from natural wool, continues to work into the soil, decomposing organically. The surface has been artfully picked apart by birds and rodents, busy upcycling the fibers. The natural fiber transmutes into primo nesting material, fiber art in the trees, unique decor in the house of the spring.

We pass more color threaded into the biota: wildflowers we have not seen before that correspond to the monsoons: purple flowers from the snapdragon family, yellow/orange Trixis Sunflowers covered with butterflies, and a single Arizona Wild Cotton plant with one spectacular white blossom.

At the final pool, I lay a pipe in a cleft near a boulder where we had discovered water flow on our first visit. The flow coming through the pipe increased by 60% from our summer visit.

As we finished measuring flow, I look up and peering through the trees, see something unfamiliar, vertical shapes I cannot identify from a distance. Determined to solve the mystery, I bushwhack my way down another level, jump water, climb over jagged stumps, and shimmy under deadfall.

Cattails are a sure sign of water!

“Oh my God, Steph!” I yell.

“I see Cattails! It’s another pool!”

Hidden in plain sight: Cattails up to eight feet tall shoot out of a pool measuring twenty-two-foot-long by eight and a half feet wide. The PH level is close to neutral and the water teems with life. I spot at least three different butterflies at this section alone: Mexican Yellows, Checkerspots, and a single handsome Bordered Patch.

“What a surprise!” I exclaim out loud, climbing up the drift again.

“I think this spring is gonna continue to surprise us every time we come,” Steph says, her grin as wide and sunny as the mountain side we scaled to get here.

It’s mid-day now. We feel the ambient air temperature rising even in the spring’s cool reaches. We decide to sit a spell under the largest Sycamore and gather our strength for the trek out. I lean against the tree massive roots rising above the ground. It’s very hot. I close my eyes, breathe, and open them again. Directly in front of me are heaps of dirt. Beyond that are large holes, nine to twelve inches wide at the base of the tree roots. Badger holes! I am sitting on an entire Badger sett, a network of tunnels. I would have missed them entirely had I not been quiet and contemplative, in a state of wakeful rest.

Beyond the Badger holes: more butterflies circle a large patch of diminutive fluted wildflowers. I can identify the butterflies: a yellow Sulfur and a blue-black Pipevine Swallowtail but the wildflowers they love are some kind of composite, frustratingly impossible to name.

The importance of naming cannot be underestimated. Along with the scientific power of discovery, naming what we see bookmarks famed biologist and author Rachel Carson’s “rush of remembered delight,” and furthers a deeper intimacy, a re-enchantment with the natural world. To name is to see, to know, and to remember. Ultimately though, Carson’s writings help us understand that to nurture a life-long sense of wonder and awe “it is not half so important to know as to feel.”

Cicadas are the herald of summer in the Sky Islands.

A leaf the color of raw umber sways lazily down onto the ground. I realize that signs of summer’s end are browning in the Sycamore’s high canopy where the sun rules. As I stare at the leaf, its autumnal color out of place in the emerald green spring, an Arizona Powdered Skipper lands on it. I blink and the moth-like brown butterfly fades into the dried leaf of the same brown hue. Sitting next to me, Steph spots both a mysterious winged arthropod and a hidden cicada exoskeleton clinging to a stem.

In my peripheral vision, a Cooper’s hawk perches in the lower limbs of a tree not fifteen feet. in front of me. Slowly, I turn my head and meet his golden eye. The breath catches in my chest. We both freeze and stare.

Each time I see a hawk I am reminded of the Hawk I saw, we all saw, soaring above the crowd at the Women’s March last winter. 750,000 people in the streets in downtown Los Angeles spellbound by the sight. Later, reports came in of another hawk soaring above the crowd in downtown Denver. I would not be surprised to hear there were many more sightings of hawks soaring high above the crowds, across the Nation that day. According to Indigenous Native peoples, Hawks carry elemental wisdom. They remind us to see the big picture, to rise above identity politics and unite… to keep our eyes on the prize: the earth itself and its most diverse inhabitants in the web of life.

The hawk flies and we get ready to go. First, we pass in and through an “Ecotone,” an important border or transition zone between two biomes; in this case, riparian and grasslands. Beginning the climb up and out, we note changes in color – green grass to dry brown – and then in plant species. We see a huge Hackberry bush bursting with edible berries and a Cholla cactus housing two Cactus Wrens’ nests. As we hike, we flush out at least three different varieties of Sonoran Grasshoppers in an astounding array of size and color, invertebrates not found in the spring and a favorite food of cactus wrens.

It is now over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and we are thankful for afternoon cloud cover. On the mountain, my hiking sticks ‘stick’ in the vine-like wily grass like knotted hair on the scalp. The monsoonal growth, lusting after life in the sun, does not want to let go of us. We follow deer trails when we can find them, and slip and slide on loose rock hidden under the scrub when we cannot. The climb is arduous and we stop often to chug water. Secretly, we both wish it would rain but we know the monsoon season is at an end. Yet suddenly, we are blessed once more. Great wet drops cool and refresh as we hike back to the car.

Read the first installment of Val’s Volunteer Log from summer 2017.

All photographs by Stephanie Stayton & Valarie Lee James

Note to the Reader: the whereabouts of this wilderness spring is not revealed to ensure the survival of its unique ecosystem.

Up Against the Wall

On a quiet, late-spring morning in northern Sonora, Mexico, a beaver putters across a pond the size of a football field. A sinuous dam, 5 feet high, forms the pond’s southern edge. Frogs croak amid gnawed stumps, and the air is alive with birds and flying insects.

Volunteer Dispatch: The life of a desert spring

by Valarie lee James, Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring volunteer

Sky Island Alliance Volunteer Log
Our First Visit to the Spring: Summer 2017

Note to the Reader: the whereabouts of this wilderness spring is not revealed to ensure the survival of its unique ecosystem.

Deep in a mountain range in southeastern Arizona, dry summer grasses flanking the border of Mexico, a ribbon of healthy green bewilders the eye. We are approaching a lush and life-saving spring hidden in a moist ravine.

Our guide, Sami Hammer, Conservation Biologist & GIS Specialist at Sky Island Alliance, leads us up and over a ridge line to the green ribbon below. We traverse the side of the cliff, stumble over craggy rock and slip on dry scrub-grass, then slowly circle down into the ribbon of green. At the bottom, we duck under barbed wire and into National Forest.

As newly recruited volunteers for the Sky Island Alliance’s Adopt-a-Spring program, my partner and I are thrilled. We have signed on to monitor the health of this spring, one of thousands, many still undiscovered, scattered throughout Arizona, one of the driest states in the union.

Once every season for the duration of one year, we will visit the spring. We will measure the width, breath, and depth of the spring, take water samples and measure flow, observe and document plant and animal species, tracks and scat.

Natural springs provide the biological and species connectivity throughout Southeastern Arizona and Northern Mexico critical for the survival of species in our deserts. The health of a spring’s ecosystem also provides with us crucial information about climate change and how it’s affecting the region.

A view of “our” spring
photo by the author

“Smell the sycamores yet?” asks Sami.

Taking our eyes off our feet, we find ourselves gazing on a raft of trees. We cross a wet meadow carpeted in lime-colored green grass and duck under massive sycamores. We smell the subtle, newly defined scent and feel the ambient temperature dropping markedly from the 100 + degrees in the sun to a cool mid-80’s.

My eyes follow the tree limbs up and into a flushed canopy of rustling leaves. The tree’s immense and ancient limbs curl over and drop-down, like great matriarchal arms, shading, protecting, and shielding the waters within.

Outside of lots of natural deadfall, the area is pristine. There are surprisingly few tracks or scat to speak of here, no signs of cattle, no people, only one javelina track and a bit of deer scat.

Walking the length and breadth of the area of the spring on a cushion of leaves, we pass large stands of Deer grass, a desirable native grass common to areas where there is shallow ground water. Sami also points out other wetland grasses and sedges as we pass: Bull grass, a fluffy headed native, and a non-native invasive grass Sami identifies as Red Bromegrass, a well-established threat to the Sonoran Desert.

Along with the sycamore trees, we see cottonwood trees, and large walnut trees, indicators of shallow ground water. An old stand of wild grape vines, as thick as my wrist, forms an arch from one old walnut tree to another, reminding me of the children’s book “The Secret Garden.” The air is fragrant with scent emanating from the walnut trees.

Sami takes note of spring conditions.
photo by the author

“It feels like a sanctuary, doesn’t it?” Sami says. Overwhelmed, I can only nod.

She identifies song birds: Summer tanagers, towhees, flycatchers and wrens flying in and out of the canopy, calling and singing.

At the top of a vertical drift we find the first small spring pool, surrounded by seep willow. Sami points out a whitish cast on boulders: residual salts and minerals, the tracks and scats of receding spring water. One of the boulders sports a camouflaged Canyon tree frog, as still and gray as the stone it straddles.

Water in the shallow spring pools is carpeted with honey bees and wasps buzzing like mad, and four different species of butterflies: A Black Swallowtail, a monarch-like queen, a pale yellow Lyside Sulphur, and an anonymous moth-like brown butterfly.

Bright orange Flame Skimmer dragonflies dart over the water in tandem with tiny near-translucent blue Springwater Dancers: dragonflies and damselflies are surely the Fairies of old in this secret garden.

“It’s like a wonderland” I say. My words sound hollow as soon as they spill out of my mouth. I have no words. No words for this Sonoran Eden, an Eden before the fall.

Finding flow

My partner Steph was the first to see it: water flow and only after she took a second look. Impossible to spot at first glance, flow was happening deep inside a narrow crack running through a rock outcropping that separated two small pools.

Valarie and Sami measure the extent of the spring
photo by Steph Stayton

We are avid hikers in Southeastern Arizona. The few times we discovered water in the desert I returned home feeling wholly graced, supplicant to the miracle of water in the desert. This was no exception. I dropped to my knees.

“This is Great!” Sami exclaimed. I didn’t think I’d get a chance to show you now, in June, how to measure flow.”

The connecting channel was partially obscured with organic material and mud. Kneeling also, Sami cupped her hand and gently scooped out earth and leaves and tiny branches. She then laid a piece of PVC pipe into the channel water flowed steadily out the front end of the pipe, like a garden hose.

We filled up a plastic bucket, then filled it again. Steph measured volume and temperature. The water was a temperate 77 degrees, appropriate to water flowing underground in the desert.

“It turned out to be a significant flow.” Steph said, smiling. “Bright highlights dancing on the surface of the water indicated movement of water below.”

The water had a pale sepia cast and smelled slightly of sulfur but was otherwise clear. We wondered if this good rich smell was due to tiny particles of organic debris in the water or a hot spring somewhere along the course.

Steph measures water quality
photo by the author

Seeing the volume of water in the bucket, everything in me wanted it: my tongue, my skin, my eyeballs. I wanted to be immersed. I wanted to drink it in long draughts like the bees and the butterflies and all other creatures that frequented the spring.

Of course, I knew I dare not unless the water was purified, though if I had to, I would.  A single tattered plastic bottle at the edge of one of the pools was evidence that someone else had also thirsted at this spring long ago. A hand-woven Mexican blanket nearby, now tamped down in soil and covered in decayed plant matter, had become part of the earthen fiber of this place.

I wondered: Had they sheltered there at the spring? Had he seen deer or coatimundi in the still of the night? Could she have witnessed Ocelots or even Jaguar at the water? Could any creature, two-legged or four-legged, winged or scaled, part from the call of water?

Taking a stand for clean water!

Join us in defending clean water in the Sky Islands. Last week, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he will move forward to repeal the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule, also known as WOTUS or the Clean Water Rule. This announcement opens a 30-day public comment period. Please take action to preserve this important regulation. Send your comments in the form below!

The Clean Water Rule provides vital protections against pollution in rivers, lakes, wetlands, and waterways that feed into nearly 1/3 of America’s drinking water supplies. Clean water is essential to the health of the diverse plants and animals of the Sky Islands. Repealing the Clean Water Rule would put human populations at risk and be a disaster for the environment.

Here in the Southwest, water that flows in small and ephemeral streams is critical to replenishing our aquifers and drinking water. The Rule returned protections to 20 million acres of important isolated wetlands, vernal pools, and tributary streams, identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory. According to the EPA’s own calculations, as many as 60% of streams in the U.S. would be effected if the Rule is repealed, removing protections for headwaters, ephemeral streams, and creeks that contribute to the drinking water supplies of more than 117 million Americans. The Administration’s effort to repeal the Rule endangers public health.

Small streams and wetlands can have a huge impact on clean water and thriving natural areas. The Rule is grounded in the Clean Water Act and supported by thousands of scientific research papers. According to an EPA press release from the time the Rule was enacted in 2015, “EPA and the Army also utilized the latest science, including a report summarizing more than 1,200 peer-reviewed, published scientific studies which showed that small streams and wetlands play an integral role in the health of larger downstream water bodies.” The Administration’s effort to repeal the Rule disregards science.

The public overwhelmingly supports strong protections for clean water. The Rule was passed following a year-long process with extensive stakeholder input at 400 meetings across the country and more than 1 million public comments. It is supported by conservationists, public health officials, and recreational land users. The Administration’s effort to repeal the Rule ignores resounding public support.

Sky Island Alliance is committed to defending the best science-based protections for our land, wildlife, and human populations. We must stand united against this assault on clean water—our most precious resource. Send your comments to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt today.

Our petition is closed, but you can submit your comments directly to the EPA until 11:59 PM EST on Wednesday, September 27, 2017.

Take Action! Speak Up for Clean Water!

This petition is now closed.

End date: Sep 26, 2017

Signatures collected: 362

362 signatures

BEE-lieve it or not, it’s National Pollinator Week!

by Marci Caballero-Reynolds, Doris Duke Conservation Intern

National Pollinator Week has arrived, and it’s time to celebrate and learn about our pollinators here in the Southwest. The Sky Island Region contains important migratory corridors for bees, flies, bats, butterflies, moths, ants, birds, and bats that have formed mutualistic relationships to blooming plants. With a rapidly changing climate that has resulted in increased temperatures and earlier springs, some species of native plants are blooming earlier and growing in areas not typically found. This puts pollinator species and local ecosystems at risk.

Pollinators largely affect other species in communities making them a “keystone species.” By conserving pollinators, we also protect myriad other species that depend upon them. Many migratory corridors are fragmented, which creates barriers to pollinator movement as their nectar sources are not contiguous. In addition, many non-native species displace native plants that provide resources for pollinators. Worldwide, pollinators have declined with many species being “listed species.” We need to protect our pollinators because many of the foods, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines we rely on need to be pollinated by animals. Without pollinators we would not survive.

As an intern for the summer, I am fortunate to get into the action by working on the Supporting Pollinator Adaptation Needs in the Sky Islands project. We are working in three target canyons over the summer: Bear Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Parker Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains, and Aravaipa Canyon in the Galiuro Mountains. Each canyon houses a diverse set of plant species that we will identify and collect seed from. The seeds will be grown out and planted in designated appropriate habitat. This week I will be headed to Aravaipa Canyon to remove invasive species and get to explore one of Arizona’s natural sanctuaries and migratory corridors. This work is made possible by a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society through the Climate Adaptation Fund, which was established by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation—the same foundation that sponsors my internship!

There are multiple things you can do all year long to help our region’s pollinators. Grow native flowering plants in a variety of colors and sizes to attract pollinators. Leave out water for pollinators to hydrate and keep plants watered. Limit use of pesticides and insecticides.

Here is a list of websites you can visit to learn more about pollinators:


In letter to president, 450 organizations oppose any efforts to remove or decrease protections for any national monuments

Dear President Trump, Secretary Zinke, and Secretary Ross,

On behalf of the 450 undersigned organizations and our millions of members across the country, we are writing to express our deep concern with your recent Executive Orders and our unified opposition to any efforts to remove or decrease protections for any national monuments.