Dear Mr. Buskirk:
This is, as you requested, a written version of the presentation that I made to you and your entourage at Hot Springs Canyon during your tour on September 6th. As I noted then, there are two stories to tell here.
The first one is environmental. It is widely recognized that the San Pedro Valley now remains as the greatest neo-tropical avian migratory route in the West. A lesser known superlative is that this area of southeastern Arizona also contains the greatest diversity of mammal species in North America. As one stands overlooking Hot Springs Canyon, the reason for this is evident.
On the north slopes of the canyon are virtual forests of saguaros, the signature species of the Sonoran desert. To the south there are very few, grading to none as the elevation climbs, replaced more by yuccas, agaves and other species of the Chihuahuan desert. The biotic maps in fact draw the east-west terminus of these eco-regions at this very canyon. Further, the basin-range uplifts known as the Sky Islands, here represented to the west by the Rincon-Catalinas, and to the east by the Winchester-Galiuros, are virtual land bridges between the temperate Rocky Mountains and the semi-tropical Sierra Madres. Thus four major eco-regions merge in this area, and their respective animal species along with them.
"Sky Islands" may sound romantic, but islands are very dangerous to mammal diversity and health. They need to be able to move between habitats and elevations to reduce extinction rates and permit gene flow. Studies have shown that these routes, known as wildlife corridors, increase population viability and habitat occupancy, and that they will often not move through the non-corridor matrix.
Animals are as dependent upon water as humans, and it has been estimated that 80% or more of all desert animal species are dependent upon riparian areas during at least some part of their life cycle. Hot Springs Canyon has permanent waters upstream, as does its sister Paige Canyon to the west, so that animals use this canyon and immediate environs as a route to the San Pedro River and up into the adjacent range. The Hot Springs-Paige corridor has been identified as one of two main east-west routes in this Middle and wildest stretch of the San Pedro, the other being the Buehman-Redfield canyon corridor which meets near Bingham Cienega. That same function could be said of Aravaipa Canyon in the Lower San Pedro.
Thus, along with the San Pedro's importance as the greatest north-south bird flyway in the West, these east-west connections are just as important for this greatest diversity of mammal species in our nation. It has been estimated that these wildlife corridors here along the San Pedro allow the largely unfragmented connection of around a million acres of wildlands, extending further east into the Pinalenos and elsewhere. The evidence for this function is abundant in Hot Springs Canyon with many sightings and tracks of mountain lion, black bear, coati, javelina, fox, coyote, badger, three skunk species, mule and white-tail deer, ringtail cat, raccoon, bobcat, beaver (recently), and many other smaller or lesser known species.
The other story here is the human one, and as distinct from the large governmental agencies and NGOs represented on your tour, this is a small and local one. Just as the local animals are no less important than the international birds flying through, local people have no less important a voice than the large organizations. The lesson of ecology of course is that we are all connected.
The first group of locals working in the lower Hot Springs watershed was the Saguaro-Juniper Corporation. This is a group of over sixty members with a conservation ethic that also runs cattle and markets grass-fed, humanely treated, predator friendly, natural beef. They have collectively purchased about one thousand acres of deeded land here, and have state grazing leases that bring a total of about 10,000 acres under their stewardship. They have been careful to protect riparian areas, especially Hot Springs Canyon, and create alternative waters for the cattle.
A smaller sister group, the Cascabel Hermitage Association, is a 501(c)3 non-profit, also with a conservation focus. They, in close cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, have worked to bring together local landowners in Hot Springs Canyon to voluntarily place conservation easements on their land. There are eight parties working in this cooperative venture, together representing nearly two thousand acres, which will largely connect the canyon corridor between The Nature Conservancy's Muleshoe Ranch and the BLM lands along the San Pedro.
The focus of the easements is to protect the wildlife corridor by restricting subdivision, night lights, free-ranging predator pets, mechanical noisemakers and so on. The landowners understand that, as studies have shown, wildlife corridors are easily broken by human interventions, particularly for some of the more vulnerable species.
If local landowners are concerned about how their individual impacts can interrupt the flow and populations of wildlife, you can imagine how they react to the prospect of an interstate - with its noise, lights, barriers and road kill - intersecting the entire length of this valley. It matters not whether such a route were to follow the valley floor or the uplands, the impacts would be as severe in either case, and especially in the bottoms, slopes and ridges of canyons such as Hot Springs, Redfield and Aravaipa. And of course freeway access to such a pristine, well-watered valley in the midst of the population pressures of southern Arizona would bring almost certain development and impacts that would obviate the work that everyone has done, from the smallest of groups and landowners to the largest agencies and organizations.
Local landowners have given substantially of their time, energy and resources in order to conserve and protect this canyon and its animals because they see its larger significance. They have not relied on governmental agencies or large organizations to do it for them. The point here is that these local people's care for this environmentally critical San Pedro River, its tributaries and environs, moves their objection to the I-10 bypass proposal well beyond a NIMBY complaint to a concern for one of Arizona's and America's greatest natural treasures.