All Photos: Sky Island Alliance

Honoring Place in the Sky Islands

For more than 25 years, Sky Island Alliance has been studying, protecting, and restoring the unique landscapes, wildlife, and waters of the Sky Island Region, a world biodiversity hotspot encompassing Northwestern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. From Monarch butterflies making their annual migration to jaguars crossing the border to roam Arizona hillsides in their historic range, and from endangered frogs seeking reliable open water habitat to desert tortoises and javelina that need safe passage across roads, the Alliance offers hope and protection for wildlife and wild places.

Named for the high-elevation mountain “islands” that are connected by vital linkages through adjoining desert and grassland “seas,” this region connects wildlife and plant communities from the Colorado Plateau and temperate north with the Sierra Madre Occidental and neotropical south.

Sky Island Alliance is a long-time Wilburforce grantee that has built a solid reputation as an international leader in conservation of the Sky Islands’ biological diversity, with an emphasis on strengthening relationships in communities on both sides of the US–Mexico border. To achieve their mission and ensure lasting protection for the unique wildlife and landscapes of the region, Sky Island Alliance is helping prepare—and inspire—the next generation to carry their work into the future by incorporating mentorship and youth opportunities into their program work.

One of the young leaders that benefited from this in 2016 is Naomi Primero, one of three Doris Duke Conservation Scholars out of Northern Arizona University. The Scholars are members of a larger cohort of students hosted at five major academic institutions, and is a project supported in part by Wilburforce’s Conservation Science Program. The Scholars spent three weeks over the summer helping Sky Island Alliance with on-the-ground restoration projects. Naomi shared some thoughts and memories of her Sonoran Desert sojourn:

“I had never truly understood or sympathized with others’ love for rain, but when it poured in Patagonia,  I stood outside for over an hour and danced in the rain.”

– Naomi Primero, Doris Duke Conservation Scholar


Doris Duke Conservation Scholar Naomi Primero

“I spent the month nagged by a quote from [Edward Abbey’s] Desert Solitaire, paraphrased here: “If only we honored place as much as we did time.” What could I learn about honoring place in the most severe of all places, the desert? I came to Tucson unsure of what I was going to find during my short internship with Sky Island Alliance.

“Slowly, yet miraculously – as do most things that occur in nature – I began to understand. On our hikes lugging buckets of plants or searching for invasive fountain grass, each small patch of shade provided by the mesquite felt like a gift. I caught the merest glimpses of the magnificent hummingbird, heard the weirdly feline growl of the leopard frog, and saw three tiny fawns bound up the steepest rock face with their mother. I had never truly understood or sympathized with others’ love for rain, but when it poured in Patagonia – the first time the monsoons had hit since I had arrived in southeastern Arizona – I stood outside for over an hour and danced in the rain.”

As a result of climate change, the Sky Island region is experiencing higher average temperatures, prolonged drought, and more intense wildfires. Naomi and her cohort spent much of their time with Sky Island Alliance planting native plants and installing low-tech erosion control structures that allow more rainwater to soak into the soil, helping landscapes be more resilient to wildfire and drought, and to support healthier plant communities—which in turn provide cover and food for wildlife. These simple strategies for improving water availability and retention in our landscapes can have a big impact on protecting biodiversity in the face of a changing climate.

Sky Island Alliance's 2016 Doris Duke Conservation Scholars

“After working at several sites our first week, we spent some time at the Borderlands Restoration nursery and seed lab, where the native plants we planted had come from. … Holding a seed freshly scoured of chaff one moment and planting a mature organism complete with roots and leaves the next, I was struck by how complex a journey a single plant can undertake – and that was only one plant of the many that we planted…one plant that could help mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

Seeing the enthusiasm and passion of Naomi—and Katherine Bui and Tracey Wingate, the Alliance’s other 2016 Conservation Scholars—gives us hope for the future. The experience changed Naomi’s view of the desert and inspired a deeper sense of place that she will carry into her future career.

I recognized these people as a vital part of the landscape, a part just as important to interact with and learn from as with the plants, animals, sky, and rain.

“In this whirlwind of three weeks, we traveled to six Sky Islands and, at each one, met a community of people, some of whom we talked with for a mere ten minutes. Yet, every second we spent with a person felt more important than any social moment I had experienced previously; I recognized these people as a vital part of the landscape, a part just as important to interact with and learn from as with the plants, animals, sky, and rain. Whether digging holes, swimming in pools, stomping on seeds, driving to or from the Sky Islands, or sitting around a soil-laden wheelbarrow, transplanting and chatting – all in the remarkable heat, all with others – I felt part of a community that was ready, even eager, to invest itself in the present for the future. I ended every day of my time with Sky Island Alliance very tired, but very happy. I’ve wondered, is this what honoring place feels like?” – Naomi Primero

Sky Island Alliance is committed to providing effective hands-on opportunities that engage young leaders in real-world conservation actions such as wildlife tracking, ecosystem restoration, springs assessment, and animal and plant surveys. Our shared goal is to engage the next generation of conservation leaders by providing them with professional skills and experience, and help prepare and inspire them to protect and restore life in the Sky Islands.