For nearly five weeks, environmental activist John Davis walked and swam in rivers, rode bicycles in the desert and hiked and rode horseback in the mountains, all in northern Mexico.
His goal was to promote wildlife corridors as a way to protect the ocelots, jaguars, pumas, deer and other large mammals that roam these lands. Last week, in Tucson to talk of the first leg of his 925-mile trek from Sonora to British Columbia, he portrayed the corridor protection effort as the art of the possible.
“The mood down there was much more promising than I expected,” said Davis, whose trip has been promoted and financed by the Wildlands Network, an international conservation group formerly known as the Wildlands Project. “There’s not nearly the awareness of wildlife habitat conditions and needs in Mexico as there should be. But I didn’t encounter any of the extreme hostility towards conservation that I see in some parts of the rural West in this country.
“Most people I met are at least open-minded,” Davis said. “My colleagues and I talked publicly about the need for protecting cougars and jaguars and we were never criticized for that. But the overuse of lands stemming from poverty is probably greater than in the U.S.”
Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, said Davis’ comment is a “tough one” to respond to. But he said that in general, his industry is interested in land conservation and maintaining landscapes for future generations, not only for wildlife and communities but for the national economic interest. “The hostility is probably more about how we reach those common goals rather than hostility toward the common goal.”
(For the record, Davis has said in the past that while the corridor-saving effort may lead to calls to remove cattle from some public lands, he would support only voluntary measures to do that, such as buyouts of federal grazing privileges. He's not pushing not regulatory efforts to force cows off public land, he has said. Ranchers across the West have had decidedly mixed reactions to the buyout idea).
The first leg of Davis' TrekWest started in the town of Sahuaripa, Son., near the Northern Jaguar Reserve, a privately owned area of about 50,000 acres in southeastern Sonora that has been set aside by U.S. and Mexican conservation groups to protect the endangered jaguar.
He waded across the Rio Aros on the reserve's east side, walked the Rio Bavispe at the reserve's northern edge where it merges with Aros to become the Northern Jaguar Reserve. Then, he walked east through rugged country to a ranch, and rode by car to the small town of Nacori Chico, traveling through an area where he felt driving was necessary for security resaons. From there, he bicycled over the Sierra Madre to the Janos Prairie in northwest Chihuahua, then biked into the 50,000-acre El Uno preserve run by the Nature Conservancy in the middle of that prairie.
Then, he drove for awhile and resumed bicycling in the outskirts of the Sierra Escuela – “the spurs,” --cycled through the mountains and into Pulpio Canyon, then headed north toward the Cuenca de Los Ojos ranchlands in northern Sonora. There, transplanted New Yorkers Valer and Josiah Austin have restored hundreds of thousands of acres of once-overgrazed ranchland over the past few decades – “It’s some of the best protected lands in the Southwest,” Davis observed.
From there, he rode by car to the town of Naco on the Sonora side for a demonstration at the U.S.-Mexican border wall, then drove to Tucson to give a talk to local conservationists about his Mexican journey. From here, he is slowly driving back to the Mexican border, stopping along the way to visit the proposed Rosemont Mine site, get a look at Davidson Canyon and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and hike to Miller Peak in the Huachuca Mountains.
From the border, he’ll hike into the Peloncillo and Chiricahua Mountains and the Gila Wilderness in southwest New Mexico before heading into the next leg of his journey, taking him north to the Grand Canyon. He’s been camping out and staying in peoples’ homes along the way—not in hotels.
Speaking of northern Mexico’s land conservation prospects, he said the region’s low population density works in favor of wildlife protection, while the country’s system of land ownership makes makes conservation challenging but not hopeless. Most land is owned by private individuals, families and communities known as ejidos, and very little land is publicly owned, unlike the western U.S. where in many states including Arizona at least half the land is publicly owned.
“There are ways to protect private lands in Mexico,” said Davis, whose trip in this region was also backed by the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance and the Mexican-based group Naturalia, which runs the Northern Jaguar Reserve along with Tucson’s Northern Jaguar Proejct. “One of best tools is acquisition of private lands by conservation-minded individuals such as the Northern Jaguar Project and the (Austins’) Cuenca de Los Ojos Foundation. Those are two of the most impressive conservation efforts I’ve encountered in North America.”