H. Ronald Pulliam is a former professor of environment and ecology at the University of Georgia in Athens. He was the director of the National Biological Service under Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and later served as science advisor to the interior secretary. He is the former president of the Ecological Society of America, and currently serves on the board of the National Council for Science and Technology, the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, NatureServe and Defenders of Wildlife. Pulliam has a B.S. in biology from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in zoology from Duke University.
July 14, 2014 – Missoula, Montana
I just stepped out of a small roundtable discussion with, among others, Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Director Ashe told the small group that he sees a “giant clash” between those who favor conservation and those who favor economic development and that he believes that conservationists “must accept a world with fewer wolves, salmon, and spotted owls.” The Director of the very agency most responsible for protecting the nation’s biodiversity went on to say that, in the name of compromise, we must accept “a world with less biodiversity.”
Unlike Director Ashe, I believe that the very fact that we now have only a small fraction of the wolves, salmon, and spotted owls that we once had provides an opportunity for the forces of economic development and those of conservation to join together and foster new economic growth by restoring the biodiversity that we have already lost.
I live in southeastern Arizona where, over the past 100 years, our rivers have dried up, our wildlife has declined precipitously, and now even ‘our wide open spaces’ are at risk of disappearing. As these resources become scarcer, they also become more valuable. At the same time that we are losing our biological heritage, we are witnessing the largest land transfer in the history of the American West. As ranchland is drying up and becoming less productive, the children of ranching families are leaving the land to become lawyers and doctors. These trends are creating “the perfect storm” and, ironically, are providing an opportunity to create a new “restoration economy” premised on restoring the land and its biological diversity.
Valer and Josiah Austin and their Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation have brought back tens of thousands of acres of degraded, shrub invaded grassland and at least 7 miles of the Rio San Bernardino River in northern Sonora. Over 2,000 acres of new riparian forest along the banks of the restored river are providing renewed habitat for hundreds of species of plants and animals, including coati mundi, ring-tailed cat, and ocelot. Restored grasslands are providing both habitat for wildlife and better forage for cattle. The restored river is once again providing water and nutrients to ejido farmers downstream from the restoration project.
Sixty miles northwest of the Rio San Bernardino River, the abandoned mines and flood-prone, dry creek beds around the town of Patagonia, AZ, are reminders of an economy that no longer exists. Still, thousands of visitors flock to Patagonia to watch birds in what remains of Sonoita Creek and to observe, study, and collect butterflies, moths and bees in one of the most biologically diverse corners of the U.S. The newly renovated hotel is full of birders, naturalists, and scientists and at the “Gathering Ground’ coffee shop and the local restaurants, one overhears excited talk of the rare species seen.
The second largest employer in Patagonia is Borderlands Restoration, L3C, a limited profit company dedicated to restoring streams and food chains, and reconnecting people to the places where they live. Every day, 8 -10 Borderlands employees head to the Babocomari River, fifteen miles away where they are using the same simple water harvesting methods pioneered by the Austin’s and Cuenca los Ojos to restore the river. Another dozen Borderlands staff grow native plants for restoration projects, restore wildlife habitat on local ranches, or engage teams of Patagonia school children in local restoration projects. Last year alone, citizens of Patagonia, a small town of 800 residents, volunteered over 10,000 hours of their time to help Borderlands Restoration restore the “places where we live and the ecosystems on which we depend.”
Patagonia is becoming a living example of the Restoration Economy, a place where people both appreciate biological diversity and derive income from it. Borderlands Restoration has supported local organic food production, sponsored “Grand Slam” Quail hunts (in one of the few places where three species of quail can be found living together), and conducted a small-scale, post-fire timber harvest. Patagonia’s gift shops, cafes, two grocery stores, and one gas station are frequented by birders, hikers, bikers, hunters, and others who come to breathe the fresh area and view the wildlife. In celebration of its 400 species of native bees, 14 species of hummingbirds, and an unusually rich butterfly and moth diversity, the town council has declared Patagonia the “Pollinator Capital of the US.” The rumor of a new “eco-lodge” to be built close to the 3 Canyons wildlife corridor, home to the only resident jaguar now in the US, adds to the prospects of new jobs in one of the poorest counties in the U.S.
Patagonia is a town not heeding Director Ashe’s call to accept the “fact that we have to live in a world with fewer species.” Instead, Patagonia, and other villages in southeastern Arizona and northern Sonora, are realizing that, in the long run, their biological wealth is their greatest asset and rather than acquiescing to its continued decline, they are actively participating in and celebrating its recovery.