Connecting the Sky Islands

Sky Island Alliance helps keep the wilderness wild.

March 11, 2017

HomesteadIssue 23: March/April 2017

Although we live in one of the most arid places in the world, Tucson is located in the middle of a biological “sea.” There are 57 forested mountains with peaks at elevations between 3,000 and 10,000 feet that make up what’s known as the Madrean Sky Island region, or the Madrean Archipelago. Stretching from northern Mexico into southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico, these sky islands are characterized by their oak, pine, and aspen-laden apexes, though they are isolated from each other by wide expanses of desert and grassland—“seas” that operate as wildlife corridors between each unique mountain ecosystem.

The Madrean Archipelago is a system that covers 70,000 square miles in total and, due to its position between the Rocky Mountains to the north and the Sierra Madre range to the south, Louise Misztal calls it “a real mixing zone,” of plants and animals from temperate North America and the southerly tropics. Misztal is the executive director of the Sky Island Alliance (SIA), which is a Tucson-based nonprofit that operates under a directive to study, restore, and preserve the sky islands in and around southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico.

Louise Misztal, the executive director of Sky Island Alliance, says that the organization is trying to look at habitats and wildlife in a holistic way.

Climbing any one of the sky island mountains from bottom to top is ecologically tantamount to driving from Mexico to Canada and, Misztal says, this makes the region we call home a “hotspot of different habitats and [species of] plants and animals” unlike any other on earth. It’s the only place on the continent, for instance, where northern predators like bears and wolves might share a chance encounter with a jaguar or an ocelot, or where neotropical bird species can comingle with songbirds from the American plains and beyond.

The Madrean Archipelago is internationally recognized as a hotbed of biological diversity, and with good reason. It contains more than 7,000 species of plants and animals, and more than half of the bird species in the United States can be seen in this expanse of isolated mountain peaks. According to SIA’s website, “The 143-mile stretch of the San Pedro River alone contains more native vertebrate species than Yellowstone National Park.” And that’s saying something.

SIA has spent more than 25 years educating the public about the incredible value this geography offers to local wildlife, as well as protecting the land from human threats and preserving it in its wild state so that it can remain as such for as long as possible. The organization began in 1991 as a localized effort to rebuff a proposal to develop a portion of the Coronado National Forest into a recreational retreat. Today, SIA works to track and monitor local wildlife populations and their movements, to restore historically viable ecosystems, and to monitor and preserve springs for the sake of native plant and animal populations whose long-term survival depends on the longevity and abundance of resources in the sky islands.

A team of Sky Island staff and volunteers prepares to go out into the field to assess and track wildlife in the sky islands. (Clockwise from top left) Bryon Lichtenhan, Katy Brown, Erin Posthumus, and Sami Hammer.

“We’re really trying to take this approach of looking at the whole picture of what these habitats and the wildlife they support need to persist into the future,” Misztal says. And that means working to preserve the sky islands themselves, as well as the corridors that connect them.

Like most grassroots organizations, SIA relies on volunteers to achieve their mission. Hundreds of people log upwards of 10,000 hours with the group annually, trekking out into the field to help with spring assessment and monitoring, tracking the movement of animals along wildlife corridors, removing invasive species of plants, planting native species, and helping to maintain so-called wildlife camera “traps.” Though some educational programs, in areas like spring assessment and wildlife tracking, require a fee, trips to the sky island habitats to participate in such activities are almost always free.

And since they attract between 10 and 20 people to each of their three-or-more monthly outings, SIA’s volunteer opportunities offer a way for outdoor enthusiasts to meet a handful of like-minded people while adding a bit of extra purpose to their excursions than a weekend camping trip could offer. Misztal says that many of the skills learned through SIA’s more structured educational programs can be garnered along the way simply by showing up to a few relevant volunteer adventures. And for homesteaders looking to implement ecosystem-strengthening methodologies on their own land, Misztal says that the Alliance has plenty of resources and guidance to offer on that front as well.

As climate change causes species to leave their historic home ranges in search of new territories, shifts in political leadership and ideology threaten to further disrupt corridors between mountains and along international borders, and constant human development pushes deeper and deeper into formerly-pristine wild spaces, SIA’s work to preserve, restore, and connect the wilds of the Madrean Archipelago is perhaps more important now than it has ever been. And if keeping this singular ecosystem intact for the sake of future generations seems like something you could get behind, SIA makes it easy for you to contribute—especially if you were already looking for a reason to get out into nature. ✜

Craig S. Baker is a local freelance writer. You can see more of his work at

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