On a clear day, standing atop a windswept ridge on the southern border of the United States, one can see a hundred miles into Mexico. From the southern horizon, the Sierra Madre range extends north to meet the Rockies along the continent’s spine.
To the west, the low, blistering Sonoran Desert stretches from the heart of western Mexico into Arizona. To the east and southeast sits the higher, grassier Chihuahuan Desert. The Great Plains lie to the northeast, the Great Basin to the northwest. Here in the heart of a region often misconceived as singular and undifferentiated, six distinct biomes meet, as have an equally rich diversity of human communities and cultures. Home to Apache and Anasazi, to Irish and Scots, Mormons, Mennonites, Mexicans, Texans, and an increasing abundance of “snowbirds” from the north, the million-plusacre Malpai borderlands is a human and biotic crossroads situated on a low spot on the spine of the continent. Its basin and range topography, isolated mountain ranges sometimes called sky islands, arid grasslands, and shrubby deserts comprise parts of two nations (Mexico and the United States), four states (Chihuahua, Sonora, Arizona, and New Mexico), and numerous local, state, and federal jurisdictions. As one might expect, the challenges of sustaining conservation and land management across all of these ecological, social, and geopolitical boundaries are staggering.
Historically, these challenges have all revolved, to some degree, around the impacts of cattle ranching on these ecosystems. Wide open spaces lend themselves quite naturally to ranching-based economies. But the same ecological and climatic characteristics that have made such activities viable, including the sheer unpredictability of rainfall and the continual specter of drought, which exclude sustainable farming, also lead to concerns about degradation of natural communities. These concerns include, but are not limited to, desertification, threats to endangered species, and the prudent allocation of resources such as water. Ironically, ranching has become not only a way of life for people, through which they became intimately bound to the land, but also a lightning rod for others who view the activity as fundamentally damaging.
Since the rise of the contemporary conservation movement in the last half century, challenges to traditional ranching practices from scientists and conservationists have grown in number, scope, and insistency. Both sides often came to view the other as a threat to something they hold dear (for ranchers their land and livelihood and for environmentalists species protection and land health), and both subsequently became entrenched in their opposition to often reasonable and necessary measures. In the context of this conflict the Mexico-U.S. borderlands are a microcosm of these larger challenges that range across the West and the globe. The work of the region’s rancher-led Malpai Borderlands Group is presented here because it is emblematic of both the opportunities and the complexities of conserving open spaces.
The Science of Open Spaces: Theory and Practice for Conserving Large, Complex Systems, by Charles Curtin, offers a thoughtful and radical departure from business-as-usual management of Earth's dwindling wide-open spaces.
Charles G. Curtin is a senior fellow for the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy on the University of Montana campus in Missoula. In his work he seeks the nexus of science and policy, with a long-term interest in environmental change, large-scale socioecological experiments, and conservation design. His work focuses primarily on community-based conservation and restoration of rangeland ecosystems; he helped design some of the largest place-based collaborative research programs on the continent, including the million-acre Malpai Borderlands conservation area and cross-site studies spanning the Intermountain West. He has also worked with fisheries policy and co-management through development of the 750,000-square-mile Downeast Initiative in the Western Atlantic and anadromous fish restorations on the coast of Maine. He has helped established academic programs in governance and policy design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Antioch University with a focus on collaborative approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Curtin has also worked internationally, coordinating large-landscape collaborative conservation projects in the Mexico, East Africa, and the Middle East.