Binational gathering helps shape the future of the Sky Island border region

Einstein famously said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” And I would add, nor with the same voices.

For one week in May, hundreds of scientists, land managers, students, and conservationists gathered at the Biodiversity and Management of the Madrean Archipelago Conference in Tucson. The conference featured a diversity of voices, values, and perspectives that support biodiversity, conservation, and human well-being in the binational Madrean Sky Islands. And we were thrilled to bring dozens of students from the U.S. and Mexico to the conference to engage and empower them to share their ideas and work. We must work together across differing levels of experience and bring together people with different ways of thinking to tackle the wicked conservation challenges we face.

The week of the Madrean Conference was dynamic and inspiring. The group of people who came together there have the expertise, commitment, and creativity to shape the future of our Sky Islands and continue to build community with a strong sense of place.

We spent the final day of the conference discussing the future of the Sky Islands and how, with some resourcefulness and working together, we can shape it. One resounding message was the importance of engaging local citizens of the Sky Islands in loving and understanding this place. We must also continue to build connectivity between communities and Sky Islands in the face of so much divisive policy. We’re in it together and we’re in it with all of the critters, plants, and streams of this beautiful region.

We cultivated some great new ideas on how Sky Island Alliance can play an even stronger role in shaping the future of the region by:

  • Telling the stories of the Sky Islands through a diversity of media and with non-traditional messengers to foster a sense of place in communities throughout the region
  • Creating opportunities for local communities “to meet and celebrate their Sky Islands” through local events focused on common values, food, and culture
  • Fighting to keep pathways open for wildlife to seek food and water and move freely across the U.S.–Mexico border and study the effect of development on their movement
  • Connecting people to water and springs through storytelling, special campaigns, and new messengers, we must find ways to reach new audiences and help them become captivated by springs
  • Working with students and citizen scientists to discover new things about our Sky Island springs and wildlife
  • Developing a more comprehensive internship program to bring students from Sonora to work with Sky Island Alliance and other groups to launch their conservation careers

The Madrean pine-oak woodlands and specifically the Madrean Sky Islands was named one of the “best places in the biosphere” by preeminent biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson in his recent book Half Earth (2016).

But we didn’t need E.O. Wilson to tell us how special the Sky Islands are. For nearly 30 years, the dedicated founders, staff members, volunteers, and donors of Sky Island Alliance have been celebrating the importance of this amazing place in the biosphere—and doing a lot to protect it!

The Madrean Conference was first convened in 1994 in an effort to put the Sky Islands on the map of research and conservation by defining the Sky Island region, starting critical conversations about its special features, and initiating efforts to collaborate across disciplines and borders.

Photo credit: Leslie Ann Epperson

Sky Island Alliance and our myriad supporters and volunteers have embodied this ethic, studying the diverse plants and animals found here, engaging local citizens in bringing ecosystems back to health and advocacy, and being a voice for the ecosystems, water, and wildlife that cannot speak for themselves.

With this fourth Madrean Conference, we’ve come together with years more experience and perspective, and we now know what’s at stake. Sections of the border wall are being built across wildlife corridors and rivers. Temperatures are reaching extreme highs, like they did this winter and spring in southern Arizona. And persistent drought is causing our once-reliable springs and streams to shrink or dry.

Yet there remains much more to learn and understand about the region. From soil-mite diversity in pine-oak woodlands to the flora of vascular plants in the Santa Rita Mountains. From the status of monarch butterflies in Sonora to the potential for re-establishing jaguar populations in the U.S. And from changes in plant communities under climate stress to the best practices for crossborder conservation in parks and protected areas.

Executive Director Louise Misztal with Mexico’s Deputy Consul Enrique Gomez Montiel

We also know what’s at stake when we cannot work together across boundaries. We are in complex and challenging times for crossborder collaboration. Yet we must work together to keep wildlife thriving and water flowing across borders. Face-to-face meetings like the Madrean Conference are critical to continue to conserve and restore our crossborder aquifers, rivers, ecosystems, and wildlife, and to foster a thriving community of residents working to understand and protect the Sky Islands.

Sky Island Alliance was honored to be able to bring this dynamic, thoughtful group together, and we look forward to building on the momentum coming out of the conference to manifest a more hopeful future for our Sky Islands.

You can read the running blog from the first four days of the Madrean Conference here.