Celebrating 30 Years of Conservation: The Founding of Sky Island Alliance

In 1991, activists from a variety of groups met to discuss the gap they saw in the environmental grassroots movements of the time. National conservation organizations had their priorities, but none of them were focused on protecting the biodiversity of the Sky Island region—a place that needed to be seen as a landscape without state, federal, or international borders. 

That’s when they decided to start Sky Island Alliance, recalled SIA co-founder Paul Hirt. The organization was born out of a desire to create a difference in the Sky Island region, with a mission and projects that would be dedicated strictly to the region’s water, wildlife, and communities. 

As we enter 2021, Sky Island Alliance is proud to celebrate our 30th anniversary. 

That’s three decades of protecting and studying wildlife, connecting communities with their surrounding landscapes, advocating for better water policy, working to eradicate non-native species like invasive periwinkle (vinca), supporting restoration of state and federal lands, and so much more in both the U.S. and Mexico—and we couldn’t have done it without your support, donations, and thousands of hours of volunteer time!

To celebrate, here’s a recap of what two of the co-founders, Paul Hirt and Dale Turner, had to say about the founding of Sky Island Alliance in this January 2021 coffee break. 

Paul Hirt:

During the first Bush administration, [Bush] said he wanted to be the “environmental president…” His way of being the environmental president was to put $260 million into a “recreation initiative” … to promote recreation on the nation’s public lands. That was it, that was his big push for being the environmental president. And of course, all the different national forests and BLM state offices all said, all right how do we get a piece of this pie? 

The Coronado National Forest came up with a proposal to designate large sections of the Forest as a national recreation area. That was kind of the spur for us [to start discussions about Sky Island Alliance]. We had already been fighting bad proposals: mining proposals, the telescopes on Mount Graham, overgrazing … we were always fighting bad decisions and bad policies and here was another one. 

When you have an opportunity to designate what this region is special for, what the true environmental value of the region is, and the administration was saying recreation which means roads and campgrounds and more use… We decided what we need is a local group that’s going to say, “no, this region’s key value is biological diversity, and we should be emphasizing biological diversity preservation and ecological restoration [alongside responsible recreation] and educating both policymakers and the general public about the biodiversity values.” 

We needed a positive vision. We thought, let’s form a group that’s going to have an optimistic and positive vision about the values of the region rather than thinking of it as grazing, mining, and recreation—those were the resources everybody thought about when they thought about the Coronado National Forest, and we wanted them to think about something different, [that the Forest] isn’t just an exploitable resource or something you can use…”

Dale Turner: 

Yeah. Many of us involved in the founding … were already sort of old warhorses. We had been through many campaigns, and it seemed like it was just this endless cycle of stupid ideas that we were trying to stop. I think we’d all sort of independently came to the recognition that we could [either] spend the rest of our lives fighting stupid ideas or … try to change the underlying paradigm of what’s important about this region. 

It really become obvious with the Mount Graham telescope fight. The further we went down the road of trying to understand what the top of Mount Graham meant, [the more we realized] it was all these endemic plants and animals that are only found in this one little spot right on top of one of the highest mountains in the region. That was the exact spot that somebody wanted to cut down all the trees and build a bunch of buildings and telescopes. 

The further we looked, the more widespread we could see that richness and uniqueness across the region, and it was these Sky islands—you know, the mountains of pines, mixed conifer, and oak rising above the sea of deserts and grasslands with species that have been isolated there since the Pleistocene—that was really part of what makes this a special part of the world. And it wasn’t isolated to just Arizona; it’s part of a gradient stretching from the Sierra Madre in northern Mexico up to the Rocky Mountains. You have these influences from both sides overlapping and in these isolated mountain ranges, so we saw a need to really look bigger and think bigger across the entire biological region.

Paul Hirt:

Speaking of thinking bigger, we were influenced by the wildlands project and Wildlands Network concept where folks … were arguing that in order to truly preserve biological diversity, you need to have large core areas protected as wilderness or quasi-wilderness with buffer zones around them where you had more uses but still sought to protect the diversity. Then you also had corridors between those core areas—sort of a refugee habitat for the biological diversity of the planet. 

So, there was a lot of talk about landscape-level conservation and core preserved areas and corridors between them that was becoming popular in the late 80s and early 90s. And that was at the foundation of our vision for the Sky Islands because we saw each of the Sky Island ranges as a … unique core area. We were also starting to think about migration corridors and connectivity between the ranges, and so these are still part of Sky Island Alliance’s central conservation concerns, [which were all] baked in from the beginning.

Paul, Dale, and Executive Director Louise Misztal discuss even more of Sky Island Alliance’s founding, early years, and future direction in this coffee break from January. Check it out!