Help us give a warm welcome to Zach Palma (he/him/his), our new Mexico Projects Manager!
Zach started with Sky Island Alliance in January 2022 to continue and extend our mission into the Sky Islands of Sonora, Mexico. Zach manages projects in Mexico, stewards and fosters a cultural understand between people who live in Sonora’s unique and biodiverse ecosystems, and helps support our Sonoran staff.
Read this fun highlight to learn more about Zach and his experiences.
Tell us a little about your background
I find myself fortunate enough to look back on my upbringing with a smile. It was mostly filled with days at the beach on Lake Superior or Lake Michigan, long hikes through the dense forests of northern Wisconsin, and cold days on the ski hill.
The lakes and the woods, the bears and eagles, the call to be outside set my roots firmly in the earth from a young age. These roots, of course, are more of a metaphorical term, as I quickly developed the urge to travel and to become acquainted with other people, ways of living, climates, and ecosystems. After earning my undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology on the Mississippi River in the Driftless region of southeastern Minnesota, I soon immersed myself in South America.
Holding an internship with an indigenous seed savings network in the Andes of Ecuador, I dove into a world where humans meet ecology. It was there that I was introduced to the term “permaculture.” With just enough experience in natural building techniques, sustainable agriculture, and traditional knowledge, I knew I wanted a larger taste.
I later joined the Peace Corps and was shipped off to rural Paraguay to work as an educator in Sustainable Agriculture. The people and land of this country never left me the same. Since then, my passion has been rooted not only in environmental education, but the human aspect of that – how humans have lived as a part of the ecosystem in the past and present. After a quick stint in Lima, Peru teaching urban environmental education, I knew I was made to live in a small town.
After several years, I ended up stateside again and found myself working for the National Park Service (NPS) as an educator up on Lake Superior. This quickly led me to accepting a permanent NPS position in the beautiful Madrean Sky Islands. Four years later, I am still fascinated by the personalities of our ecosystem and truly enjoy every moment exploring the canyons, mountain peaks, and river valleys of Arizona and Sonora.
Making my shift to Sky Islands Alliance feels like I have truly found my calling as a community member of the Madrean Sky Islands. Apart from running an experimental and educational sustainable homestead outside of Bisbee with my wife and two-year-old daughter, I get to be a part of cultivating relationships with the place we call home … on both sides of the border.
What brought you to the Sky Island region?
I have pondered this question many a time before. I don’t necessarily think it was random luck that brought me to this magical area of the world, but it definitely happened because of several impromptu decisions. Without having ever traveled to Arizona or Sonora before, I accepted a position working in the Huachuca Mountains at Coronado National Memorial for the National Park Service.
After spending a winter essentially living by myself in the park, I was in love. I didn’t take long for my wife to follow suit. What really dug our roots in after many years being nomadic was the climate (for natural building and growing food), the proximity to Mexico, and the ever-funky community of Bisbee.
What is your favorite thing about the region?
This question is a challenge, but if I had to narrow it down, I would say I enjoy the extremes of the ecosystem. The moment when you catch the last rays of sun from the highest point of a Sky Island mountain range and you can just see forever (say Miller Peak!) or spending a lazy afternoon exploring along the lush riparian rivers at the bottom of the valleys (Rio Bavispe, wow!) … I think my real favorite thing about this ecosystem is when I am in it, real simple.
Do you have a fun wildlife encounter you could share with us?
Oh, do I love wildlife encounters! I have had many encounters that I would describe as fun, amongst other adjectives. I would say one that comes to mind took place on Stockton Island, a large island off of the south shore of Lake Superior (Wisconsin).
I was working as a seasonal ranger on the island and would stay on the island three days at a time. It was a large island, 10,000 acres, so a lot of space for one ranger to cover. Anyways, end of summer and into the fall is a wonderful time of year when bears tend to focus on one thing: FOOD.
After spending a summer on the island, I really started to know some of these black bears. Which ones were bolder, which ones did not like to be around humans, etc. August is blueberry season, and this section of island has a healthy intact red pine forest with an excellent understory of wild blueberries. Naturally a young bear, looking forward to hibernation, would only have one thing in mind.
One day as I was hiking with my family who was camping nearby for the weekend, I saw this young black bear. He was walking down the trail towards us, face down in the blueberry bushes. Somehow, he didn’t smell us or hear us — probably due to his muzzle being covered in berries and the constant hum of mosquitos following any large mammal through the forest.
I convinced my family to plop down on the trail and wait in silence. As we silently battled mosquitos, this teenage bear — without a care in the world — kept ambling towards us. I could hear my wife behind me swearing away. We waited until the bear was about 10 feet away, and when I started feeling sharp pokes from behind, I stood up and shout “HI!” What makes this memory fun was the look on the bear’s face. Pure embarrassment, as he froze for several moments and then turned around and ran. Don’t worry, he had a lovely desert of blueberries shortly after and felt much better.
What’s one fun fact about you?
I am pretty decent at playing barefoot soccer on very unlevel dirt/grass fields that are covered in cow patties.