By: Gary Paul Nabhan
Around the time that Joe Quiroga turned 60, he began a new endeavor that has ultimately had more land conservation impact than most of us will ever achieve over in our lives.
Joe looked out over the uneven cover and ailing forage quality of the Sonoita Plains in Santa Cruz County near Elgin, AZ, and decided that he wanted to try to heal the landscape. He built stone check dams called trincheras wherever he saw watercourses down-cutting into erosive arroyos. Every day, year after year, Joe Quiroga rearranged the erratic boulders exposed in gullies or on the sides of ridges, moving dozens of them into to span drainages in order to control erosion and flooding in the arroyos of the Sonoita Plains.
Fifteen years later, Joe can look out over the land and see the healing power of over a thousand rock-solid check dams that he has built with his own hands. They are now holding hundreds of thousands of tons of soil and grass in place on the Diamond C Ranch—the place outside of Elgin, Arizona where he has worked for the Jelks family over three decades.
When asked why he initiated and persisted at such a long-term conservation effort, Joe Quiroga offers a simple answer:
“Because the land needed it.”
When far younger men ask the 75-year-old ranch manager if he had any help moving boulders as big as whiskey barrels into place, he mentions a digging bar and “come-along” pulley and ratchet that he hooks to the back of his pickup. Otherwise, this effort has been done by Joe’s two hands, his strong arms and legs, observant eyes, bright mind and big heart.
The Quiroga family has lived in Santa Cruz County for at least six generations, and has strong ties to the other side of the border as well. Many of Joe’s kin continue to live and work in nearby Patagonia, where they have made many contributions to the community. But Joe’s own work has gone beyond that, contributing both to the human community and to the land community. He has rebuilt the quantity and fertility of the soil while encouraging at least two dozen species of grass to grow in places that were formerly scoured clean. He can show you 300-yard stretches of streams, now running with water for the first time in decades, and a dozen native grass species providing perennial cover that may outlive all of us.
Around 1998, photographer Jay Dusard took a picture of Joe Quiroga along with Ruken Jelks II and Ruken Jelks III in a doorway of the Diamond C Ranch. The photo was featured in the fine book written by Dan Dagget, Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West that Works. In the pages of that book, I learned how Tony Burgess, a famous desert borderlands ecologist, was once brought to the Diamond C Ranch during an era when environmental scientists and ranchers were largely at odds with one another. But when Tony looked out over a stretch of rangelands where Joe Quiroga had increased the grass cover by forty percent over the years, he said this:
“I don’t know what you are doing, but don’t stop. It’s working.”
A decade and a half have passed since that incident, but Joe Quiroga has not yet stopped healing the land and healing the divisions that occasionally crop up among people. On Earth Day of 2012, more than 70 of his neighbors and a half-dozen organizations—including farmers, ranchers, scientists, permaculturists and community activists—came together to honor him at the Santa Cruz County Earth Fest. It was clear to everyone in the community that Joe Quiroga has left us a legacy that will live on for decades, if not centuries.
One of the borderlands residents who came to honor Joe that hot April afternoon also deserves to be honored for healing the lands along the border. Her name is Valer Austin, and with her husband, Jho Austin, she has overseen the construction of more than 30,000 loose rock check dams and gabions running across watercourses located on six ranches in Arizona, Sonora, Texas and other border states. Beginning around 1988, the Austins took over El Coronado Ranch in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains, where the range had been depleted and the creek beds eroded over the course of many decades. Assembling a crew of master builders of stonewalls and trinchera-like checkdams, the Austins came up with the strategy of using rocks on site wrapped and held in place by wire gabion baskets.
In watersheds like the Bedrock drainage where rivulets once ran only a month a year, the healed watercourses now run for three years at a time, despite the increasing frequency of droughts since the late 1990s. In the Turkey Pen drainage, which seldom ran more than three months a year in the wettest of years, the stream often flows year round, and perennial pools have formed. Water bugs, mud turtles, fish and waterfowl have permanently returned to these watersheds. The Austin’s recovery of borderlands watersheds has been so successful that they have ironically raised the ire of Homeland Security, which claims that the Border Patrol can no longer cross certain streams in their four-wheel drive trucks; the water now flows so deeply!
If all of this rangeland healing emanated only from only one side of the border, environmental justice advocates might categorically dismiss it. But on Rancho Inmaculada, south of Caborca, Sonora, the stewardship initiatives of Ivan Aguirre Ibarra and Martha Darancou de Aguirre have attracted international attention and acclaim in at least three best-selling books. The 26,000acre ranch lies in the driest reaches of the Sonoran Desert, but the amount of grass and soil cover on the inside on Inmaculada’s fence line dwarfs anything found immediately outside the ranch’s boundary.
Inspired by Holistic Resource Management guru Alan Savory, Ivan Aguirre began to work with the desertified ranch his father bought in 1975 and transform it into an oasis where fresh water flows freely and cottonwoods grow. He pays particular attention to the management of native mesquite, chain-sawing its branch-loads of feathery leaves to make tens of thousands of curvilinear windrows that hold soil in place and increase fertility. The larger trunks of pruned mesquite trees are then used to make check dams, parquet tile floors, furniture, doors, charcoal and a soil amendment known as bio-char. Martha’s fine business sense has guided their efforts to develop several mesquite-based cottage industries on the ranch that employ dozens of their neighbors. At the same time, Ivan manages 300 head of Beefmaster cattle and brief periods of game hunting on the ranch that provide other steady revenue streams. All of these economic benefits have accrued, according to Ivan and Martha, through looking at the ranch as a whole ecosystem, then using locally available resources to advance ecological succession and increase biodiversity.
Joe Quiroga, Valer and Jho Austin, and Ivan and Martha Aguire share something special in addition to living on some of the most beautiful and healthy ranches remaining in the borderlands: they each take the long view of land health and have linked it to their own health. They remind me of what the great conservationist Aldo Leopold first learned 60 years ago when he observed abundant soil, grass and deer resting behind the check dams built centuries earlier in the Rio Gavilán of Chihuahua:
“I first clearly realized that the land is an organism [and] that in all my life [before coming to the borderlands] I had only seen sick land, whereas here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health.”
I hear the terms “environmental health” and “ecosystem health” often bandied about these days, but oftentimes without acknowledgement of the fact that when Leopold first coined the term, the beneficial actions of land stewards from the border’s many cultures was deeply embedded in his concept. Skeptics who believe that humans can only harm the land and deplete its biodiversity would do well to follow Joe Quiroga, the Austins or the Aguirres out onto their lands to see, first hand, the abundance they have nurtured.