Sky Islands

“Everything tries to be

round”

-Black Elk

Bradshaw Mountains, where much of the old west took place. Just north of Phoenix.
Bradshaw Mountains, where much of the old west took place. Just north of Phoenix.

Although not located entirely in the Phoenix area I include Sky Islands on my site because they are an amazing natural treasure and do extend into the Phoenix area. Sky islands have sheltered and fed native peoples for thousands of years, and it is among these islands Anglos first made permanent settlements, planted the valleys and raised cattle. These mountains are also the birthplaces and strongholds of such warriors and statesmen as Geronimo, and Cochise. For all of this amazing history and biodiversity, most people do not see these mountain ranges as a complex system, but instead simply as isolated mountains. These mountains make up a 70,000 square mile ecosystem that is found nowhere else and is some of the rarest and most threatened on earth.

 

Whetstone Mountains floating on a sea of high desert.
Whetstone Mountains floating on a sea of high desert.

Southeastern Arizona is a wonderland of mountains, rising up from the desert floor from every direction. If one wishes to understand why the Spanish and Apache fought for over 200 years for control of this corner of the world, just take a day-trip south of Tuscon, the contrast of lush grass valleys and forested mountain ranges truly is a vision of paradise. Aldo Leopold recognized this early and wrote about these mountains as well as naturalist and environmental activist Edward Abbey. Abbey fell in love with the Southwest early in life, and wrote extensively about Arizona and Utah but chose to make his home down here among the Sky Islands.  Arizona’s sky-islands include the Baboquivari, Huachuca, Whetstone, Chiricahua, Pinaleno, Santa Catalina, Santa Rita, Superstition, and Bradshaw Mountain ranges.  The Superstition and Bradshaw being the westernmost ranges, both just outside of Phoenix.

 

Biodiversity and Ecology

Grassland valley with the Santa Rita Mountains in the background.
Grassland valley with the Santa Rita Mountains in the background.

In 1943 in an Arizona Highways magazine article, Natt N. Dodge referred to the Chiricahua Mountains as a “mountain island in a desert sea.” Many years later (1967) Weldon Heald coined the term “sky islands” which so poetically describes the many isolated mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and northern Mexico. This topography of forested mountains “islands” separated by vast expanses of desert and grassland plains and are among the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Just like the Phoenix area, these mountains are the result of “basin and range” geology and were formed when the Pacific plate pushed up against the continent and then pulled off again. Think of an accordion.

Up in the Pinalino Mountains. Mixed conifer / pine forest supports a massive range of flora and fauna.
Up in the Pinalino Mountains. Mixed conifer/pine forest supports a massive range of flora and fauna.

The result is high mountains separated by vast plains, and the unique location is the meeting point for several major desert and forest biological provinces. These valley floors range between 2,500 and 4,500 feet elevation, while the isolated mountain peaks reach between 6,000 to 11,000 feet. There are 40 distinct mountains, each providing up to 6,000 feet elevation gradient from valley to peak within a matter of only several miles, this makes for a truly amazing convergence of bio-regions. Couple this with the fact that the region is a blend of both tropical and temperature climates and you have an ecosystem harboring well over half the bird species of North America, 29 bat species, over 3000 species of plants, and 104 species of mammals- a diversity exceeding anywhere else in the U.S.

The vast valleys act as barriers to the woodland fauna much the same way saltwater seas separate islands. This results in unique characteristics in animal species which have been isolated for thousands of years, (the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel) being one such species. The larger species, such as mountain lions, and black bears depend on the movement corridors between these islands to maintain genetic diversity and population base, however, these same corridors are constantly being threatened by the ever-creeping sprawl of urban development.

 

New Challenges

Huachuca Mountains and valley below.
Huachuca Mountains and valley below.

Today, the Indian wars are over, and barbwire has tamed the west but there is a new threat; urban sprawl. Much work has been done to trade and swap federal and state land in low lying areas for private land in the mountains thus ensuring that urban growth does not metastasis to our wildernesses. And while this has had an immediate and positive effect and has already helped to ensure an abundance of parks and wilderness designations, the valleys between these mountains are still threatened. Valleys are ideal habitat for humans and are not generally looked upon as integral parts of a larger ecosystem, and It is just recently we have been figuring this all out. How do we balance out the desire and need for growth in our current economic model, with the confines of this ancient sensitive habitat? How does one protect an entire corner of a state from urban sprawl without killing it economically? Lawmakers and citizens are rapidly finding themselves asking these questions.

View from the Chiricahua Mountain
View from the Chiricahua Mountain

 

Progress and Something Lost

Because of their unique intrinsic features, not only the valleys but the peaks themselves have been targeted for development, and while the impact has been limited it has opened the way to further growth. I’m speaking of observatories, Arizona has 28 of them and many are located among the Sky Islands around Tucson. The combination of high altitude with low light pollution makes for the ideal observatory location. While these sites offer scientific advancement they are a mixed tragedy, and a bit sad. Once, proud peaks whispered their secrets to only those fit and brave enough to leave their safe valleys and venture into these jagged cliffs and clouds, but now roads have been built, and nothing need be learned or worked for to reach these peaks. The tests and rites of passage that come with making one’s way up into those cliffs and clouds on foot have been lost when one reaches the summit and finds buildings and fences.

Vatican Telescope atop Mount Graham in the Pinaleno Mountains. Elevation 10,720 feet.
Vatican Telescope atop Mount Graham in the Pinaleno Mountains. Elevation 10,720 feet.

It seems something has been stolen from both the mountain and the man in this respect. Much like bridging a canyon, it is a shortcut, and some part of that canyon’s mystique becomes lost by its very existence. This and other reasons is why the Mount Graham Apache tribe sued the Vatican over the construction of their Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope or (VAT) on top of Mount Graham. Apache elders filed suit in 1991 to halt the project, seven months later it was thrown out and construction began. This was the first of seven observatories on this Sky Island. More on this on the “Vatican L.U.C.I.F.E.R. Lens” page.

 

Baboquivari Peak
Baboquivari Peak

What is to become of these state treasures is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, through proper guidance and some healthy respect for our home, Arizonans will find a solution. But the next time you are in this part of the state stop in and check out Cochise Stronghold. Take a hike down Madera canyon and see if you can spot a few of the hundreds of bird species there, this box canyon is known for the best birding in the state. Or perhaps visit some of the vineyards of Sonoita, boasting over 40-year-old wineries, on ranches built in the 1830’s, on land that has been farmed for over 4000 years. No matter which direction you head you are sure to run into some great history and a sky island sooner than later.

Cory Daniel is a professional certified interpretive guide and writer/researcher who currently lives in the Valley of the Sun.

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