Restoring more than the borderlands

By Ashley Fredde/El Inde

If one were to conjure up an image of a southwestern rancher, Richard Collins might be close. A rancher since the 1980s, Collins looks every bit the part, with his pants pulled over boots that have dried mud around the sole. His hands and face are weathered from working in the sun, and his voice is rough with a slight drawl to it. Yet, Collins’ reality of ranching is much different than what one would imagine.

“You think of cowboys riding around on their pretty horses alongside cattle, the reality is we’re more plumbers than anything else. We worry about wells, windmills, pipelines, troughs, ponds and springs.” He continued, “the weather affects our personalities.”

Water is one of the main things that worries Collins — alongside everything that is supported by it: landscapes, species, life.

In 1998, Collins and his family acquired acreage at the Seibold Ranch, which brought Arizona’s Red Rock Canyon into their pastures. The Red Rock Canyon watershed, just east of Patagonia, held more than 51,000 acres and supported four cattle ranches but also a live stream that had the endangered Gila topminnow living in it. That’s when Collins and other area ranchers came together to form the Canelo Hills Coalition, a model of conservation ranching based on the idea of maintaining land health, or the land’s innate capacity to renew itself. They pushed for a shift in ranching practices such as moving cattle to prevent overgrazing, allowing the land to maintain itself.

Restoring watersheds is a daunting task in a state like Arizona, where only 4 percent of its historically flowing rivers and streams still flow. It’s tougher still where those streams and rivers cross an international border, but it’s a task both area ranchers and environmentalists are taking on.

Caleb Weaver is on the front lines of that effort, as manager of a youth program for Borderlands Restoration Network, founded by ecologist Ron Pulliam in Southern Arizona, which Pulliam calls one of the three most biodiverse regions in the United States.

As manager of Borderlands EarthCare Youth (BECY), Weaver teaches “culturally-diverse youth in the economically-depressed region within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border” about landscape restoration and pays them to restore the trans-national watersheds they call home.

The high school students in the program work with conservation professionals who teach them how to use rock, wood, and seeds to slow the flow of water across the landscape and ultimately “heal the perceived divide between our deeply connected countries,” according to Borderlands’ website.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump had vowed to build a bigger, better border wall and denigrated Mexican immigrants as drug smugglers and rapists.

Collins has also seen that divide in recent years. “It’s hard to have a friendship with anybody as long as you know the political leaders of our country are calling their population criminals, drug addicts, and rapists,” said Collins. “I’ve gotten to know them. They’re not anything like the people you hear described. Very family-oriented, mostly Catholics, gracious people.”

But Weaver said that the harm done to the borderlands had started long before the current presidency. “The last four presidents have not left really positive marks on the border. So it’s been a bipartisan effort to cause harm to the borderlands and maybe it hasn’t been intentional, but that certainly has been the result,” said Weaver. 

These policies demonstrated to Weaver why the BECY program is important.

“It’s critical to have the future decision makers and future land managers be from the border and have really kind of intrinsic and inherent understandings of what it means to to work in and be with the border at the same time,” he said. 

People like future land manager Jake Paun, one of Weaver’s former students who became a part of the program as a high school student in 2015. He is now a youth facilitator for the program. 

When Paun first entered the program, he wanted to become an optometrist. But since then, he’s begun training to become an agriculture specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Paun said his father also would like him to apply some of his restoration skills on the cattle ranch he recently started.

“A lot of our borderland restoration techniques that I have come to know through the BECY institute are things that I hope to carry over into this family business,” said Paun.

He, too, is concerned about the increasing militarization of the border.

“I think that it’s a really difficult time where the borderlands region is at risk,” said Paun. “Whether it be because of historical overgrazing, the loss of perennial flows or vibrational patterns going through the wall. I don’t think it came at a great time.”

An article published in the journal Bioscience in 2018, signed by more than 2,900 scientists, said the militarization of the border would “threaten some of the continent’s most biologically diverse regions” by preventing migration and movement of species.

Regardless of the current political climate, BECY will continue to help young people reimagine the border and the land surrounding it. As for Sonoita rancher Collins, he’d like to reimagine the border as a simple fence and “a little more compassion and cooperation” between the nations.

Editor’s note: A version of this story will appear in the summer 2020 special issue of the Patagonia Regional Times.

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