Sky Islands – the very name sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, and this unique geographical region lives up to it. Harsh, jagged peaks hide lush forests and are separated from each other by a wide sea of arid land. Hidden in this rough landscape are the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America, but they are in danger of dying out.
Also known as the Madrean Archipelago, the Sky Islands are spread across southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. The land is covered by a patchwork of public and private lands, including federal lands, state parks, small towns and large cities.
The unusual biodiversity of the Sky Islands occurs because of its unique location at the center of four distinctive ecosystems. It lies at the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains, the northern edge of the Sierra Madre Occidental range, the eastern edge of the Sonoran desert and the western edge of the Chihuahua desert. This creates an amazing blend of subtropical, temperate and desert life that brings together parrots with black bears and saguaro cacti with ponderosa pines.
The geology of the region helps these separate ecosystems bleed together. Most of the area is relatively low in elevation, but the higher elevations stay cooler and get more rain. The mountain ranges are separate enough that species suited to lower elevations can circumvent them, but close enough that species in need of more temperate climates are able to migrate or be carried to the next peak. This has resulted in an area that is home to approximately half of the bird species found in the United States, more than twice as many species of mammals as Yellowstone National Park, and an incredible amount of insects, reptiles and amphibians.
Unfortunately, the biodiversity of this region is threatened. While the Sky Islands are located in one of the less populated areas of New Mexico, Arizona’s cities and population growth pose a large threat. Both Phoenix and Tucson are located in the Arizona portion of the Madrean Archipelago, and they are growing and expanding rapidly. Arizona as a whole has had a net population gain of approximately 200,000 people a year, making it one of the fastest growing states in the country, and many of those people flock to those two major cities. This increases urban sprawl into formerly wild areas as new homes and stores are built on the outskirts of the cities. New roads and heavy traffic also pose a serious threat. The delicate life in the Sky Islands relies on migration to stay alive, and roads destroy those migratory corridors and disrupt nesting grounds.
Fortunately, there are some dedicated people looking out for these threatened lands. The Sky Island Alliance is an Arizona-based nonprofit dedicated to keeping this wilderness alive. These dedicated wilderness protectors don’t let borders stop them, however. They work in New Mexico and Mexico as well to achieve their primary goal of protecting this valuable landscape.
The Sky Island Alliance often focuses on current political issues that threaten to harm the area, but it is a bipartisan organization, and the volunteers know that economic development is important as well. They work to strike a balance between growth and protection, saving these irreplaceable lands while still allowing people to make a living.
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One of their major projects is the Land of Legends Initiative. This is focused on three specific pieces of land in the Whetstone, Northern Chiricahua and Dragoon mountain ranges. These lands are already managed by the United States Forest Service, but the Sky Island Alliance is trying to make these into designated wilderness areas, which would prevent motor-vehicle traffic and other uses that can harm these extremely fragile lands.
Although the Land of Legends Initiative is valuable and important, it is just one of the many ways the Sky Island Alliance and other supporters are working to save this irreplaceable habitat. To learn how you can get involved or to discover more about the Madrean Archipelago, visit the Sky Island Alliance.Whizzco