Patagonia, © Defenders of Wildlife

Mining Sky Islands

Heather Murray, Legal Fellow

At the intersection of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northeastern Mexico lie the “Sky Islands,” a 70,000-square-mile region known for its forested “island” mountain ranges, which are isolated from one another by vast stretches of grassland and desert.  The Sky Islands contain some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, providing habitat for more than half of all North American bird species, 29 bat species, more than 3,000 species of plants, more than 100 species of mammals and at least 28 threatened and endangered species.

To learn more about this irreplaceable landscape and the threats it faces, staff attorney Greg Buppert and I traveled to Patagonia, Arizona, a town of fewer than 1,000 people located just over 10 miles from the Mexican border.  From there, we ventured out into the Patagonia Mountains, guided by our local partners from the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and Ron Pulliam, ecologist and Defenders board member. Words and photos cannot fully convey the sense of awe one feels when hiking through these mountains. It is truly a special place, and the community has such a strong connection to the natural world that you almost begin to wonder how anyone could be satisfied living anywhere else.

This region is also home to one of the Southwest’s most iconic species – the jaguar.  While the jaguar’s range once covered much of the southern U.S., habitat loss and hunting caused U.S. jaguar populations to decline sharply in the past century.  Recent sightings provide hope that the species has begun to reoccupy its historical habitat here, but the jaguar — and many other species — depend on the intact and unspoiled habitat in the Patagonia Mountains for survival.  Mountain ranges like these, which span north to south across the border, connect Mexican populations of jaguars and ocelots to habitat in the U.S. Keeping this habitat connected allows breeding populations of jaguars in Mexico to disperse northward into the U.S., which is crucial to the successful recovery of U.S. jaguar populations. The Patagonias also provide critical habitat for Mexican spotted owls — we even visited one canyon where an established breeding pair has been sighted — and the lesser long-nosed bat relies on the mountains’ abundant supply of agave during its migration.

Unfortunately, international mining companies hold claims to thousands of acres of national forest lands in the Patagonia Mountains, and are attempting to bring industrial-scale surface mining to this remote range. These vast, open-pit mines would decimate the environment and have far-ranging impacts on everything from water quality to wildlife habitat. The Forest Service and mining companies downplay the impact of mining on the environment, but these activities have caused significant erosion, wildfires, and the presence of toxic chemicals in the environment.

Patagonia sky islands

This land is privately owned, but surrounded by national forest. You can see where the company has cleared away vegetation and created roads, both leading to significant erosion.

We visited several “reclaimed” mining sites, which are still easily identified by their lack of vegetation, excessive erosion, and deep cuts into the mountainside, as well as the debris, sediment piles, and evaporation pits that are left behind. Walking through these areas, it is hard to believe that the Forest Service would claim that mining activities have so little impact, or would not deter wildlife from using this habitat, given that the landscape has been so thoroughly transformed.

Last winter, Defenders of Wildlife — along with the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and Sky Island Alliance — sued the Forest Service for approving an exploratory drilling project in the Patagonias without conducting any environmental review. The Forest Service had concluded that the impacts from exploratory drilling would be minor and insignificant, and would not affect listed species in the area. We challenged this assumption, and — based on the opinions of scientific experts, studies and reports, observations of local residents, and even documents from the Forest Service itself — demonstrated that the project area contained suitable habitat for listed species like the jaguar, and that the destruction caused by previous mining activities resulted in significant and lasting environmental impacts. Once we filed our lawsuit, the Forest Service withdrew its approval of the project, and the fragile ecosystem of the Patagonias remains protected, at least for now.

Heather, Greg and others hiking through the Patagonias

Fortunately, our partners in Patagonia — including Ron Pulliam, the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and members of the local community — are working hard to ensure that mining does not destroy the area’s high ecological value.  They are conducting citizen science workshops, educating the community about the impacts of mining, hosting comment-writing workshops, working to protect the town’s watershed, conducting habitat restoration work, and engaging in many other activities. Perhaps most importantly, they’re educating the local community about the federal laws that allow citizens to participate in the decision-making process, so that the people who live in this region can voice their concerns about how mining activities will impact these mountains. While Patagonia was historically a mining town, most mining activity was of a much smaller scale and occurred there many decades ago. Today, the local economy is largely based on eco-tourism, and would be devastated by new mining activity in the area. Increased mining in the Patagonias would also sever the link between jaguar and ocelot habitat in the U.S. and Mexico, interfere with Mexican spotted owl nesting and breeding, limit food supplies for lesser long-nosed bats, and cause a great deal of harm to the ecosystem as a whole.

The risks to this fragile ecosystem and imperiled wildlife are simply too high to allow the Forest Service to prioritize the interests of mining companies and investors over conservation. Defenders will continue to track future mining projects in the Patagonias, and work to protect the irreplaceable habitat found there. After seeing these incredible mountains and the destructive impacts of mining first-hand, it is clearer than ever that this rare and special place deserves to be preserved.