Members of the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute standing on an anti-erosion structure at a restoration site in the Sonoita Creek Wildlife Corridor.

‘Restoration economy’ strives to protect pollinators, create jobs

Conservationists hope to boost livelihoods along the poverty-stricken Arizona–Mexico borderlands by repairing habitat for more than 900 species of wild pollinators

Gary Nabhan and I are bumping along in a rental car down a two-track dirt road that follows the edge of Sonoita Creek’s floodplain, some 29 kilometers north of the Arizona–Mexico border. Nabhan—an ethnobiologist, conservation biologist and agroecologist at the University of Arizona and author of more than 30 books on food, farming and nature—tells me how extraordinary this borderlands region is for pollinators: native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, even nectar-feeding bats. And now he is giving me a tour to illustrate his point.

We begin where he resides, in Patagonia, Ariz., with its community pollinator gardens and Audubon Society hummingbird refuge, and then move on to this creek, where The Nature Conservancy has established a nearly 365-hectare preserve. One of the last perennially flowing streams remaining in Arizona, Sonoita Creek and its verdant floodplain are teeming with birds and butterflies when we visit. They crisscross the dappled shade between towering stands of cottonwoods and Goodding’s willows.

Gary Nabhan looks at a flowering Black Oxford heritage apple tree at his home near Patagonia, Arizona.
Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan looks at a flowering Black Oxford apple tree at his home near Patagonia, Arizona.

The floodplain supports the riparian forest that, in turn, creates habitat for wildlife. More than 275 avian species have been recorded along this stretch of river, as have hundreds of species of pollinators. Its ecological wealth is also a result of its location—on the northwestern corner of the Madrean Archipelago, a roughly 180,000-square-kilometer sea of sweeping desert and grassland with isolated mountain ranges known as sky islands. This patchwork of private and public lands, which straddles the international border, harbors the highest diversity of native bees, birds and mammals anywhere in the contiguous U.S.

To nurture this region, Nabhan helped establish Borderlands Restoration—an L3C, or low-profit limited liability company—in 2012. Borderlands staff partners with private landowners and nonprofit organizations as well as state and federal land management agencies to assess what flora is missing from the diverse mosaic and then works to fill in those gaps. With help from volunteers and the organization’s youth program, which offers paid internships and practicums to area high school students, seeds from native plants are collected from throughout the region, propagated at the Borderlands nursery and transplanted. The group builds simple erosion control structures that slow rainwater flow and increase soil moisture while stabilizing soils in the region’s riparian zones, then adds more plants into these restored ecosystems. They help farmers plant hedgerows along the edges of fields, ranchers mitigate the effects of fire, erosion and overgrazing, and homeowners design backyard pollinator gardens. They even erect “pollinator fences”—with stalks from the desert spoon or agave plant—to provide nesting sites for native bees. Whether working on private or public lands, the focus is invariably on native plant species that provide forage for pollinators. “Restoring nectar plant resources and habitat for pollinators is at the heart of what we do,” Nabhan says. “Because of the key role these creatures play in the resilience of wild and cultivated landscapes.”

But in all this work Borderlands Restoration is also connecting the health of the habitat to the more than 46,000 people who live in this economically challenged region, where the median household income is $38,802 (the per capita income, from 2010 to 2014 was $17,900). “With all this richness in the natural world, why is there so much economic poverty?” asks Ronald Pulliam, former science adviser for the U.S. Department of Interior and a Borderlands founder. “When we started Borderlands, one of the things we wanted to do was to tie the ideas of conservation, restoration and biological diversity to the ideas of training people and creating jobs. We wanted to create what we call a ‘restoration economy’—one that doesn’t ignore the reality of the people who are struggling to make a living here. You can bring back the pollinators, you can restore the hydrological systems that support them, but it won’t last unless the people who live here really care about it.”

That goes for businesses as well, says Borderlands’ Executive Director David Seibert. “The market for these plants has been identified and is supported by myriad restoration projects. Yet, major retailers, like Home Depot, only sell the cultivars and hybrids that will sell,” he says. “If we’re successful, if we can create enough interest in our work, we hope other organizations will follow our lead: They’ll build nurseries, grow the plants their region’s pollinators need and make them available to landowners and agencies. We know pollinators are on the decline everywhere, restoration is needed nearly everywhere, and employment rates are down nearly everywhere, so let’s set up systems and get to work—everywhere.”

Ronald Pulliam in the Sonoita Creek Wildlife Corridor behind him are the Patagonia Mountains. He help to start Borderlands Restoration.
Ronald Pulliam, who helped start Borderlands Restoration, in the Sonoita Creek Wildlife Corridor.
Pollinators Under Siege

The work is challenging, in part because the region’s biological diversity—including its many pollinators—is under siege. On both sides of the border, vast monocultures of alfalfa, cotton and safflower require heavy doses of agricultural chemicals that kill local flora and fauna. Herbicides are sprayed to convert desert or subtropical thorn scrub to nonnative pasturelands, often destroying the plants on which pollinators depend. Urban sprawl and rural housing developments contribute to habitat fragmentation and groundwater depletion. And then there’s climate change that, Nabhan tells me, not only makes the region hotter and drier but also changes the plants’ flowering times, resulting in reduced visitation by pollinators. “So much of the focus on bees is on honeybees,” Pulliam says. “But there is a tremendous diversity of wild bees in the world. Because of a lack of data, we don’t understand much about them. If we’re going to conserve the 600 species of bees native to southeastern Arizona, the only thing we know to do is conserve the habitat they’re in.”

In this regard Arizona is not unique. There are perhaps as many as 200,000 different species of pollinators around the world. Like the honeybee, many of them are suffering incredible losses. According to a report released in February this year by an international group of researchers affiliated with the United Nations, more than 40 percent of the world’s invertebrate pollinator species, particularly bees and butterflies, and some 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators, like birds and bats, face extinction. Wild pollinators are twice as effective as domesticated honeybees in producing seeds and fruit on crops, including almonds, coffee, tomatoes and strawberries, according to 2013 study in Science. In other words, the loss of wild pollinators may pose an even more alarming threat to food crops than the loss of honeybees. This is true, of course, in wild landscapes, too. “We need a balanced pollinator portfolio,” says Stephen Buchmann, a pollination ecologist at the University of Arizona and author most recently of The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology and How They Change Our Lives. “It’s extremely unwise to depend on a single species of bee.”

Of People and Pollinators

Twenty-four-year-old Zach Yourgules began working for Borderlands Restoration three years ago. He has worked maintenance at the organization’s nursery; learned the region’s native pollinator plants and collected their seeds; and he has helped construct hundreds of erosion control structures to restore degraded streambeds. Borderlands’ flexibility allowed Yourgules to get his emergency medical technician and fire fighter certifications and to make time for his five-year-old daughter. Growing up in Patagonia, he thought he’d have few choices after graduating high school if he wanted to stay in his hometown. “Borderlands changed all that,” he says. Borderlands employs some 16 peopleboth full-time and part-time—year-round, including Yourgules; it also engages dozens of volunteers who assist with the organization’s nursery and fieldwork. The number of paid workers triples in the summer when college and high school students arrive to participate in Borderlands’ internship and practicum programs. “These kids are getting opportunities usually afforded only to the elite,” says Laura Norman about participants in the Borderlands Earth Care Youth program. A researcher from the U.S. Geological Survey, Norman is studying surface flow and sediment deposition at several of Borderlands’ riparian zone restoration sites. “Many of them live in what we call colonias—neighborhoods along the border that are impoverished, that lack adequate housing or infrastructure, like sewer or water supplies,” she says. “In the beginning they’re not really engaged, but by the end, they’re our biggest proponents. They realize the work they’re doing benefits everyone and everything—the plants, the animals and the people. And they’re ready to go to college, to learn and do more. But they don’t have to go it alone—they’re getting support from Borderlands staff and volunteers, from agency PhDs who are writing letters of reference, encouraging them and helping them realize their goals.”

Steve Buckley, a botanist with the National Park Service has worked with Borderlands Restoration since it started.
Steve Buckley, a botanist with the National Park Service, has worked with Borderlands Restoration since it started.

Borderlands’ efforts began in Patagonia with volunteer-driven restoration projects along the floodplains of Sonoita Creek. Today the organization is the second-largest employer in Patagonia, with an annual budget of about $500,000. Its work extends much farther than its backyard watershed, thanks to partnerships with landowners, nonprofit organizations and government agencies on both sides of the border. Since 2012 Borderlands staff and volunteers have installed over 2,000 erosion control and restoration structures in riparian corridors and planted more than 40,000 native plants on public and private lands throughout the region. Pulliam and others from Borderlands have collaborated with agency researchers, such as Norman, to study the hydrologic effects of these projects; the results of several of these studies have been published in academic journals. With help from partner organizations, volunteer citizen-scientists and other researchers, Borderlands is also studying the effects of their work on bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and bats. These results will be published within the next two years. In the meantime, Seibert says, plants are thriving on their own, producing flowers, fruit and seed—resources for pollinators—and stabilizing eroding landscapes at the same time. These anecdotal observations are often highlighted online, on the Borderlands Restoration Web site.

Thousands of the plants Borderlands staff and volunteers cultivate in the organization’s nursery go to critical areas in the region’s National Park Service lands, approximately 120 hectares so far, where catastrophic fire, erosion or overgrazing has decimated pollinator habitat. Steve Buckley, a botanist with the service’s Southwest Exotic Plant Management Team, has worked closely with Borderlands on these projects. “National parks have the potential to be crucial stepping-stones for migratory pollinators,” he tells me. “In recent years the Park Service has earmarked tens of thousands of dollars for regional pollinator initiatives, but until Borderlands came along an absence of plant materials was holding us back. Borderlands is helping with that, and they’re helping with expertise. We trust the staff knows what they’re doing from a rigorous scientific context. As a result, we’re able to be more nimble and efficient and do restoration at a scale we couldn’t do before.”

“Before we started Borderlands,” Seibert says, “two of our partner organizations, the Hummingbird Monitoring Network and Cuenca los Ojos, had restored perennial water flow to several miles of one our local rivers—but they’d learned that water wasn’t enough. Hummingbirds were making nests and laying eggs but the young were starving because there had been no plant work done. The seed bank had been too depleted for too long. This is why Borderlands took a horticultural approach from the start. This is why we built our nursery: to propagate the plants the pollinators need. If the plants survive and also reproduce after they’ve been transplanted onto reclaimed sites—and they are—if the pollinators come back, and if we can create viable training and jobs centered in all of this work, we’re accomplishing our goals.”

Sunrise on the Santa Rita Mountains north of the town of Patagonia, Arizona, 18 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sunrise on the Santa Rita Mountains north of the town of Patagonia, Arizona, 18 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

On my last day in Patagonia I meet with graduates of the Borderlands youth program—kids who spent summer 2015 working in the field. They mapped area nectar landscapes, collected native seeds and helped with restoration projects. All are high schoolers except for a young Patagonia woman who attends Northern Arizona University’s School of Forestry. They are shy and giggly until it comes to talking about Borderlands. Annika Coleman, a sophomore who lives on a nearby ranch, says, “It sucked in the beginning, to have to get up early and work outside in the heat. But then you begin to see what you can do with a pickax or a bunch of seeds. Until last summer I didn’t understand why the work my grandfather, a rancher, does was important. Now I do.”

Seventeen-year-old Guadalupe Bueras, adds, “I know how to repair a riparian zone. I can heal a river. How many teenagers can say that?”

Time will tell whether Borderlands’ efforts will result in what Seibert calls “ecological and social restoration in tandem” or whether the organization will serve as a model for conservation efforts elsewhere. At the very least, the young people in this region are learning how to heal a ravaged land. There’s hope in that, and maybe also a living wage. If so, hard-working people and pollinators alike stand to gain.

 This story was originally produced in partnership with Scientific American. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected]. 

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