Starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday, conservationist John Davis is scheduled to be on horseback in eastern Sonora. He'll be starting a trek across the Sierra Madre, the Sky Islands and the Rocky Mountains in the name of protecting wildlife corridors.
With a walking stick in hand and a laptop in his backpack, Davis, 49, will trek on foot, horseback, bicycle and boat, ending in about nine months in Fernie, a small town in southeast British Columbia.
The goal of Trek West is to raise public consciousness about the biological value of the wildlife corridors along the way, which mountain lions, deer, jaguar, bobcat and javelina use to cross rugged and sometimes heavily populated terrain.
His trek is essentially a pitch for creation of a Western Wildway, a 6,000-mile-long corridor of protected land that scientists for various conservation groups have identified over a decade of research. He sees this corridor as a way to reconnect nature on a continental scale.
And, he thinks it represents North America’s best chance to ensure the survival of many imperiled species, in the face of development pressures and climate change. His prime sponsor is the Wildlands Network, a national conservation group formerly known as the Wildlands Project that has taken the lead in pushing for this corridor.
He’ll also get help from numerous regional conservation groups along the way, including the Sky Island Alliance in the Tucson area and the Northern Jaguar Project and Naturalia in Sonora. The latter two co-manage a 50,000-acre Northern Jaguar Preserve in that state to protect the endangered cat.
“I want to see where wildlife corridors are and where wildlife crossings need to be put across major roads,” Davis said in an interview in Tucson last week. He’ll start in the small ranching town of Sahuaripa, and go north to the jaguar preserve, which Naturalia owns. One of the reserve's purposes is to try to insure that jaguars survive and thrive in harmony with surrounding ranchers.
Eventually, Davis and his trekking supporters will go over the top of the Sierra Madre. They’ll head east to Chihuahua to stop at the Mata Ortiz, home of a 1,200-year-old archeological reserve, and the Rio Casas Grandes, where he’ll speak out against a government effort to pull up all the large cottonwood trees to reduce their pressure on the water table.
He’ll come back through Sonora to cross the U.S. border at Naco, Arizona. He’ll come from there by car northwest to Tucson, where in early March he’ll give a public slide show and talk. Then, he’ll go back to the border near the Chiricahua Mountains, then go back to walking — north to the Blue Primitive Area and then northeast into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.
Eventually, he’ll circle back into Arizona, passing through the Mogollon Rim and across the Grand Canyon, hiking into the canyon from the South Rim and hiking back up to the North Rim, before heading into Utah and through the Rockies.
One conservation fact that this trip will bring out is that this route is an inland flyway for migratory birds, from Latin America north to Canada and back again, said Peter Warshall, a co-founder of the Northern Jaguar Project that runs the jaguar reserve. The reserve itself contains the northernmost population of military macaws and the southernmost bald eagle population, Warshall said.
In 2011, Davis made a similar journey from the Florida Keys to southern Quebec, to promote what he acknowledges will be a very difficult task of assembling an Eastern Wildway, given that area’s wall-to-wall development in many places. He’s writing a book about that trek, and hopes this one will produce a second book, adding that in the Rockies it’s “more possible” than in the East to assemble a continuous wildlife pathway.
“One thing we really want to do is inspire individual action on behalf of wild places,” Davis said. “We want to show there are all sorts of ways people can help: by joining or supporting a land trust, doing good stewardship on their own properties, or writing letters on behalf of wilderness areas and national parks.”
He concedes that creation of a 6,000-mile-long nature corridor will take many years if not decades, to establish new parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges. He acknowledges that some needed measures could be, or will be, controversial.
The Wildlands Network estimates that there’s 125 million acres within its corridor planning network in the U.S., alone, including 10 million acres within the Sky Islands mountain ranges of Arizona and New Mexico.
While the network estimates that 75 percent of this land is government-owned, some of those lands aren’t strictly protected.
Many “critical” conservation lands are still privately held, Davis added, and getting that conserved will require stewardship by private landowners — which the corridor backers plan to get with strictly voluntary measures such as conservation easements.
“I hope there won’t be much controversy. There almost certainly will be some, because there are some people opposed to land conservation,” Davis said. “Since most people in the U.S. and Canadians and many in Mexico want to see land protected, I think outright opposition will be rare.”
When he’s not trekking, Davis lives and does regional conservation work in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. He dates his conservation roots back to the days of Earth First!, where he worked five years (and was arrested a couple of times for civil disobedience, a behavior he promises to avoid this go-round) with its founder Dave Foreman (a one-time Tucsonan), before Foreman left the group to found the Wildlands Project.
Davis also has edited the Wildlands Project’s now-defunct Wild Earth magazine, worked for the Foundation for Deep Ecology and was a founder of the Wildlands Network.
“I will be studying and learning as I go,” Davis said. “I’m not an expert on any of these places. I will be traveling with experts.”