The Atascosa Highlands are an area of incredible biological diversity located within one of the most ecologically rich regions on the planet. Taking up less than 1% of Arizona's overall landmass, the Atascosas host at least half of the state’s total bird species and approximately one-quarter of its flora, including several species which are found nowhere else in the United States.


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While these mountains have been inhabited for thousands of years, the last few centuries of human activity have had a profound effect on this stretch of the US-Mexico border, threatening the natural balance and driving many species to the brink of local extinction from this biological paradise.


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CHAPTER I:

A BIOLOGICAL PARADISE



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AN AREA OF INCREDIBLE BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY



            Though humans have always left their mark on the Highlands, the capability to massively alter landscapes has come to the borderlands only very recently on an ecological timescale. The dramatic effects of large-scale human intervention have irrevocably changed the course of natural history in the Atascosa Highlands, making it essential to document the ecology of the region now. This will provide a baseline for future generations who can use the data gathered today to chart the consequences of this unprecedented era of industrialization and climate change on the ecology of the sky islands.

            In 1943 writer Matt Dodge referred to the Chiricahua mountains of Southern Arizona as a “mountain island in a desert sea.” This became the origin of a new understanding of the isolated ranges of Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora as “sky islands.” This term refers to a series of mountain ranges which connect the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico with the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. and Canada, sitting at the confluence of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. These mountains bridge political boundaries and act as essential migratory routes for species unaware of the arbitrarily defined borders dividing their habitat. Sky islands of the region can rise thousands of feet from their scorching desert bases to cool, wet forests of Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Pine (Pinus spp.). The radical geologic, climactic, and topographical variations make the sky island region one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.




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I. Juniperus arizonica (Arizona Juniper)
II. Noccaea fendleri (Alpine Pennycress)
III. Quercus hypoleucoides (Silverleaf Oak)
IV. Lobelia laxiflora (Sierra Madre Lobelia)
V. Agave palmeri (Palmer's Agave)
VI. Carex chihuahuensis (Chihuahuan Sedge)
VII. Choisya dumosa var. Mollis (Mexican Orange)
VIII. Mimosa dysocarpa (Velvetpod Mimosa)
IX. Asclepias linaria (Pineleaf Milkweed)


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CHAPTER II:

THOSE WHO ARE GONE

 

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A CHAIN STRETCHING BACK ACROSS CENTURIES



            The small band picks its way through high grass and thorny catclaw. The youngest of the group is an 11 year old boy, his right shoulder is getting tired so he switches his German made Mauser rifle to his left and shifts his pack; the bandelier of ammunition rattling against his chest. It’s a cool winter morning and the group is both happy and anxious to return home. They’ve labored in the blazing hot cotton fields and citrus orchards of Arizona to buy the rifles and ammunition they are carrying, and they’re glad to be done with the brutally hard work. But they know that in Sonora they will be hunted. As soon as they cross the border they are entering a warzone, and if they are caught they know the consequence. One of the older men adjusts his new sandals. The night before they had cut the skin from a cow to make them. The man put his foot on the cow’s hide and cut the form from the flesh, then made a small slit to string rawhide through for a strap. It was dangerous for them to do this, and any rancher who came across the cow would know exactly what the sandal shapes cut from it meant. But it was better than walking barefoot, and they’d seen no one when they crossed north three months before. The boy cast his gaze back towards Atascosa Peak rising above the valley, and wondered how far they were from Sonora. As his mind drifted, a sharp whisper suddenly went through the group. Somebody spotted soldiers. Had the Mexican army crossed the border to find them? The group quickened its pace, moving off the ridgeline and down into an oak lined draw where they’d be harder to see. The leader of the group told them to abandon their packs and take only the weapons and ammunition.

            They moved as silently as possible, but behind them they could hear the sound of horses whinnying as they approached closer, and then the noise of the soldiers dismounting and advancing towards them. The leader of the group told 20 of the 30 men to take most of the ammunition and head south as fast as possible. 10 stayed behind, including the boy. He hid his small frame behind an oak tree and waited, trying not to exhale too loudly. The crunching of fallen leaves under cavalry boots was getting louder. With a shout the men around him began firing. This was his first fight. He levelled his rifle, almost as tall as him, as blue coated soldiers dove behind boulders and trees, and pulled the trigger. His shot went high and the recoil hurt his shoulder, but he worked the bolt and fired again. The leader of his group was sprinting from a tree to a large rock, when a bullet struck one of the rounds he carried in a belt around his chest. He was temporarily engulfed in a flash of light but held to the granite stone to keep his footing. The men fired and moved, slowing the pursuit of the cavalrymen. It had been long enough for the others to get away, so one man popped up and began waving his hands in surrender. The blue coats cautiously moved in, weapons raised. As they got nearer the boy saw that these were not Mexican soldiers, they were mostly black, with one or two white men who looked like officers. These were U.S. cavalry. The now surrounded Yaquis breathed a collective sigh of relief. At least capture by the Americans meant prison or labor, and not instant death.



 

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CHAPTER III:
BATTLE OF AMBOS NOGALES

 

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THE MOTHER OF ALL WALLS



            Since 1918 the wall has continued to evolve in Ambos Nogales. Before the battle, other than temporary fences, only a solitary border monument had marked where the two nations met. But afterwards, a simple chain link fence went up along International Avenue to direct people to “Legal Points of Entry.” As the years passed, the fence slowly sprouted lampposts, all the better to illuminate illicit passages. When prohibition created demand for alcohol in the U.S. and guns and money in Mexico, the fence started to snake further out towards the hills around town. Two seedling trees grew to maturity between the old guard posts, and larger checkpoints went up a block west to handle the new influx of automobile traffic between the countries. Chinese immigrants, banned from citizenship in the U.S. since 1892 cut holes through the fence, and started venturing even further out into the deserts and canyons to evade detection, finding work in the agricultural fields and construction sites of the Southwest. But even in 1943, when they became eligible for U.S. citizenship, workers from elsewhere still crossed. So a new, even taller fence was built, and soon barbed wire topped that fence, and the two trees growing between the guard towers were cut down for better visual control. As Nogales became the largest site of cross border commerce in Arizona, the Mariposa Port of Entry was built further west, and a concerted effort to divert extra legal border crossings led the government to install a new steel bollard fence. The World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, 2001, brought a massive influx of new recruits into the revamped Customs and Border Patrol, while semi trucks idled for hours under new inspection protocols. Fewer people came to the old Morley Avenue crossing. Updated guard posts were built, but the buildings on either side have remained the same. Older now, and with more wear. Barely visible over the security cameras and razor wire. Tunnels were built into the Nogales sewer systems and ultralights flew north over border ranches carrying drugs for Mexican Cartels. People came by foot, bicycle, and truck to cross the rugged hills west of town, and the wall continued to stretch out, slithering through the canyons of the Atascosa Highlands.

 


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Historical postcards of International Avenue in Ambos Nogales


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CHAPTER IV:
RUBY, ARIZONA



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RUBY SINGS IN THE MORNING NOW



            The crash and rumble of the ball mill has been silent for nearly a century, and the once bustling town is being reclaimed by native vegetation and wildlife. Ruby sings in the morning now. As a cool morning breeze turns into an unseasonably warm winter day, flycatchers (Pyrocephalus obscura) dart from oak branches, and mexican ducks (Anas diazi) make ripples on the serene surface of Town Lake. Mining is one of the most prominent threads woven into the tapestry of land use here in the Atascosas. Evidence of its impact on the local environment can be seen in the thousands of mine claims across the Highlands and in the unstable pits and discolored piles of tailings that dot the hills. The old abandoned cars and dilapidated buildings of long gone wildcatters sit silent, mangled by bullet holes and worn to ruin by time and the elements. In trying to understand the effects of industrial activity on the Atascosa Highlands, a look at Ruby can provide a sense of the many ways in which a landscape can be irrevocably damaged, and the more subtle ways in which an environment is capable of recovering.




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CHAPTER V:
LAND OF THE GOOD OAK

 

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THE LONE COWBOY DRIVING CATTLE



                        Caught in the middle of the perennial conflict between the drug cartels of northern Sonora and U.S. Border Patrol, the cowboys of the Atascosas fight to preserve their way of life and profession. Fences are frequently cut, and water tanks are inadvertently drained by migrants and smugglers forced into the area by the militarization of nearby towns, while cattle gates are left open by Federal Agents speeding back and forth on their daily patrols. Inexorable environmental, economic, and social changes challenge the viability of ranches in increasingly degraded landscapes. As the hottest year ever recorded in Southern Arizona, 2020 far surpassed the drought years of the early 1890’s that led to the die off of at least half of the cattle on the range. It is only with the intensive infrastructure developments and technological advancements of today that ranchers here have staved off a similar disaster. But should a time come when there are no longer cattle or cowboys in the Atascosa Highlands, evidence of their impacts will forever remain on the face of this unique ecosystem.




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I. Eragrostis lehmanniana (Lehmann’s Lovegrass)
II. Eragrostis curvula (Weeping Lovegrass)
III. Pennisetum ciliare (Bufflegrass)












CHAPTER VI:
HOW TO CUT SIGN

 

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IT CONFOUNDS THE ABILITY OF EITHER NATION TO CONTROL



            The US-Mexico border which was placed right through the middle of the unforgiving Atascosa Highlands was put there not out of any geographic necessity or ecological reality, but due to an entangled history of war, political intrigue, and personal interest. Border enforcement in the Atascosa Highlands is driven by the challenging landscape, and recent border wall construction is just one part of the complicated security apparatus that exists here. While U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has grown from a small group of horse mounted inspectors to one of the largest police forces in the world, the border here is the same unmanageable territory encountered by the first boundary survey in the mid 1800’s. Nearly two hundred years after wresting the current borderline from Mexico, and with all the resources available to the United States government, it confounds the ability of either nation to easily control.













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CHAPTER VII:
CROSSING THE LINE

 

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THOSE WHO SEEK TO CROSS HAVE FOUND A MEANS TO PASS



            As long as there have been borders, there have been governments seeking to control them, and people who will attempt to circumvent that control. As nations gain or lose land through war or treaty, these shifting borders frequently cut across formerly united communities, forever changing their social and cultural landscapes. The US-Mexico border is the most heavily trafficked national boundary on the planet, with around 350 million documented crossings each year, and with 851,508 apprehensions by Border Patrol of undocumented crossers in 2019 alone. This partition has evolved into one of the most heavily patrolled and closely surveilled stretches of land in the world. Despite this extreme level of federal oversight, inefficient government policies, paired with the desire of individuals to cross have obfuscated any security measure introduced. Indigenous groups, cattle rustlers, cartels, and migrants alike have found ways to bypass the increasingly visible line in the sand drawn from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. But here in the Atascosa Highlands, the greatest obstacle to unregulated crossing has always been the challenging terrain of the landscape itself.




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CHAPTER VIII:
BUILDING THE WALL



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HOW EFFECTIVE CAN A FENCE BE



            On may 6th 2020 the Trump administration awarded a $1.28 billion contract to build 42 miles of wall along the US-Mexico border. At just over $30 million per mile, this stretch promised to be one of the most expensive sections of freestanding wall ever built. And it’s not hard to see why. The Atascosa Highlands are a notoriously rugged and remote landscape. When the original US-Mexico boundary survey set up the first border markers in the mid 1800’s, they skipped over most of the Atascosas altogether, not feeling equipped to handle such unforgiving terrain. To add to the engineering challenges, under existing U.S. environmental laws the level of destruction necessary to construct such a barrier would violate dozens of regulations, so the Department of Homeland Security waived all obligation for these laws to be followed. The National Forest Act, the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Antiquities Act, and the Noise Control Act, are just a few of the 41 statutes waived to allow border wall construction in Arizona. No environmental surveys were conducted to assess damage to the watersheds or habitat, and no one was hired to see if the course of road building or wall construction would harm the numerous endangered species which occur in these mountains.




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Mark