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Restoring Natural Life on the Border

Cajon Bonito, Mexico -- The directions to the ranch are basically as follows: Leave problems of Ciudad Juarez behind. Cross Chihuahuan Desert. Climb Continental Divide. Hit Sonoran Desert. When you see some of the prettiest country in the west, slow down and watch out for the migrating hummingbirds. The ranch is on the left.

“This is as wild as you can get,” Valer Austin told us at her cattle gate, and she didn’t mean the usual kind of bad wild you could stumble into along the border -- but the good wild.

There are bear, antelope, coyote in these borderlands. There are lions and bison. There are 400 species of bees, the rare black hawk and endangered Mexican stoneroller, which is a fish.

In the video, you can meet Valer Austin, a visual artist from New York City who moved to the desert southwest with her husband Josiah, a Dallas investor. The couple bought a ranch in Arizona and a few more in Mexico. She is possessed by the challenge of restoring land degraded by a century of cattle. She’s as tenacious as a strand of barbed wire.

To revive rivers, the Austins and their ranch hands have erected tens of thousands of low rock dams along the creek beds in Mexico, to use the summer rains to bring water to the desert and recreate the wetlands that were once here.

This is a big, unpeopled place. Scientists have found jaguar here, sharing the ground with drug runners carrying AK-47s and bales of weed.

Austin and her fellow ranchers, Mexican and American, along with a coalition of binational environmentalists ( want to protect this vital corridor for migratory animals.

“We’re trying to manage landscapes on both sides of the border as a single corridor, connected,” Austin said. “Our government put a fence right through the habitat.”

Asked what would be better than a fence, Austin said native grasses and restored rivers and flourishing wildlife. It all depends on what you think is most important. “And I think this is the most important place in the world,” she said.

By Travis Fox and William Booth  |  June 22, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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Next: The End of the Road


Fantastic story, and fantastic work by Ms. Austin. She is absolutely correct about the importance saving nature, restoring connectivity, and protecting biodiversity for the health of our planet and our ability to thrive.

Thank you for the story, and thanks, Ms. Austin, for your generosity to all of us in bringing water back to the desert. You deserve all the kudos (and financial support) you can gather.

Posted by: bonniearthur | June 22, 2009 8:35 AM | Report abuse

It's just too bad that we can't tear down that fence so that species that roam naturally through there could do so again. However, until the illegals start respecting our borders, the bears and the birdies are going to have a hard time moving from one side to the other.

Posted by: JoStalin | June 22, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Valer Austin's story is moving and pertinent. Implementing her restoration plan could be one piece of addressing our drug dependency in a comprehensive manner with long term ecological benefit for all creatures including humans. Thanks for the excellent reporting.

Posted by: mmery | June 22, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Joe and Valer Austin are to be commended in ways some can't understand.

Their work in restoring desert water ways
is comprehensive. The abundance of grassland, water, and wildlife returning to the areas is a great story in itself. In many ways they are doing the work both The Mexican and US governments should be carrying out! Its amazes me that the quality of air, water and open spaces continues to decline- as governments watch from the sidelines! In cities as well as rural areas!

I am an eight generation rancher from the the area. I have seen how the cross cultural paradigm has changed the landscape. The need for more beef at "curiously low market prices" brings on overgrazing, the need for illicit drugs and work brings on immigration problems, more population moving in the area brings on poaching because of social economic disparity.

Valer is doing more with less than any armchair politician could dream.

The greatness of nation is in the quality of life and freedom of its citizens,
not the bloating populations and their unsustainable needs.

Posted by: rubenlruiz | June 23, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

JoStalin wrote: "However, until the illegals start respecting our borders, the bears and the birdies are going to have a hard time moving from one side to the other."
Illegals will start respecting our borders when employers start respecting our workers. They wouldn't come here if no one would hire them.

Posted by: carlaclaws | June 27, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Given that not everyone has the option to take their land off the market, nor have we all stopped eating beef, grassfed beef farmers, particularly the true "grassfarmers" like Polyface Farms are helping to keep soil and ecosystems healthy. I shot a video of two women in Northern California who feed their cattle and sheep solely on grasses and practice intensive rotational grazing so their land isn't overgrazed:

Posted by: kirstendirksen | June 28, 2009 7:15 AM | Report abuse

At least Mexico has come to its senses with this headline:

Mexico on the Verge of Decriminalizing Drug Possession

How do you feel about that Mexican vacation now?

Posted by: alance | June 28, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

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