One legal loophole might change everything.
Early one May morning, I escaped Tucson’s unrelenting grid and drove south through Pima County on Arizona’s state Route 83, into the heart of the Madrean Sky Islands, an almost mythical landscape of shadowy, isolated peaks where several biological zones overlap.
The blue-gray Whetstone Mountains marked the distant eastern horizon, the Patagonias loomed to the south, and to the immediate west rose the camelback ridgeline of the Santa Ritas. There, oaks and junipers stippled upper elevations, and rolling swells of grass blanketed low slopes.
A haven for wildlife and a balm for those seeking respite in nature, this region contains some of the rarest intact ecosystems and the highest-quality streams among the deserts of the Southwest, providing habitat for ocelots, jaguars, and a dozen other endangered species.
I parked just off a rutted dirt road in the Coronado National Forest and walked several miles through sagebrush, mesquite, and brightly colored wildflowers. I was looking for old mining claim stakes and signs of big cats but contented myself with vultures, mule deer, and rabbits.
Long before Spanish and American colonization, Native peoples prospected these mountains, leaving small scars on the hillsides. More than a century of grazing has helped woody shrubs displace grasslands, a process that climate change is exacerbating.