This story is amazing, and it shows what just a few people can do to really make the world a better place:
"See the water there?" Valer and I are driving through El Coronado, the first ranch that she and Josiah bought, on a lark, 31 years ago. We climb out of her truck to look at a meandering stream. Cottonwood, white-barked sycamore, and juniper line the banks. As we drive on, we see fields of native grasses, a sunshiny yellow now in midwinter. "None of this was here when we first came," Valer says, her voice as light and emphatic as a girl's. The face she turns to me is small and delicate, almost pixieish; her eyes are brightly lit. "There was no water. None!" But that was before she and her husband took on the immense project of bringing water back to these desecrated landscapes.
...When Valer first saw El Coronado, she asked Josiah, "What do the cows eat, rocks?" The land had been grazed so relentlessly that the grasses were depleted, the creeks were dry most of the year and deeply eroded, the soil powdery and parched. The two had come down to Arizona on a vacation. A friend suggested they make an offer on this mountain ranch. They bid low because they weren't really serious, but the owner accepted and suddenly they were in possession of a 1,920-acre spread in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona.
...She knew nothing about science or biology, not a whit about water tables or soil composition, when she and Josiah arrived at El Coronado. "I came from New York. I knew cement!" she exclaims. "You don't even know when it's raining in New York, really. You can't get a taxi—that's it!"
..."We did thousands of these dams! We stopped counting at 20,000," Valer says. She pauses for a moment, her eyes fixed brightly on mine, to let that fact sink in. "You know like a little ant does something? We just kept on doing it." They planted willows and cottonwoods, though many of these trees came back on their own. They seeded native grass and the grass reseeded itself.
Today, in the middle of an ongoing drought across the Southwest, West Turkey Creek is flowing. Scientists come from all over to study the flora and fauna on El Coronado. A group of researchers from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory are staying at the ranch while they count birds. A 20-plus-year study on Sonoran mud turtles is being conducted here. Every spring the Austins host a hummingbird banding project.
...All the Austin properties lie within the Madrean Archipelago, one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. This is where the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts meet. The temperate zone flows into the subtropical, and flora and fauna from mountains, grassland, and desert mingle. The Madrean Archipelago harbors over half the bird species of North America, more mammals than any other place in the United States, and over 3,000 species of plants, some found nowhere else on Earth. And yet that biodiversity is under siege. At least 70 percent of the vegetation has already disappeared and many of the animals found here, including the jaguar, the ocelot, and the Mexican spotted owl, are threatened or endangered.
...When the Horseshoe Two fire swept the Chiricahuas in the spring and early summer of last year, burning 223,000 acres, the animals made their way down the mountain flanks to El Coronado. "It was like Noah's ark here!" Valer exclaims. She rode the ranch on horseback, leaving bags of dog food for the bears. An injured bobcat slunk into their doghouse to die. Valer put water and mounds of cat food outside. Eventually, the big cat healed and took off.
"The animals came down because we had water," Valer says. "We had places where there were ponds. The only green that didn't burn was right along the river. I'll take you up there and show you that spot. We'll walk around here. How much do you walk? We can go up into the hills...."