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An amateur rancher brings the wastelands of the Southwest back to life

By Kathy Dobie, Oprah.com
updated 9:46 AM EDT, Fri September 21, 2012
Valer Austin, a Manhattan society girl living on acres of desiccated, left-for-dead earth in the Southwest rolls up her sleeves and does the miraculous.
Valer Austin, a Manhattan society girl living on acres of desiccated, left-for-dead earth in the Southwest rolls up her sleeves and does the miraculous.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Valer Austin and her husband worked to rehydrate barren ranch land
  • Before tackling the desert, Austin was a New York City artist
  • The Austins used farming practices to turn back time in the dry desert

(CNN) -- The land was parched and cracked and scattered with stones, as if the clouds had rained rocks in this part of the world. Small, thorny mesquites dotted the landscape, their taproots tunneling far beneath the soil to suck whatever water lay there. Creosote bushes fanned out from their mounds of chalky dirt and arroyos twisted this way and that, like immense snakes gouging the earth. Some were 20, even 30 feet deep, their beds barren of vegetation, dry as a bone, but strewn colorfully with litter.

This was the terrain Valer Austin saw 13 years ago. She was 59 years old, and one can imagine her walking swiftly over the hard land, dressed in jeans, white button-down shirt, a bushwhacker hat cinched at the chin, puffs of dust, fine as talcum powder, rising with her footsteps; her scanning an arroyo, violet-blue eyes narrowed over the sharp cheekbones, noting the depth of the thing and then gazing out over the vast stretch of dry, red earth.

This was what was left of the San Bernardino ranch in Sonora, Mexico, after everything that could be taken from it had been taken, after all the previous owners, the ranchers and the farmers, had wrung it dry. Valer and her husband, Josiah, had just purchased the ranch, adding it to the several they already owned in the borderlands of Sonora and Arizona. None of these ranches were healthy and productive, though San Bernardino was the most degraded of them all. Just mesquite and rocks, rocks and mesquite.

"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.

The joke among people who know her is "don't ever take a walk with Valer."

At 72, petite but cowboy-lean, she will outpace and outlast you. You'd never imagine that she was born and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, like a "hothouse flower," as she has put it, the daughter of a Wall Street broker and a high-society lady. Valer attended an all-girls school, leaving for a yearlong tour of Europe when she turned 19, her suitcase filled with letters of introduction from her mother.

She spent far more time in museums than with her mother's friends, and when she returned home, she enrolled at the Art Students League of New York and began her life as a painter. To hear her and friends tell it, Valer reveled in city life, going to the theater and the galleries, swimming at the exclusive Colony Club on Park Avenue and tramping the streets in her splattered painter's clothes, seeming to know every hidden corner and always meeting the most fascinating people.

Nothing in her background prepared her for the work she would one day be doing in the borderlands. She learned French, not Spanish, after all, and played a mean game of tennis. But there was that tireless energy, the sense of adventure. There was the drive to do something meaningful. "Valer's not really attached to tangible things," a good friend says. "She's much more interested in ideas and accomplishing something."

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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.

Well, it will be a good vacation home, Valer thought. She didn't picture herself living there. But Josiah, a financial investor who was raised in rural Maryland, hated the city and was itching to leave. It took Valer longer to realize that the ranch was in such bad shape, they couldn't be absentee landowners. So they sold their New York townhouse and temporarily moved into a trailer on El Coronado.

"My husband grew up on a farm, so for him it was a natural progression," she says. "For me, I was just open to it. I thought, Well, I've been happy every place I've lived, why not try a new one?"

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!"

In Arizona, where the yearly average rainfall is only 13.6 inches (compared with 41.9 in New York), water came alive for Valer. It was the fount for every living thing—the leopard frog and the tobosa grass, the bobcat and the hognose snake. There was nothing subtle about the rain here; it came down in sheets during the summer monsoons and then disappeared for months at a time. During one torrential downpour you could get a seventh of your yearly rainfall.

A couple hundred years ago, those storms would replenish the creeks and rivers, seeping into the soil, feeding the grasses and trees, making pools for wildlife. But by the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of cattle were moved into the borderlands; they ate the grasses down to the ground. Forests were heavily harvested for mining operations. Marshes were drained for farming. Fire, that great regenerator of grasslands and woods, was suppressed. At the end of the 19th century, drought hit the area like a blow to an already rickety body.

Once the land was denuded and sucked dry, rain ceased to replenish. When the monsoons came, water cascaded from the surrounding mountains and hillsides; with no vegetation to slow it down, it flew faster and faster, sweeping away rocks and brush and topsoil with it, scouring the earth, carving ever deeper canyons, ever stonier, until it created a funnel through which it raced, rushing off and away, leaving nothing behind—no rich silt, no woody debris, no water.

After each rain, the land became drier, more desertlike; the soil turned to rock, plants and trees were left high and dry on the rims of canyons, thirsty animals and migrating birds were driven onward...Some to extinction in that part of the world.

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The first step toward restoring the land was an obvious one. There would be no more overgrazing on El Coronado. Josiah moved the cows around the ranch during the growing season and later to other ranches they bought, allowing them to graze El Coronado only in the winter months. But the next part of the solution occurred by accident. Josiah was looking for a way to keep the water from pouring across a section of the road at El Coronado, so he decided to build a couple of small rock dams, called trincheras. It didn't take long before he noticed that silt was building up at the backside of each trinchera. A while later, grasses were growing there. And then there were puddles that stayed. Murky pools gleaming darkly, long into the dry season.

He and Valer began to think about the mechanism of these little dams. If you could slow down the water, it would no longer cut into the land. The water would linger, dropping silt, and the silt—rich with nutrients—would generate vegetation. Then the vegetation itself would work to temper the water's force.

So the Austins began their experiment. They found a group of men from a village in Central Mexico whose forefathers had been building rock dams for hundreds of years. This crew taught the Austins how it was done. They began way up in the Chiricahua Mountains, working their way down. They also built bigger dams called gabions, which involved putting the rocks in wire cages first and then attaching the cages to each other. Unlike large, water-holding dams that wreak havoc on the ecosystem by turning flowing rivers into placid reservoirs and actually increasing erosion downstream, trincheras and gabions allow the water to continue to flow, only at a slower rate.

"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.

While scientists make good use of the Austin ranches for research, they're also close advisers to the couple. It was the late ichthyologist W.L. Minckley who convinced them to reintroduce certain rare and endangered fish to West Turkey Creek, like the Yaqui chub, a small, silvery minnow that had been collected from the creek by a government biologist in 1895 but had since disappeared. Explaining how a New Yorker who never noticed weather became a harvester of rain, Valer says, "I was converted by this little fish."

Walt Anderson, one of the biologists who has worked with the Austins, calls what they did at El Coronado a "remarkable demonstration"—an experiment that could be replicated. "I watched that landscape change from rockland habitat to robin and frog and turtle habitat. They showed it right there that you could convert what looks to be arid landscapes into lush landscapes." In other words, you could bring land back from the dead.

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Traveling south toward the border, Valer is in a typically chipper mood. She loves Mexico, and shortly after moving to El Coronado, she taught herself Spanish. Most of the Austin land is in Mexico, which is primarily her domain. "I don't know how Valer has the energy to continue to do it," Josiah says. "Driving down there two, three, four times a week. The people love her and have a lot of respect for her and she will work just as hard as any of those guys. It will be 105 out there and blowing dust and she's working right next to them, planting grasses, pulling weeds."

On their various Sonoran ranches, Valer surveys the land on horseback with her foreman, Francisco Somoza. They discuss possible sites for gabions; they argue, pleasantly. Valer has traveled down to the village where most of her workers come from. When they told her they had stopped building trincheras there because all the young people had to leave to find work elsewhere, Valer got the Mexican government involved with the Austins' foundation, Cuenca Los Ojos, in a program to pay young people to stay on the land and restore it.

We arrive at Las Anitas, one of their four Sonoran ranches, where members of Naturalia, a leading Mexican environmental group, are conducting a hands-on workshop for a dozen local ranchers on how to calculate their mule deer population by noting tracks and scat. An older rancher wearing a white Stetson shows Valer some photos on his cell phone of the trincheras he has built, but what he's most proud of are his pictures of woodpeckers' nests. As he brought water back to his land and the vegetation bloomed, the birds have followed. It's clear that these woodpeckers are his woodpeckers.

Valer tells me of another rancher who has jaguars on his property. Typically, cattle ranchers shoot them on sight, but this man is so proud of the jaguars that he has named them after his children. "So they're getting it, they see cause and effect," Valer says. "They're getting excited about it and they're becoming naturalists."

That afternoon, under a blue, cloud-brushed sky, the group carefully trolls the desert land, stepping through rings of creosote bushes, circling round prickly pear cacti, cowboy boots and sneakers scuffing the dry earth. A shout goes up. Two sets of scat have been found—from an adult female deer and her baby, it appears. Purple verbena dots the landscape. Roadrunner tracks shaped like an X. A fox's paw prints. The field trip ends with the discovery of "la casa de ciervo mulo," the house of the mule deer: a large mesquite shrub, six or seven feet high, hollowed out inside, shaded from the desert sun, the ground matted by hooves and warm bodies.

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From Laz Anitas we drive east. Valer has said we're going to see the prettiest land first, the Los Ojos ranch, which is located in Cajon Bonito. And then the ugliest, San Bernardino, on the U.S. Border. "If you can turn that around, you can turn anything around," Valer says.

We pass miles of scrubby desert landscape, pink mountains looming ahead, stubbled with blackened pines and oaks from the huge fires that raged through the borderlands in May 2011. Almost everything I'm looking at belongs to the Austins, and they have taken steps to ensure it will never be divided up and sold off after they are gone. As Josiah put it, "I want to protect the lands for future generations and against future generations."

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.

At a Los Ojos ranch house tucked into a deep canyon, Gould's turkeys strut across the lawn, their long backs glossy with white and chocolate-colored feathers, their red wattles hanging to the ground. Nine years ago, the Austins were part of an effort to reintroduce the breed to the Chiricahua Mountains. The couple are also helping to bring back Coues white-tailed deer and are hoping to do the same for the desert bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, animals that once thrived in this part of northern Mexico but haven't been seen in decades.

Valer, photographer Keith Shallcross, and I hike along a creek that winds lazily through a ravine, twisting around stands of sycamore and cottonwood and islands of silt. Keith, a tall, soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humor, is a photo-trapper, and he has set up cameras throughout the Austins' Mexican properties to document the wildlife there. This morning we're hiking out to one of his cameras so he can change the memory card.

A half inch of winter rain earlier in the week sent water coursing down this canyon and now huge piles of brush are pushed up against stands of trees. They're nature-made dams, the kind beavers might build—another species Valer is hoping will one day return to the area. "Without these trees here, the floods would've scoured everything right down to the rock." We wade through the creek, the water cold and burbling, Valer in a calf-length dungaree skirt, ankle socks and sneakers. When she first left New York, her friends were sure she would miss the whirl and clamor of the big city and soon return. "I've never been bored a single day here," she says.

In these waters, there are nine species of fish, including one of the last Yaqui catfish populations in Sonora; the Mexican government is considering Los Ojos for a national fish preserve. Two types of native leopard frogs live here that are threatened elsewhere. A green, fleshy grass called equisetum has anchored itself into the soil and the water slides gently through the strands. When the Austins bought Los Ojos, this lush waterway was a dry, rocky wash, so deeply incised that buses used it for a road.

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Alongside the creek, we find bobcat tracks, and later Keith will send me a photo of the exact cat that made them, caught with a foot lifted in the air as it padded by the camera one night in its soft, spotted cat's pajamas. Imprinted in a patch of moist sand are the two-pronged hoof prints of Coues white-tailed deer and a scrim of coati tracks that look like they were made by children's feet. As we watch, a gang of racoonlike coatis scramble up the red rock face of the cliffs ranging along one side of the canyon. Their small, reddish brown bodies end in long, barely credible tails, like exclamation points.

The motion-activated camera is set at the base of a cedar tree. A few feet away, Keith has doused a rock in Calvin Klein Obsession because animals will pause to sniff the new scent, ensuring a less blurry photo. The Obsession-drenched rock has made for some interesting shots: a dozen or so coatis mobbing it, some rolling on the ground and tumbling over each other; a hog-nosed skunk stretching luxuriously alongside it in amorous expectation; two black bears nuzzling and then, in a second shot, having sex. (Keith will caption that picture "Obsession really works.")

After he pulls the memory card from the camera, we hike to a waterfall and a huge bat cave. The water drops down over rock ledges and trickles through strands of maidenhair fern, making tinkling notes as it falls.

We climb up out of the Cajon Bonito on our way to the San Bernardino ranch, Keith at the wheel of Valer's truck. Giant foothills rise into view, their reddish rock crumpled and folded, cloaked in green upslope and farther down in billowing clouds of dry grasses, glimmering in the sun. Below, a snaking line of treetops marks the creek.

"Isn't that beautiful?" Valer asks. "That's the canyon where we were hiking."

As Keith drives, they never stop checking the landscape, though one wrong turn of the steering wheel could send us plunging into the canyon. "Now this is a possible area where we could raise bighorn sheep," Valer says, looking out over a hillside where slices of rock cling like lichen. "But I have to be quite convinced they will survive."

She points way up in the mountains to where Keith will hike tomorrow to install another camera, some of the wildest country she owns.

"I'd like to get you back there," he tells Valer, explaining that last year's fire and runoff destroyed a spring. "Bears would go in there and swim in the summertime. I think it would be a good place to put a small gabion."

Valer puts restoring the bears' swimming hole at the top of her to-do list.

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After leaving Los Ojos, we head west on Route 2, a two-lane highway slated to become four. This will disrupt the migratory corridor much the same way that the U.S. Border fence has—animals mill near the fence trying to figure out a way to reach their watering holes or breeding grounds or winter food sources on the other side—so Valer and Keith are scanning the area for the right site to put in an animal overpass. Valer is hopeful that the Mexican government will invest in the project.

Forty-five minutes later, we're driving on to the "ugliest" and potentially the most valuable of the Austin properties. San Bernardino was once that rarest of ecosystems: a desert wetland—an essential rest stop and watering hole for migrating birds and animals. Since 1900 half of the world's wetlands have been lost, but in the Sonoran Desert more than 90 percent of these oases are gone. In the mid-1800s, this wetland covered thousands of acres. By 1984 it had shrunk to 52.

Valer's truck bounces and rattles on the cementlike earth, kicking up dust. Tiny birds dart through the mesquite, chittering.

Dam-building was a much more difficult task here than on their other ranches. At San Bernardino, the Austins have no access to the water source up in the mountains. They own the bottomland, and during the rainy season the water thunders through here hard and fast. Again and again, the gabions they built were blown out and they had to start over, building them bigger and anchoring them into the ground. They even hired an architect to build one giant concrete dam and spillway.

"With this dam here, I backed water up all the way into the United States," Valer says, standing at the edge of the huge dam, now winter-dry except for some stranded pools. "I also backed up silt. Over half a mile." For her trouble she was threatened with a quarter-million-dollar fine by Homeland Security. In its rush to construct the border fence, a road was laid through a dry streambed, but Valer's dam caused the stream to run again, flooding the road. The fine is a sore spot with Valer. But as we survey the silt-raised riverbed beyond the dam, the grasses and sedges and the newly grown trees, all evidence of dogged determination paying off, Valer says she can breathe a little easier. "The first couple of years I was pretty nervous because there was an off chance I could've blown out Route 2," she says with a laugh. "I was sweating! Josiah told me he'd see me in jail."

Now many of those massive gabions are buried under silt and covered with vegetation. Recent measurements of the wetlands show they've expanded from 52 acres to 88, thanks in part to the Austins' land management and in part to the restoration work done by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on a refuge located directly across the border. Bird numbers are rebounding—they are often the first to repopulate an area because they don't have to walk or crawl to get there. Some birds that travel immense distances—from Alaska and Canada to Argentina and Chile—are showing up at San Bernardino, using it as a rest and refueling stop.

More than 500 species of native bees have been found in this valley, the highest concentrations anywhere on Earth. As honeybees worldwide disappear at an alarming rate due to colony collapse disorder, a condition that causes them to desert their hives, these native pollinators are thriving, and bee scientist Robert Minckley (son of the famed ichthyologist) is studying them while staying at the Austins' ranch house on San Bernardino.

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Of course, this valley will never be what it once was—thousands of acres of wetland oasis. Too much land on both sides of the border has been sold off in small plots for housing, roads, golf courses, and malls, or drained for farming. The widening of Route 2 moves inexorably forward. Traffic along the border patrol road has deposited invasive weeds that threaten to wipe out the emerging grasslands yet again.

The Austins' aim is not to resurrect a past landscape but to create a variety of habitats, so as many native species as possible can benefit. A Garden of Eden, in miniature. As Bill Radke, the manager of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge across the border, puts it, "Variety is the spice of life, they say. But it is life, you know, in a place like this."

Valer and I head back across the border to El Coronado. "We cannot continue to take forever," she says. "There's a point at which we are going to kill ourselves, and in many ways we've already reached that point. But we can turn it around. That's what we're showing—we can turn it around."

While she and Josiah have sunk millions of their own money into their work, that well isn't bottomless. As the Earth grows hotter, what the Austins would like to see happen is governments worldwide investing in this low-tech solution. Given all they've managed to accomplish, this doesn't seem like such a far-fetched idea.

"Part of what motivates Valer is someone telling her she can't do it," says her friend the ecologist Ron Pulliam. "To look at a place like San Bernardino and imagine a lush riparian forest, streams flowing year-round, a major stopover point for wildlife, it takes some imagination, it takes some gall to think that you can do something like that."

Of course, you don't have to spend too much time with Valer before you realize that imagination is in itself a kind of energy. It thrusts ever forward, drinking from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope.

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...."

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