The American West: home of the biggest skies, deepest canyons and widest open spaces — a place big enough to accommodate the dreams of even the biggest dreamers. But its grandeur does not exempt it from challenges. The landscapes here have faced many threats over the years, from overgrazing of the land and overharvesting of the trees, to dwindling wildlife populations and off-road vehicle abuse.
For a quarter of a century, nonprofit WildEarth Guardians has taken on these challenges, working toward their mission to protect and restore wild places, wild rivers and wildlife in the American West.
It all started in 1989 on Elk Mountain in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. WildEarth Guardians, then known as Forest Guardians, began as an effort to stop a logging project there. Since then, they have halted logging on more than 21 million acres of national forests throughout the West.
Even as they have expanded their work throughout the West, they have never stopped working in New Mexico. Says Restoration Director Jim Matison, “Whether it’s the Chihuahuan Desert, Colorado Plateau, Rio Grande Valley, southwestern plains grasslands, pinyon and juniper, ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, subalpine or alpine forests, all of these ecosystems are important to protect for future generations of the American public as well as wildlife.” They still work in the Jemez Mountains, which is where American Forests has partnered with them since 2010 on another cause that has been part of WildEarth Guardians’ vision since the beginning: recovering lands from overgrazing.
“In the early years,” says Matison, “WildEarth Guardians mostly fenced sensitive riparian habitat to protect it from livestock and elk grazing pressure. Now, WildEarth Guardians is actively grazing permittees to buy grazing allotments and permanently retire them from livestock grazing where resource challenges are insurmountable.”
And they’re having success. In 2014, WildEarth Guardians completed a grazing permit buyout, retiring 90,000 acres in the Gila National Forest from livestock grazing. This victory, Matison says, will “protect watersheds and endangered species including the Gila trout.”
Yet no victory is ever the end. What does the future have in store for WildEarth Guardians? Says Matison, “We hope to bring our forest restoration work to Utah and Colorado in the near future and we have already been actively restoring watersheds in Montana and Idaho.” They are developing new projects to meet the needs of the area as well, including “returning beaver populations to watersheds where they have been extirpated and their native food source depleted. By reestablishing native riparian forests and vegetation, we hope to bring back beaver and cost efficiently build resilience into western watersheds.”
Here’s to the next 25 years of protecting wild places in the West.