Conservation Spotlight

Randy “Your Worst Nightmare” Serraglio

Southwest Conservation Advocate - Center For Biological Diversity - Tucson, Arizona

Kyle Ritland

Photo by Olivia Reda during the June 2019 Adventure Term “On the Border” expedition

Photo by Olivia Reda during the June 2019 Adventure Term “On the Border” expedition

Randy meets us as we're coming up the walkway toward the historic Owl’s Club building in Tucson, which has been the Center’s national headquarters since 2014. It’s hard to believe that all the noise, uproar, and combat that arises from the Center’s multiple outlets originates here— today the building is quiet, nearly a ghost town, as many of its staff are in the field. While we’ll later see Randy’s office (a tidy, totem-filled corner in the basement— what he did to warrant such a space is open for speculation), for now he leads us into a sun-lit conference room, overlooking the street through a floor-to-ceiling window, and allows us to attach a lapel mic to his shirt as we arrange the framing of our cameras. 

We’ve come to Tucson with an audacious goal, which we hope to accomplish through an under-utilized means: to learn about the threats facing the Arizona Borderlands by hearing the stories of the advocates and scientists in the thick of the fight. There are five of us— my brother and myself (who, together, formed a non-profit as a vehicle for these stories) and three students, lured to the desert by the promise of first-hand experience in environmental storytelling. Of the six of us in the room, Randy is by far the most at-ease, ready to discuss what he cares about most, and as the interview begins, he comes alive.

“I’m not a scientist,” Randy says, his hands gesturing energetically as he speaks, “and I’m not an attorney.” He’s quick to dispel the formality of these roles, which together make up a large portion of the Center’s staff. He flashes a self-deprecating grin. “I’m really just a professional trouble-maker.”

The official term for this would be Campaigner— Randy works with the Center to connect with the public the science and the litigation for which the organization is so well-known.

“We realized a long time ago that winning lawsuits means nothing unless you’re also winning hearts and minds,” Randy says. 

This fits neatly with Randy’s own background. He started out canvassing in Seattle, hoping to bring a change to US foreign policy in Latin America. “I realized that I didn’t have to be some angry radical protester throwing stones from the shadows…” he explains. And looking back over the years, he pauses. “Although that is fun, and I’ve done plenty of that.”

Randy’s been with the Center for 12 years now, and has watched it grow— and, arguably, mature— as an organization. He tells stories of their younger days, when righteous anger overcame order. Now, his work stands as a functional hybrid of the two. “It’s still a very confrontational approach,” he says. “Which suits me. And it has to be. Because with an extinction crisis, it is an emergency, and the only way to stop it is to do something dramatic. So that’s what we do.”

What Randy does, specifically, is to try to communicate the importance of this region, and outline the threats which face it. And— at least for us— he does this very well.

“The Sky Islands region is a designated globally important biodiversity hotspot,” Randy explains. “And we are in this overlap zone , this mixing zone, geographically, where we have influences from the sub-tropics, the temperate regions, the Chihuahuan desert overlapping with the Sonoran desert, the great plains overlapping…”

The words spill forth at a rate revealing fluency— this is not a prepared recitation, but straightforward and unadulterated familiarity.

“We also have these incredible elevation gradients. You can drive from Mexico to Canada in half an hour by driving 25 miles up the side of this mountain. And every thousand feet there’s a different array of species.”

He turns to the window beside us, and gestures at the small native garden outside to make his point.

“There’s two-thousand species of bees in the Sonoran desert,” he says, marvel in his voice. “People don’t believe me when I say that. It really spun me out the first time I heard it, too.”

But Randy recognizes that not everyone has a passion for bees— he’s quick to dive in to the wide range of borderland species threatened by human development. He lists various examples of frogs, birds, and bugs, but when he reaches the mammals, his enthusiasm launches up a notch. He recognizes that more often, it takes a larger and more enigmatic species to capture public imagination, and transform it into a tool for conservation.

“We made El Jefe a rockstar,” Randy says. He’s referring to the 2016 video produced by the Center— about 40 seconds in total, stitched together from different trail cams— that was the first video of a Jaguar in the US to ever be released. “We did the media analysis and our best guess is 100 million people saw that video. Over the next few years in Tucson, we saw this echo of it.” He’s overtaken by a smile as he describes all the places he’s seen the Jaguar cropping up in popular culture— as an emblem for film festivals, as a character in parades, the list goes on. “It’s really soaked in to our identity here. When you see a reaction like that, you think: Hell yeah! People really are ready to live next to jaguars again. They love it.”

Whether people are ready or not is an important question, but unfortunately the more topical one is whether the environment itself is prepared for the return of creatures like the Jaguar. For many species— the Jaguar standing as simply one example— recovery depends entirely on source populations in Mexico. Any threat to connectivity within these populations— whether it be border wall construction, the Rosemont copper mine, or simply a rapidly developing human population— is also a threat to the species as a whole.

These threats are what Randy spends the majority of his time combatting. He describes the border wall as ideologically “the most misunderstood political issue in this country,” the result of years of misinformation, driven by xenophobia, racism, and bigotry, and recognizes it tangibly as “a landscape-scale disruption of normal wildlife movements and migrations”.

When we ask about the status of the Rosemont mine, his face hardens. “It’s the absolute wrong place for a copper mine to be. It would absolutely destroy connectivity, it would devastate thousands of acres of critical habitat for endangered species.”

In March of this year, the Army Corps of Engineers granted the mine its Clean Water Act permit, nearly seven years after the initial application. Shortly following this, the Forest Service gave the green light. These steps marked the final government approvals necessary for the mine— located in the same Santa Rita mountains that El Jefe calls home— but ground has not yet been broken, thanks in large part to the lawsuits filed by groups including the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Rosemont is locked in a death-match in the courts,” Randy says, his voice intentionally leveled, the effort apparent on his face. “And you can expect that we will never back down from that death-match. And I hope the company realizes that too. Because the sooner they realize that, the sooner they’ll get the fuck out of my mountains.”

He hopes that more public awareness of individuals like El Jefe in the Santa Ritas can continue to fuel the passion for conservation, and he carries this message with him to the next generation.

“I go and talk to the kids in school,” Randy says. “To fourth-graders, to sixth-graders, and show them pictures of owls and jaguars and snakes, and they love it.”

There’s a tradition now, when a new big cat is captured on video, to take the news to the schools, and have the children determine it a name. Arizona youth were the ones who christened El Jefe, as they did with Sombra of the Chiricahua mountains in 2016, and, most recently, Lil’ Jefe, an Ocelot caught on camera in the Huachucas. Randy, for one, has been repeatedly inspired by the excitement he sees from these trips.

“I think most people feel sad about our world dying,” he says. “And they don’t know what to do about it. But it’s always hopeful when they see something like that. It’s still alive… it’s not too late.”

This issue of “too late,” this hypothetical— though perhaps statistically probable— outcome is one that haunts many conservationists. We wonder if Randy, too, has lost sleep over the question.

And when we ask him about the future, about what he sees for these species and this region, he does take the question seriously. While most representatives of organizations like this might have a prepared response— one they’re used to unfolding for the media, something about the need for public support and monthly donations—, Randy takes the question personally. Suddenly, he’s no longer a professional trouble-maker, not even a conservation advocate. He’s just a man who’s spent more time in these Arizona mountains than most of us ever will, and who understands more deeply than we’d ever choose the very real possibility that, someday soon, it could all be gone.

“It’s on a knife’s edge,” he says softly, and takes a breath. “I mean…” He trails off and chuckles to himself, but there’s no humor in it. He’s turned to look out the picture window beside us, the one letting in the sun, the one looking out on the garden where, currently, several of the two-thousand species of bee hum about, pollinating these few blooming flowers which grow within the concrete confines of the city. In the long silence which follows, it feels as though he may be deciding how honest to be in this moment.

When he speaks again, his voice has tightened. “I think we don’t have very much time to figure this out.”

He allows this to sit for a moment, before continuing, trying, it seems, to put into words something he barely understands himself.

“We think we can keep whistling past the graveyard and somehow it’ll all fix itself. But that’s not true. It’s never been true. We have to do some work to fix it, and we have to find a will. A will to do that.”

Where to find that will is a question that might stand, to many, as one without an answer. To Randy, however, one solution at least is clear. It’s the kids— the same ones he talks to in the schools, who have learned to name the cats rather than kill them.

“They’re not gonna have to wait until they’re 25,” Randy says, a hopeful smile now returning to his face. “They’re gonna grow up thinking ‘Jaguars belong here. They rely on me to protect them, believe it or not, even though they’re this powerful, mystical creature.’ When you have internalized values like that… then you’re committed. They’re gonna have a completely different worldview. And that’s permanent change.”

He pauses, and looks beyond us, the witness to a vision we cannot see.

“Those kids I go and speak with…”

He’s looking now out at the classroom and the faces before him, their minds young but ready, their eyes open.

“I can look out at that classroom, and I can say…” He raises a finger, and points solidly, certainly, at someone only he can see. “That one right there… is gonna kick some ass…”

As we step back outside, into the desert heat— the afternoon monsoons which should have already begun are delayed this year, and for that reason the sun feels especially cruel— Randy points out to us what we missed upon our arrival: the ancient, ornate owl which stands as a sentry above the Center’s headquarters. A remnant from another time, perhaps, and a different world, or maybe instead a harbinger of what could return to this place, if it’s wanted, and if the way before it is made clear.