Aaron Mrotek talks with guests at the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve open house held last month. Photo by Chuck Klingenstein

Aaron Mrotek, the recently hired manager at the Nature Conservancy Preserve on Blue Haven Road, holds an unusual distinction. He may be the only person you’ll ever meet who has lived and worked in both Patagonias – the real one here in southeastern Arizona and that other one you’ve heard about in Argentina. He has carried his passion for ecosystem restoration to both settings. 

It was not a path Mrotek could have predicted for himself. “I had never been west of Minneapolis until, as a favor to a relative, I drove a motorcycle from the Midwest to the California coast,” he said recently. By the time he arrived at his destination, he had felt the magic of the American West.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Mrotek (rhymes with “burrow tech” – accent on the second syllable) promptly gave up a budding marketing career and moved to Tucson. Then, with various outdoor work experiences and a master’s degree at Northern Arizona University in climate science under his belt, he enjoyed two far-flung work opportunities in the outdoors, in Argentina and Alaska. Upon his return, Mrotek landed a job as Preserve Steward at the Nature Conservancy’s 9,000-acre Aravaipa Canyon Preserve, northeast of Tucson.

For four years Mrotek worked to restore the riparian (stream-based) ecosystem in Aravaipa, where vinca, an invasive ground cover, had taken over hundreds of acres. Vinca is a very poor substitute for the native plants that are the bottom of the food chain for life in the Arizona desert. 

After encouraging results with that ongoing project, Aaron has set his sights on Johnson grass at the Sonoita Creek Preserve here in Patagonia. One of the top invasive species in North America, Johnson grass chokes out more nutritious native plants and harms the landscape’s ability to provide a healthy home for borderlands species.

Reducing Johnson grass is just one part of Mrotek’s job as manager of the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, a job he started this past August. He is enthusiastic about the specific goals the Nature Conservancy recently set for the Preserve: sustaining the freshwater creek for people and nature; improving land management to increase species protection; and cultivating strategic partnerships to address the pressing issues of the region.

“My overall goal is that everything we do here benefits the Sonoita Creek area’s environmental heritage,” said Mrotek. “This landscape is the most biodiverse desert in the world and it is fitting that there are multiple environmental organizations who make their homes here. I am excited to have so many partners in this work. Each of us has our own focus, but our goal of a healthy ecosystem is the same.”

Damian Rawoot, the Nature Conservancy’s Arizona Land and Water Protection Manager, is excited that Mrotek will be working to further expand the partnerships the Conservancy has already developed with organizations such as Borderlands Restoration Network, Borderlands Wildlife Preserve, and Tucson Audubon Society. 

“Some of the most innovative work in conservation is being done in this area,” said Rawoot. “And we not only are working partners; together we have broadened the wildlife corridor [so that] native species like the jaguar and black bear can travel safely.”

Rawoot sees engagement with South32 to be key. “We have not involved ourselves in mining issues in the past locally, but now we are pulled into the fold, because we own this land that is impacted by what happens upstream,” he said. “As part of the community, we should engage in these issues.”

At an October open house where he served homemade chili and cornbread to a crowd of 40 or so, Mrotek invited the community to join with TNC’s work at the Preserve. 

“My first step is connecting with this lovely little town,” he said at the gathering. “I hope to enhance the local feeling of pride in, and enjoyment of, the Preserve for the area residents. Going forward, I will have many restoration and preserve stewardship projects that I will need volunteer support for in order to scale up to increase our impact. The work ahead is too large for any one person to do it alone. But with many hands, we can create profound change for the benefit of this unique and diverse region of the world we call home.”

Bob Proctor, who attended the open house, was enthusiastic about the Nature Conservancy’s plans. Proctor is President of the Friends of Sonoita Creek, a member of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, and a member of the Town of Patagonia Flood and Flow Committee, all of which feature prominently in the constellation of local conservation groups. 

“Aaron’s energy and youth, and his plans for the Preserve, will benefit the entire community,” said Proctor. “Water, invasive plants, and erosion – there’s big work to be done.” 

The Nature Conservancy’s Rawoot notes the bigger picture. “We knew that the Patagonia section of Sonoita Creek was a really important place when The Nature Conservancy established our first preserve in the state of Arizona here in 1964,” he said. “Over half a century later, climate change, habitat loss and the resurgence of mining have converged to make our presence here extremely relevant. Suddenly, Patagonia feels like it’s in the middle of everything.”

Contact Manager Aaron Mrotek at aaron.mrotek@tnc.org regarding volunteering opportunities.