[This is a chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet to be published by Chelsea Green in October. See: http://www.chelseagreen.com/two-percent-solutions-for-the-planet]
Managing New Normals
Restoring land to health means trying to return it to something like normal ecological conditions. But what if the definition of normal changes in the meantime?
An ecosystem’s capacity to absorb a shock, such as a drought, flood, or forest fire, and then bounce back as quickly as possible is called resilience. Since it’s a critical part of ecosystem health, ecologists have made a big effort to understand what constitutes “normal” conditions in order to help a system be as resilient as possible, especially if the shock has been caused by humans, such as overgrazing by cattle. But what if a system’s definition of normal changes? What if a region’s annual precipitation dropped by half—and stayed there? Or when the rains did fall, they came as unusually large flood events or at the wrong time of year? What does resilience mean in this context?
It’s not an abstract question. Under climate change, scientists tell us, we’ll be experiencing all manner of new normals. For restoration purposes, this means we need to search the management toolbox for practices that go beyond short-term resilience and allow an ecosystem to endure long-term deviations from normal conditions.
What would those practices be? Mike Reardon has an idea.
Since the late 1990s, Reardon has used a wide variety of land restoration tools on his family’s 6500-acre Cañon Bonita Ranch, located in northeastern New Mexico. These tools include tree removal, brush clearing, prescribed fire, planned grazing, erosion control, riparian restoration, water harvesting, dam building, and ranch road repair—all in service of restoring ecological health to the land after decades of mismanagement by previous landowners. Reardon’s overall goal is to support a multitude of diverse wildlife on the property and his work has been highly effective in this regard. Today, however, he faces a new challenge: How do you maintain forward progress when prolonged drought limits the use of certain tools?
In 1997, an expert with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service told Reardon that there were “too many trees” on his ranch. This was news to Reardon, who lives in Albuquerque and readily admits to being a novice about land health when he began managing the ranch. Too many piñon and juniper trees, the expert said, meant a reduced amount of open, grassy habitat for wildlife. In the past, nature corrected this situation with periodic, lightning-sparked wildfires that would thin out the trees, allowing the land to bounce back with perennial grasses. However, a century of fire suppression by landowners and cooperating agencies across the region, coupled with poor livestock management, eventually eliminated the land’s grass cover, resulting in widespread tree encroachment.
To reverse this situation, Reardon focused first on reducing the density of piñon and juniper trees on the ranch. His original tools were handheld loppers and a chainsaw. Then came a spin trimmer, a front-end loader, and a Bobcat skid-steer. Next, Reardon hired a professional woodcutting crew from Mexico. To date, nearly three thousand acres have been cleared on the ranch, though some stands of trees were left for wildlife.
Next, during the years when grass (and rain) was abundant, Reardon alternated the use of two other tools to further reinvigorate the grasslands: prescribed fire and planned grazing. With the assistance of neighbors and fire experts, Reardon has completed two controlled burns, ten years apart, which effectively suppressed tree seedlings. Reardon also employed the tool of high-density, short-duration grazing by cattle during the vegetative dormant season (December through March). This “living fire” recycles old grass into cattle manure, which helps to build grass cover.
All three tools worked. Grass came back with a flourish, teaching Reardon an important lesson.
“I learned that bare ground was enemy number one,” Reardon said, “so I do everything I can to get grass to grow. And not just any grass, I want perennials and I want as much diversity as possible.”
The next job for the resilience toolbox was water. In order to create more surface water for wildlife to drink, as well as grow a year-round supply of nutritious food, twelve earthen dams and four metal tanks (with windmills) were repaired, modified, or constructed across the ranch. He also implemented a five-phase wetland and riparian restoration project that employed many of the innovative practices pioneered by specialists Bill Zeedyk and Craig Sponholtz.
They designed and implemented treatments for a two-mile stretch of Cañon Bonito Creek, which ran through the center of the ranch. Their goals were to decrease stream bank erosion and downcutting and to raise the water table. They also wanted to reconnect the creek to its floodplain in order to re-wet adjoining wet meadows and increase the amount of live water. They also hoped to increase forage species, including wetland vegetation, and increase cover for wildlife. There was even a plan to harvest water from ranch roads using a variety of techniques, including redesigned road crossings and water-harvesting rock structures in canyon side channels.
Reardon also implemented a detailed monitoring program on the ranch in order to see how changes were progressing. This included vegetation and bare-ground monitoring, moisture data collection, wildlife population surveys, and photographic documentation, including sixty photo points along Cañon Bonito creek alone.
The message of the monitoring data was clear: conditions were improving. Under Reardon’s management, the ranch progressed from a monoculture of blue grama grass to hosting a diversity of more than 55 different grass species. Dry springs began to flow again and wildlife populations shot up by a factor of ten. Despite a drying trend that began in 2002, deer, elk, and wild turkey populations continued to rise and things seemed to be returning to normal. It looked like Reardon had succeeded in rebuilding resilience on the ranch.
Except—the definition of normal was changing. The drought, for example, went on and on—and still goes on.
Today, year-round water in the Cañon Bonito creek is rare, though there is still a steady trickle in the spring area. A relict population of ponderosa pines is dying, along with piñon and juniper trees. Small populations of perennial grasses, previously restored, are now dying as well. And wildlife populations are in decline—wild turkey populations have dropped by 75 percent. As for the land management toolbox—persistent drought means that prescribed fire is off the table and grazing by cattle is limited to selected areas of the ranch.
Reardon has learned the hard way that getting “beyond resilience” is easier said than done.
On the good news front, there is still plenty of ground cover holding the soil in place, capturing “airmail topsoil,” as Reardon puts it, during local dust storms, as well as any raindrop that falls from the sky. The wetland and riparian restoration work have kept the ground moist where otherwise it might have gone dry. It also helps to dissipate the destructive forces of unusually big flood events, such as one the ranch endured on September 2013, when nearly five inches fell in a matter of hours. Thanks to all the vegetation that had grown along the stream banks, the effects of that flood were not nearly as devastating as they would have been otherwise.
Here’s a photo of the new normal of big flood events on the ranch:
For Reardon, the whole experience points to important lessons learned for the new normals of hotter, drier conditions and chaotic moisture events.
“Use your time effectively,” he said, “focus on sweet spots, have a plan, pull together a diverse group of supporters and professionals, be willing to listen and learn, trust the data, be willing to admit mistakes, be proactive, become land literate, and get ready for the next storm—dust, rain, snow, whatever Mother Nature brings. It will rain again!”
Sage words as we move deeper into the twenty-first century!
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