Saving the soil: Land owners join forces to protect soil, restore grasslands
Restoring the southeast New Mexican desert would require replacing invasive bushes such as salt cedar or creosote with vast expanses of native grass.
But it starts with the soil.
In southern Eddy County that meant introducing the herbicide tebuthiuron to hundreds of acres of soil on multiple ranches near Carlsbad, killing mesquite and salt cedars to make room for native grass.
Lisa Ogden, who ranches on several portions of Big Hackberry Ranch south of Carlsbad, said the last treatment on her ranch was in 2015.
And the grass has already begun to recover.
“You can see remarkably what benefit the tebuthiuron has had,” she said. “You can see the effect these woody plants have on the soil, and the benefit of getting rid of them.”
The New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts (NMACD) joined the fight in 2005, through its Restore New Mexico program, continuously raising funds and educating local ranchers on conservation measures that could ensure the land is useable for generations to come.
Ogden said the organization’s partnership with local landowners is invaluable in finding viable solutions to the area’s threatened rangelands, while also identifying areas in need.
“They looked at the landscape, and the watershed. Everything’s been treated,” she said. “It’s very evident.”
NMACD Project Manager Jesse Juen said treating the soil and restoring the native plants benefits the overall environment by allowing vegetation to capture more water during the rare rainfall, and conservation efforts are intended to address the individual needs of desert ranchers.
“We’re looking at how landowners are doing, especially in a drought-dominated area,” he said. “And this is drought-dominated areas.”
Protect the dirt; save the plants
About 90 percent of New Mexico is suffering from drought conditions, Juen said, the highest rate in the country.
That makes it especially important for ranchers like Fred Beard, whose property neighbors Ogden’s, to keep track of the soil and the plants’ ability to contain water.
Ranchers need to ensure enough vegetation grows on their land, to feed grazing livestock such as cattle.
“I’m always anxious to learn what I can about improving soil quality,” he said. “Healthier brush means a better soil.”
To better promote the needs of landowners across New Mexico, and to highlight conservation efforts, the Western Landowners Alliance formed about five years ago, comprising of government agencies, scientists and local farmers and ranchers.
The organization hosted a tour, Thursday, of Big Hackberry Ranch and other nearby range lands in southern Eddy County to show the impact herbicides can have on eradicating invasive bush and increasing soil quality.
“If you manage the land well, there’s no reason to list a bunch of species,” Juen said. “We believe the ranchers and landowners are the best at managing the land.”
He stressed the importance of ongoing monitoring and maintenance following a treatment, a feat made possible by partnering with the landowners themselves.
“Just because you spray it doesn’t mean that’s it,” Juen said. “There has to be a mechanism to maintain it.”
If fully restored, native grasses could continue to thrive for decades without any needed reseeding, he said, if the soil is saved.
“That seed is not going anywhere,” Juen said. “But you will lose your seed if you lose your top soil.”
Maintaining 'the factory'
Ranchers could lose their soil without the proper vegetation, said Brenda Simpson, state rangeland management specialist with the New Mexico’s Natural Resource Conservation Service — an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
She said native plants exude carbon-based sugars into the soil during photosynthesis, adding nutrients to the soil and causing greater vegetative diversity.
That high diversity, Simpson said, allows the plants to capture more rainwater, reducing runoff.
“A lot of that sugar is being translocated to the roots for storage,” she said. “Some of it is stored at the top of the plant. It enriches the soil with nutrients other animals and plants can feed on. Where we see more plants, there’s more carbon in the soil.
“The better you take care of your plants, the more nutrients they are releasing and the healthier your soil.”
Overgrazing can stymie such growth, she said.
For ranchers to ensure healthy soil and adequate vegetation, Simpson said they need to properly manage the vegetation.
“The heavy hitter in this is plants,” she said. “That’s what you can control. You can’t choose your soil, it’s given to you when you buy the land. And you can’t make the heavens bring rain.”
By using rotational grazing, Simpson said ranchers could ensure the health of the soil, thus the plants and their future availability to livestock.
“Every time a plant gets grazed, it has to pull those nutrients up from the soil,” she said. “You better let it rest. You’ll get to a point where you’ll shut the factory down. Once you shut down the factory, it’s not too long before that plant will die out of the community.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.