The Wonders and Rewards of Watershed Restoration

Recently, I returned to a field site to assist in efforts to complete a long-term riparian restoration project. The project took place on a private piece of land consisting of around 910 acres. That is not much land in the grand scheme of ecological conservation but it is enough to see the wonders and rewards of watershed restoration. And every bit of land that can be restored and preserved counts. It is this fact that has persuaded me to write about this particular project’s results.

The property’s boundary encompasses a stretch of a main creek. The creek sits within the Mimbres Valley of New Mexico, adjacent to the Gila National Forest. Driving up to one of the access points of the property, one can oversee the densely vegetated ravine as it sits relatively low within the valley-like setting. The main ravine is met with several side tributaries, many of which have experienced erosion from historic cattle grazing. The beauty of this project is that the owners have donated the land back to nature as part of a conservation easement and have retired it from all cattle use. Just FYI, conservation easement properties and cattle removal don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. However, on this particular easement there have been measures taken to make sure cattle do not wander into the area. Fencing keeps cattle out while remaining permeable to native wildlife.

When cattle are allowed to graze land within a southwest bioregion such as this one, a troubling cascade of effects take place that undermine the overall ecology of the land. These events overtime lead to an overall ecological instability that cannot be reversed if cattle grazing continues to persist. The only way land of this kind of overuse and abuse can recover is by removing cattle indefinitely. Then, only then, over time the land may heal. And efforts, such as the watershed restoration techniques implemented in this project can help nature to speed up that recovery process.

The first human-handed efforts to restoring this land were implemented in 2002. The efforts have been repeated periodically throughout the years until this project’s last mobilization this summer. The first time I worked at this site was in May 2018. While there, I was hired to construct natural watershed stabilizing structures throughout the entire watershed system. During my first visit to the property, I was overwhelmed by the results. Clearly, the land was healing! It was astonishing to see pools of water within areas of thick, healthy established native vegetation consisting of sedges and deer grass, and in the dry season of the desert southwest! The area had not received rain for months. And the monsoon season was still a couple months away. Viewing the area from above you might not have ever guessed there’d be healthy thriving pockets of wetlands hiding within this primarily dry, piñon-juniper laced property. I was on-board and excited at the prospect of contributing to this already amazing recovery!

The restoration techniques involved are indeed very effective and are ideal for land where erosion has occurred from grazing cattle. To be clear, I would not even consider “treating” a piece of land without first removing grazing cattle indefinitely. Otherwise restoration efforts will undoubtedly be undermined again and again, where an elementally functioning riparian system could not be achieved. Removing cattle indefinitely is the only way one can ensure full and lasting ecological recovery. Alternatively, returning cattle to treated land would never allow the land the amount of time needed to continue to improve, resulting in accumulated improvements in ecological health. When the culprit of this type of destruction in riparian areas removed (in this case, cattle), the land will heal itself after initial restoration efforts are in place and this healing will continue almost indefinitely.

In May 2018, our work resulted in approximately 300 additional erosion control structures, effectively “beefing” up previous efforts. This summer, we returned again for the projects final mobilization. This time we were working in and observing the area during the monsoon (rainy) season. As we made our assessments to determine the progress of previously implemented watershed structures, what we found was an area thriving with life!

Many of the previously constructed structures had successfully accumulated noticeable amounts of sediment. This has contributed to greater sub-surface and surface moisture retention as well as a greater density in native vegetation growth. Many of the pools of water were active with native aquatic life, including tadpoles, water boatmen bugs, mosses, black-neck gartnersnakes (Thamnophis cyrtopsis) and more. Signs of other wildlife in the area included Canyon Tree frogs (Hyla arenicolor), great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus) (pellets), black bear (Ursus americanus) (scat), deer and more. Newly established vegetation included most notably native deer grass, sedges and seasonal wildflowers including wild morning glory (Ipomoea sp.), wild onion (Allium rhizomatum), Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), verbena (Glandularia sp.), Birdbill Dayflower (Commelina dianthifolia), trailing four o’clocks, desert four o’clock (Mirabilis multiflora), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea sp.) and more. Additional note-worthy plants observed included newly established Narrow-leaf cottonwoods (Populus angustifolia) within the main channel and several young Fremont cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) within tributaries. The establishment of cottonwood is a sign of substantial subsurface moisture. At that is an awesome achievement!

Revisiting the site reveals that there is an overall greater ecological stability of the watershed. The amount of floral and faunal diversity present within this primarily piñon-juniper woodland, along with the presence of a stabilized watershed, proves that restoration efforts like these make significant positive impacts. The property now provides significant natural habitat for native plant and wildlife species as well as crucial water filtration resulting from greater sediment and vegetation concentrations. This contributes not only to onsite watershed health and stability, but to the Mimbres Valley watershed health as well.

It is difficult to express effectively the many intricacies of the actual work involved and the signs revealing restorative success, despite my excitement in wanting to do so, for now I will refrain from that attempt. What I can say is that this project has been perhaps one of the most rewarding sites I have ever worked. The reason is obvious: natural healing and restoration has been achieved.

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