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When the word "riparian" became a buzz word I had no idea what people were referring to. After I looked it up I was still pretty much in the dark, until it finally dawned on me that I was actually bringing back a "riparian area" here on Carrizo Valley Ranch without knowing it had a sophisticated name.
I had become aware that something was drastically wrong with this ranch (I could have used the word "ecosystem" here, but I didn't know what that meant either). The canyons and draws had straight cut sides with nothing in the bottom but boulders. When it rained you could almost walk on the run-off because it carried so much silt. It didn't take a lot of scientific research to come to the conclusion that something upstream was terribly wrong.
I began to notice how young and close together the pion, juniper and ponderosa trees were and how little herbaceous growth occurred under them to hold the soil. Sheet erosion was moving a lot of that top soil and accelerating water flow. Gullies were prominent and all of this led to scoured out canyons and draws at the lower elevations of the watershed.
I knew this was not the way the "ecosystem" should function. What was it like before settlement? Why did a thundershower turn these canyons and draws into a rock-rolling torrent of muddy water? Like most newcomers to New Mexico, I thought those pion-juniper thickets belonged here. How could they be the cause of this silt laden run-off? I thought trees stopped erosion. Was Carrizo Canyon actually at one time a meandering stream and riparian area?
The answer came one day when I was looking at some 500-year-old petroglyphs nearby. Among the rain gods, deer and turkey, were fish and beaver chiseled into the rock. How could fish live in this environment and what self-respecting beaver would try to build a dam with cactus and alligator juniper? After perusing some 1880 surveyor's notes that indicated open grassland where now there was a solid canopy of invading trees, I came to the conclusion that something had to be done and quickly.
A little historical research made me aware of the number of livestock that had used this country, not only after the Civil War, but as far back as 1590 when the Spanish introduced sheep, cattle and goats into the Southwest. The large increase in cattle numbers came after 1870. At that time we had 4.5 million head in the 17 western states. By 1884 the cattle population had exploded to 47 million. Yearlong grazing by these excessive numbers followed by increasingly efficient fire suppression had provided optimum conditions for pion, juniper, ponderosa and sagebrush, etc. These plants were not only out-competing the grass, but were demanding so much more water that the aquifers were no longer producing permanent water flow that could sustain riparian conditions.
I guess you could call what began here on Carrizo Valley Ranch over 30 years ago, "watershed restoration." Our initial move was to attack the water hungry invaders that were causing the problem. Once the brush had been thinned to pre-settlement levels and a grass cover re-established, run-off was reduced to the point that I could now concentrate on healing the scoured out canyons and draws. If beaver and fish had lived there before, what should I do to rehabilitate these areas now that the watershed was becoming more productive? I decided since livestock are a lot like people--when it's hot and dry, or just dry, they like to stay around a cool place where there's something appetizing to eat and plenty to drink--perhaps I needed to change their grazing patterns.
I had noticed that the lower part of the ranch where I had deferred grazing during the summers had begun to grow vegetation and collect silt in the canyon bottoms. It was about that time that the word "riparian" began to appear in articles about public land grazing and in conservation magazines.
These areas that were rested during most of the growing season and grazed during the dormant season were responding much more rapidly than I believed possible. Now that the watershed was functioning properly I had water even in the driest part of the summer. It supported all the new vegetation that was becoming established in what was now an authentic riparian zone. Forage production was so much greater there than anywhere else on the ranch that I decided to improve on that situation anywhere I could. There were some areas that could be deferred only by fencing. Once I bit the bullet and built the fences, the response was, again, much greater than I expected.
There are many side benefits to a sustainable riparian area--one being the elimination of chopping ice from the water troughs during cold weather. Now there is a running stream where before a dry, scoured out canyon existed. During the snowstorms of late December here in Lincoln County, it would have been very difficult to provide water to my cattle for several days had I not had ice-free running water in my riparian areas. In addition to a dependable water supply, willows and other riparian vegetation provide feed for livestock and wildlife even in deep snow. Growth and reproduction of these plants are stimulated by grazing or browsing during the dormant season.
I have been rewarded both esthetically and financially for riparian rehabilitation. Intermittent ponds in the riparian area have fish and waterfowl and attract wildlife to the point that sometimes I wonder if I am going to have to exclude them also. So far no excessive damage has occurred and my family and I enjoy the view as well as the income from fee-hunting.
Thanks to biologist Allan Savory and his insight into range ecology, I was able to develop upon short duration grazing (SDG) after returning from Kenya and Zimbabwe in the late '60s. SDG and pion-juniper control have been the backbone of my management here on Carrizo Valley Ranch since that time. Using these management tools and a large helping of prescribed fire, the watershed above the Carrizo riparian area has been returned to pre-settlement vegetation (savanna and open woodland). Without this essential watershed rehabilitation and maintenance the riparian area below would not be sustainable in years of sparse precipitation.
Now, with the environmental community so over-focused on the less than three percent of our rangeland that is classified as riparian, I try to convey the broader aspect of the entire ecosystem and say to them, "No, no...it's the watershed, stupid!"
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Sid Goodloe owns Carrizo Valley Ranch in New Mexico. This article was first published by the Quivira Coalition, Spring 1998.