Each day, our natural and built environments are changing. In many places throughout northern New Mexico, landscapes are aging, losing their productivity, failing to heal damaged soils and plant communities and no longer serving our needs. Due to the increasing extremes of weather, ecological processes and dwindling funds to support proper stewardship, many places show signs of extreme runoff and flood events, accelerated soil erosion, reduced productivity, many invasive exotic plant species, intense wildfire and death and disappearance of wildlife.
Degraded landscapes that become marginally productive are abandoned and repurposed, often for residential, industrial, or mineral-extraction uses. Statistics show that, until recently, thousands of acres per year have thus been converted (see sidebar).
In the last few decades, land trusts and ecological conservation organizations have successfully protected hundreds of thousands of acres statewide, with a recent positive net effect on the preservation of farmland. However, land-protection strategies are not always bringing degraded landscapes back to life. In many cases, we will also need to rehabilitate diverse ecological patterns and restore human connections to the land to ensure that we grow the qualities of new, living landscapes. Landscape renewal through conservation is, therefore, now more important than ever.
What Is Landscape Renewal?
Landscape is much more than just land. In simple terms, “landscape” is what we experience around us and see with our eyes: water, soil, plants, animals, roads, buildings, power lines and all other animate and inanimate components of the land in their mutual relationships and in their meaning to us. In that sense, landscape, on the one hand, is a weaving and layering of ecological and functional relationships and, on the other, of the human stories and values for everything we see on the land.
We see how some landscapes are degrading and fading, while others are thriving and resilient. The difference between them depends largely on how the constituent parts of the landscape connect with each other and tell stories that are meaningful to us. The science of landscape ecology has taught us that it is through maintaining ecological connections that we can keep landscapes resilient against the vagaries of weather and land-use practices. Indigenous knowledge has taught us that it is through human connections to the land that we can take care of it and maintain meaning and stories about a place.
For at least the last 40 years, in response to the rapid loss of rural landscapes and their many qualities, communities in New Mexico have sought to preserve their beloved landscapes. Common land-conservation mechanisms included conservation easements, county open-space areas, private preserves, wilderness areas and national monuments. As a result, we were able to preserve wildlife corridors, dark skies to practice astronomy, outdoor recreation opportunities, scenic views and (pre)historical ruins and artifacts.
Yet legal and financial arrangements to keep the landscape undeveloped are often not enough to bring the landscape back to life, ecologically, socially and economically. Abandoned landscapes continue to erode, often even more aggressively than before, and fall victim to abuse, pollution and illegal extraction of resources. Without concerted efforts, the stories that were associated with the landscape get lost when the daily users and caretakers disappear.
Besides mere protection, we will need to heal ecological relationships and rebuild social connections to revitalize the landscape. Ecological relationships are both “vertical” in the interplay of soil, water and plants in one place and “horizontal” in the connections between places through pathways for water flow, wildfire, plant and seed dispersal, and animal movements. Social connections are rooted in the meaning of the landscape for the people that use and love it, expressed for example in trails across the land, caring behavior, coordinated group activities and stories.
In order to bring a landscape back to life, we must see it as a functioning organism that needs the same care and nurturing as any garden would require. Landscape renewal is then the process of caring for the land’s ecological relationships while growing new values and stories through human connections to the land. If we do this right, we can often kick-start and speed up ecological regeneration processes toward greater landscape resiliency and biodiversity. Thanks to the work of local land-trust organizations, conservation groups, landowners and supportive government agencies, examples of such landscape renewal can be found along the Río Grande and the Santa Fe River, throughout the Galisteo Basin and the Chama Valley, and in several other watersheds and communities in northern New Mexico.
What Is the Role of Conservation?
Conservation can be an appropriate tool for landscape renewal if it is aimed at conserving ecological connections, both vertical and horizontal, and human connections to the landscape. In this sense, the meaning of conservation embraces the concept of stewardship, including public education and community organizing.
Conservation aimed at landscape renewal focuses on a specific set of objectives at a “landscape scale,” i.e., across watersheds and ecoregions and across districts of human communities. Conservation at this scale involves creating space and time for natural processes and for human connections and collaboration. For example, conservation action will need to create space for floodwaters, wildfire and migrating wildlife and time for research, public dialogue and collaboration to carve out the space for connections across the landscape. Additionally, it will take time to rebuild people’s connections to the landscape and grow collaborative partnerships. Specific goals and principles for such landscape renewal are listed below.
Natural processes requiring space and time through conservation:
- Conserving large-scale forest and woodland landscapes as core areas for biodiversity and as water-recharge areas.
- Preserving and improving connective ecological corridors for plant communities and wildlife, as well as flood zones and stormwater-infiltration zones across the landscape.
- Developing pathways for low-intensity wildfire across rangelands, woodlands and forest lands.
- Simulating connective zones for ranching and farming, interwoven with ecological linkage zones.
Human connections and collaboration for conservation:
- Collaboration and cooperation among various government agencies, NGOs, communities and businesses about land stewardship and conservation.
- County-level planning to create multifunctional rural and suburban spaces and linkage areas that combine functions such as flood zones, water-infiltration/recharge zones, wildlife corridors, visual elements, trails, recreation areas and zoning boundaries.
- Community organizing and ongoing education, with an emphasis on engaging youth, to support land stewardship in our living landscapes.
- Individual and community engagement in pioneering and practicing land-stewardship activities, farming and ranching, study and sharing of the stories of the land and developing new stories through creative action.
What Would a New Living Landscape Look Like?
Landscape as a pattern of functions and forms, components and processes can be “read” as a story of the land’s history, ecology and people. A readable landscape mirrors behavioral and governance processes of people in relation to the land.
New living landscapes that mirror the goals and principles described above will express new, complex patterns of relationships, both ecologically and in terms of human use and care. In my view, these landscapes will feature large areas of rangelands, forests and wilderness areas that are connected by multifunctional, ecological linkage zones (“wildways”) that serve as wildlife corridors, flood zones and riparian buffers, recreation zones and scenic edges. Interwoven with the rural wildways, we will find farm and ranch zones that produce climate-resilient food and fiber along with water and carbon sequestration in soils. Recreational uses are made possible across the network of wildways throughout the farm and ranch zones and along the connective corridors to the larger rangeland, forest and wilderness hubs.
At the level of neighborhoods and individual properties, similar connectivity will be established by creating a network of multifunctional, connected corridors along arroyos, drainages easements, acequias, riparian areas, buffer zones, roadsides, fence lines, trails and utility easements. Residential areas can be woven into these local-level corridors and will benefit from trails, drainage systems and scenic views in this corridor network. Thus, ecological diversity and a new, storied landscape will reemerge from the local to the regional level.
This vision for rural landscape renewal through conservation in New Mexico builds on similar visions described by planners, ecologists, conservationists and community organizers worldwide throughout the last 100 years. However, this vision of landscape renewal through conservation combines and refines these past visions with our local, contemporary challenges and with the opportunities embodied in decades of landscape-conservation experience in northern New Mexico.
When we are successful, the landscape will tell its stories to those who can read it—in the scenic views along the lines in the landscape that delineate the connections between areas, in the paw prints of the animals following these pathways, and in the stories of kids as they discover how the landscape is full of signs and tales to be read and retold.
Jan-Willem Jansens is a landscape planner who specializes through his business Ecotone in conservation planning for landscapes in transition, aiming to create new living landscapes throughout northern New Mexico. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Farmland Information Center (http://www.farmlandinfo.org/statistics) reports that New Mexico’s developed acreage grew by 602,200 acres (84.4 percent) between 1982 and 2010, of which 68,000 acres (nearly 32 percent of all farmland) was a loss of farmland. Between 2007 and 2010, New Mexico saw a net growth of 29,100 acres (2.26 percent) of developed land and also a net growth of farmland of 3,800 acres (2.67 percent). This seems to point to a loss of forest, woodland, range and ranch land equivalent to the sum of the increase in developed and agricultural land area in that time period.