By Sarah Wentzel-Fisher
In May of this year, I was experiencing what I refer to as aridity anxiety. Symptoms included a routine check of rain gauges, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s and the Wildfire Incident Information System’s websites, a reluctance to water anything in the yard, and a lot of conversation about when it might rain.
As I’m sure you’re aware if you were in New Mexico this spring, it has been a very dry year.
In June, a crew including scientists, landscape technicians and state Environment Department staff headed up the Valle Vidal to assess several areas along the Comanche Creek in the Carson National Forest for riparian restoration work later in the summer. When they arrived, they discovered a narrow and miraculous swath of green surrounded by a sea of golden tan, extremely dry meadows with creeks and adjacent vegetation diligently holding moisture in spite of less than an inch of rain in six months.
This marked the 18th year the Quivira Coalition, an organization founded by two conservationists and a rancher who believed ranching and conservation could be synonymous, would conduct work to repair the hydrology and slope wetlands along the Comanche Creek. It also marked one of the driest years since we started there. We have worked in partnership with the Valle Vidal Grazing Association, the Forest Service in Carson National Forest, New Mexico Environment Department, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Trout Unlimited and many others to establish partnerships that would improve the function of the ecosystem after decades of overgrazing and extractive forestry and enable land use for diverse stakeholders into the future. These partners have worked to heal incised stream channels, which, in addition to bringing water back into spongy soils, also slowly release water into creeks for fish habitat and other wildlife and produce more abundant meadows for cattle and elk to graze.
After the visit to Comanche Creek, Mollie Walton, the restoration ecologist who has been a major driving force in this work, called Mark Torres, the head of the Valle Vidal Grazing association, to discuss the summer’s grazing. She was calling with a hard ask: could the association move the cows out early? The dry spring meant the wetlands were particularly vulnerable to impacts of grazing. Years of riparian restoration work could be unraveled in a few short weeks if the livestock stayed to eat in the only productive areas in dry conditions (the slope wetlands).
Torres and his grazing partners understood the challenge and appreciated the input from the team. While they weren’t required to move the herd, their participation in restoration work for the last eight years meant Torres understood the implications of leaving them there. The Questa Ranger District of the Carson National Forest listened to the request and allowed the grazing association to move cattle to a less sensitive area. Strong, yet divergent feelings about land use, and grazing in particular, have been at the forefront of stakeholder interactions on Western public lands and the Comanche Creek Watershed is no different. It took 10 years of relationship building to get the grazing association to partner on these restoration efforts, which are better for their cooperation and participation.
Moving the cows presented real challenges for the grazing association. Finding food, water and space for a herd of cattle takes planning, logistics, money and so much more. Most ranchers develop grazing plans over many years and carefully monitor grasslands where their cows forage. When the weather does not cooperate, as it didn’t this year, the economic impacts can be significant. Ranchers are often faced with hard decisions about selling animals before they’re of a size to go to market, or spending time and money to move them or buy baled feed.
The hard decisions made by the Valle Vidal Grazing Association this season are not atypical of ranchers all over the state. When drought hits, they often have to weigh more short-term economic pressures with Iong-term ecological management. Most ranchers understand that grazing in times of drought may mean negative impacts on the land, but they may also be balancing this reality with slim margins, shoes for the kids, truck repair and other expenses expected to be covered by the sale of animals.
Much of our state is actively stewarded by ranchers—perhaps as much as 40 percent of New Mexico’s acres. Ranching is an enormous and challenging job, particularly when ranchers are managing their land for multiple outcomes like healthy streams, biodiverse grasslands and fat cows. We rely on these stewards for functioning ecosystems, rural communities, healthy watersheds and a strong regional food system. We all have a vested interest in making sure we value both the food these ranchers produce and the ecosystem services they provide.
It requires a serious group effort and community support for our public lands like the Comanche Creek to produce food, to provide livelihoods for rural residents, to offer natural spaces for recreation and to be habitat for diverse wildlife. Quivira Coalition’s work in the Valle Vidal has been predicated on this idea. Collaborative conservation requires patience, respect, hard work and an abiding gratitude for everyone around the worktable. Fifteen years ago, Quivira convened the Comanche Creek working group, which includes the Carson National Forest, the New Mexico Environment Department, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Trout Unlimited, Amigos Bravos, Valle Vidal Grazing Association and interested members of the public.
Quivira’s role in the Valle Vidal has evolved to serve as the organizer for restoration work by securing funding through grant writing, serving as a project manager, facilitating the working group and conducting work weekends. Each summer, we bring 40 to 60 volunteers to camp at 8,000-feet above sea level to implement restoration treatments, which over the years will result in the slow and steady stabilization of degraded wetlands and streams. The vibrant green zone along the creek in the otherwise parched meadows underscores the importance of stabilizing and restoring these critical zones that provide refuge in a dry time.
The reality is, the success of the restoration work in the Valle Vidal would not have happened without the hard work of many stakeholders, their commitment to working together towards diverse land-use goals, and their long-term investment in its success. Personally, I believe many of our public lands in New Mexico would benefit from this type of collaboration. When the work of ranchers is seen and valued, when ranchers invest in conservation, and when the public chooses to recognize the ways that these activities can create landscapes that support New Mexican families, produce good foods and are able to bounce back in years of extreme drought, we all win.
If you’d like to learn more about the work of the Quivira Coalition, get involved or consider attending a land health workshop, visit www.quiviracoalition.org
Sarah Wentzel-Fisher is executive director of the Quivira Coalition.