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By Lynn Montgomery, NM Soil Health Champion and Chair, Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District

Stewardship is an ethic that developed from a job description. Stewards were servants tasked to bring food and drink to the table. Today, a land steward is responsible for the productivity of the land and, here in New Mexico, the water. This has expanded to mean productivity for the ecology, not only human needs and desires. 

The landscape that greeted European settlers was a carefully tended ecology, not a pristine wilderness. Native people had been utilizing fire, the moving of animals and other practices for thousands of years to achieve a stable, productive world. They had an ethic of stewardship, motivated by aesthetics and the necessity of sustenance. The Europeans, not recognizing what was before them, proceeded to destroy it ruthlessly to make room for “civilization”, which they believed they had a divine right to do. They also tried to destroy, over several centuries, most of the people and cultures that created it. They were not successful in destroying them, but the new Americans confiscated vast swathes of their managed lands and denied them access to steward them. Now, these lands are neglected and in a terrible and dangerous condition as a result. It is long past time to start repairing this cataclysm, which is eventually going to end up not only with the extinction of our forests, but the hydrology that produces our water. Lately government agencies have started to work with tribes to do “cultural fire” and other practices on federal and state lands and large efforts like the Rio Grande Water Fund are incorporating cultural practices into their projects. However, production remains an elusive goal as a steady-state is desired which does not take into account constant and rapid change. 

Why should we steward? Well, we didn’t come about in an unoccupied universe. We are only one of millions of species and the bountiful geology we are blessed with. Separating ourselves from these and trying to squeeze that last amount of profit from them makes us isolated and alone. As they perish we will lose the ability to bring food to the table unless we begin to steward our world.

…in order to meet the demands of living in a climate-changed world we must reconnect to it deeply. 

In my little community of Placitas we have utterly failed to steward our land, water and life. Observing the land, we see little useful vegetation and many former denizens are missing. Why? It’s because we fail to see what is actually there, being distracted by the profit value and a large feral horse problem. We keep to our human bubble and don’t wander outside of it much. But in order to meet the demands of living in a climate-changed world we must reconnect to it deeply. 

We are in the throes of an unprecedented mega-drought. Increased heat saps soil moisture, disrupts the hydrology, and reduces our snowpack, which much of New Mexico depends on for recharge. Devoid of vegetative cover the soil cannot absorb precipitation, and the water runs off causing erosion. What remains instantly evaporates. This means our aquifers are not charging as much.

We are beginning to lose our water resource in Placitas and other parts of New Mexico. We rely on the State Engineer to protect it as he grants more well permits without question and confuses limited upland aquifers with those of the Rio Grande Valley. Uplanders look to the Rio Grande for salvation, but the aquifers under the Rio are losing their recharge as less water flows down and pumping continues to increase. People might have to abandon worthless properties as we dry our world up.

…we can start to honor our soils and change ourselves to do so.

How to address this is more than daunting. How do we limit pumping and stop its  increase? This is a political problem and I will leave it up to others to struggle with. But we can start to honor our soils and change ourselves to do so. 

All non-aquatic food comes from the soil. The soil is alive, having more organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than all the people on Earth. It is this life that feeds us. Some may scoff at feeding ourselves off our land, but many New Mexicans did so in the not-so-distant past. In Placitas, when the water resource failed, most of us moved down to the local Pueblos until the water returned. The water might not return and we might not be so welcome in the Pueblos this time around. Very few of us possess the skills that would make us desirable. 

How do we gain the ethic of stewardship? When making land use decisions we desire to make the land in our image and make it serve our desires. There is little thought to its condition and threats to its actual residents. Can we get outside that bubble and start to steward it? Can we just leave Mother Nature to herself and assist her to provide for us, the water and the land?

We are learning more about soil health every day. We can start by following the principles of New Mexico’s Healthy Soil Act, which increases productivity. There is money available for doing this through our conservation districts and other eligible entities. The only thing missing is the will of the people.

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