Connecting the dots between forests management, planned grazing, soil health, water conservation and carbon storage
By New Mexico Soil Health Champion Jan-Willem Jansens, Owner of Ecotone Landscape Planning, LLC in Santa Fe, NM
At the end of another day of work in dusty, cactus covered woodlands, Bobbie, Jamie, Jessie, Junior, Mike, Norman, and Wade walk back to their trucks. The guys are tired but upbeat. They are convinced now that their work will make a difference. They have learned a lot in two weeks and are determined to apply their new skills. The hundreds of junipers and piñons they selectively cut will not only reduce the risk of severe wildfire, but the wood will also help stabilize the soil and in turn regenerate the local ecosystem as well as the local farming economy.
They built dozens of small structures with rocks, wooden posts, and tree limbs which will slow, spread and sink the water into the soil. From work done in 2016 by a different crew, they have seen how each individual structure retained several tons of sediment over the past six years. Their work will likely catch and retain thousands of tons of sand and silt with each thunderstorm that batters the landscape.
In the short term, the retained sediment translates into an increase of water infiltration at a rate of 0.16 to 0.2 cubic feet of water for each cubic foot of fine sandy loam. Therefore, it reduces the peak flows in arroyos and the annual siltation of acequias, roads, and fields; and as a result, it saves local acequia organizations, road maintenance agencies, and farmers between $30 and $100 per ton of sand and silt retained in the woodlands. The tens of thousands of dollars saved in maintenance each year immediately boost the local economy. In the longer term, their work helps double the cover percentage of grass and forbs, which aids soil retention in future years; it increases wildlife abundance; and it serves as an inspiring educational example that can be emulated on thousands of acres of other woodlands. In the future, these gains can perhaps be translated into resource credits or payments for ecosystem services revenues associated with carbon sequestered, water stored in local wetlands, and threatened wildlife species protected.
The crew’s work contributes to an emerging landscape-scale system of activities for ecosystem and community regeneration. Their recent work area in the Lower Embudo Valley near Dixon is a fledgling hotspot of these activities. In collaboration with the NM State Land Office, the US Forest Service, and Ecotone Landscape Planning, the crew – operated by Wood Sharks LLC from Taos – is diversifying its activities from forest and woodland thinning for fire risk reduction to integrated woodland ecosystem restoration. In the same area, other initiatives focus on wetland restoration for landscape scale soil and ecosystem health, on local firewood production while reducing fire hazard and stabilizing forest soils, and on agricultural regeneration. However, the premise of real landscape-scale regeneration will require that these initiatives are connected with each other and with emerging regional activities for youth training and employment, locally appropriate tourism services, the growing local arts community, and other social and economic drivers.
Recently, ecosystem and economic regeneration at a landscape scale has rapidly gained national and international recognition as one of the approaches needed in response to a web of challenges. Economic revitalization, ecosystem restoration, fire risk reduction, management of scarce water resources, meaningful training and employment for youth, and coordination of food production and marketing are all calling for larger-level and collaborative planning and development. Not only would such a landscape-scale approach lead to a more effective use of investments, it would also help attract larger and more sustained outside investments and leverage results from individual projects toward greater gains in other sectors. Pursuing self-perpetuating ecosystem health gains and economic gains in which each activity or investment has spin-off effects or by-products that feed and strengthen other activities in the region is called a regenerative approach.
Besides and as part of a landscape-scale regenerative approach, restoration efforts are needed at a local, project scale to nudge ecological processes toward self-perpetuating effects in ecosystem health. For example, the woodland thinning and soil stabilization work the Wood Sharks crew did will lead to increased soil health, grass cover and water storage. In turn, the improved woodland conditions will, in most years, lead to a natural improvement of all these conditions until a level of dynamic equilibrium is reached that is more resilient to drought and other disturbances. If this work could be coupled with investments in local grass seed production, utilization of willows (cut during the cleaning of acequias) for local wetland restoration, and managed grazing on restored land that once again will grow grass, both the healing landscape and investments and savings achieved hold a promise of multiplied economic gains for local farmers and the regional economy.
To achieve the effective and efficient mutualistic support of regenerative activities and investments, coordination, collaboration, and planning at an overarching, landscape level is critical. Natural processes and market forces need assistance to achieve such efficiency. This is not just theoretical.
Currently thousands of coordinated landscape-scale regenerative development initiatives are taking place worldwide. Nationwide, the US Forest Service and state forestry divisions have recently begun coordinating their work in landscape-scale programs through the “Shared Stewardship” initiative. Millions of dollars will soon reach New Mexico from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) for landscape-scale forest management for benefits such as protecting water supplies, storing carbon in the soil, and restoring and protecting wildlife habitat and corridors. In the coming years, the initial priority area for this work will be the landscape stretching from Taos to Cimarron with planned expansions to the Embudo Valley and the Valle Vidal in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In another example of landscape-scale planning, it is noteworthy that in the past two decades the US Forest Service, Quivira Coalition, the NM Environment Department, NM Department of Game and Fish, a local grazing association, and many other partners have shown in the Valle Vidal that through collaborative land restoration and managed grazing, wetland conditions, water supplies, soil health, fisheries, wildlife populations, and recreational activities can be rejuvenated landscape-wide.
Landscape-scale planning for ecosystem and economic regeneration holds an exciting promise for the acequia-based farming communities around Dixon and for young people in local forestry crews such as those in the Wood Sharks team, as well as for other communities in New Mexico. The effects will both be immediate – as they are visible in the landscape and expressed in individual paychecks – and long term through carbon storage, soil health, water conservation, improved grazing opportunities, and diversified local economies.