How Healing a Southwest Oasis Holds Promise for Our Endangered Land
Photo by Dennis O’Keefe
Two decades ago, A.T. & Lucinda Cole retired to the 11,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch south of Silver City, New Mexico and began their ongoing restoration project where they’ve installed more than a thousand grade-control structures and propagated a similar number of trees. They’re working to save one of the Southwest’s few remaining ciénagas. The ranch is a place for wildlife to breed, birth, raise their young and a place to capture excess atmospheric carbon.
Three salient facts about ciénagas:  there were many hundreds, if not thousands in the Southwest before European arrival,  95% of ciénaga habitat is lost and the few remaining ciénagas are but a shadow of their former selves and,  this paper says marshes, bogs, and similar wetlands like ciénagas or “sweet spots” capture 5 times more atmospheric carbon (the main cause of the climate crisis) and 500 times more than oceans: “Recovering Wetland Biogeomorphic Feedbacks to Restore the World’s Carbon Hotspots,” Ralph J.M. Temmink, et al, May 6, 2022, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.abn1479.
As of 2012, there were only 155 ciénagas known in the entire Southwest. In 2018 Bob Sivinski located 109 remnant ciénagas in New Mexico. These few remaining ciénagas are all remnants of broad, shallow, slow migrating water that often spread from canyon base to canyon base. This photograph shows the deeply incised Burro Ciénaga -the line of trees-on the Pitchfork Ranch, the blue outline indicates where it historically flowed down slope before it was re-contoured to create the two agricultural fields. AT and Lucinda are installing grade-control structures to capture suspended sediment in floods, eventually to refill the incision so water can access the terraces and re-establish the truly historic ciénaga.
Learn more and see images of the ranch and wildlife at pitchforkranchnm.com
On February 27 of 2024, the University of Arizona Press will release Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch, How Healing a Southwest Oasis Holds Promise for Our Endangered Land, A.T.’s account of the ranch’s history, its recovery, and who has caused the climate, biodiversity, soil loss and companion crises. Cole also proposes how each of us can help arrest these crises by pursuing our personal climate stabilization potential as we hopefully transition from progress and profit to stability and survival.