Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Get your grass in gear

While working at 47 Ranch for a few days last week, I learned a bit about ranching. Because Dennis is a veritable wealth of information on, well, everything, I also learned a good bit about alternative energy, regional history, agricultural policy, and local ecology. He's a talker, but also a careful listener -- a seasoned rancher and a college professor all rolled into one thoughtful package. (He's a great hugger, too. Actually, the whole Moroney family are huggers -- I love it.)

One of the intriguing topics Dennis covered during our lengthy chats was the way that the landscape has been changing in southeastern Arizona. Our focus: grass. For many years before his arrival, farmers and ranchers had herds of animals grazing the large swaths of native grasses. Then, just a few decades ago, it seems, farmers in Cochise County started having water shortages. Simultaneously, the grasses started to disappear. Local authorities attributed this to irresponsible resource management and began requiring landowners to purchase water rights. Many farmers lost their land which in their absence became even more decimated, more prone to erosion and topsoil loss. Native grasses continued to disappear.

As we drove past acre after acre of former grassland, Dennis proposed that the water problems were due to an overpopulation of moisture-absorbing mesquite (in the form of shrubs or, at higher elevations, trees). Though the mesquite are native to the region, Forest Service policies designed to prevent wildfires resulted in a change in the cycle of things: instead of periodic natural (or even controlled burn) fires clearing out grasses and young trees and shrubs to set the stage for the next round of growth, the absolute fire prevention meant that when the rare fire did get started, all of the grasses were wiped out but slow-burning mesquites remained, eventually squeezing out the native prairie varieties as they progressively dominated the ecosystem. This, combined with the removal of animals that would keep the invasive shrubs under control, meant that grass didn't have a chance.

Now, I've read about the historic conflict between environmentalists (particularly those in the Forest Service) and ranchers -- two groups sharing a belief in the need for land conservation, but with drastically different views on how this should happen. Traditionally, those in the environmentalist camp have believed that animals grazing the land will destroy it (trampling and eating everything down to the ground); meanwhile, ranchers have been frustrated with large tracts of land lying vacant except for, say, the occasional endangered pygmy owl. (Please, I'm not against the endangered species. I used to intern at Defenders of Wildlife, for heaven's sake. And, no, I didn't wear a cape to work.) The key for both groups is healthy flora, starting with the grass. Recent research suggests that the best way to preserve and/or restore the crucial prairie grasses is to mimic the natural patterns of ruminants (deer, buffalo, moose, etc.) that used to keep native flora in check. This is most effectively done through well-planned rotational grazing.

Recent years have shown a rise in self-proclaimed "grass farmers" profiled in books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Deeply Rooted -- folks who periodically shift their chickens, goats, sheep, and cows through a series of fenced pastures. The grasslands are slowly recovering, encouraged in part by land trusts and conservation easements geared toward conservation, curbing the tide of rampant, soil-destroying development. I've read and spoken with folks a bit about these incentives in Pennsylvania, in Iowa, in California, in Arizona. More folks are realizing the critical role that grasslands play not only in terms of wildlife habitat but also soil and water management and even climate change. Finally, it seems, we're getting our grasses in gear.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. I have been thinking about this post for awhile since I put it up and wanted to clarify a couple of things.

    First, I may have oversimplified things -- Dennis related a great deal of information and I think I may need to chase him down for a follow-up conversation. He's an amazingly articulate and thoughtful rancher and it pains me to think that I inadvertently misrepresented pieces of our lengthy discussion.

    Second, I am by no means anti-forest service. For heaven's sake, I was trained as a wildfire fighter during my AmeriCorps service. I do, however, think that some homes and farms have been built in areas that have no business having homes or farms built there, but this issue is hardly unique to Arizona, or even the Southwest.


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