October 10, 2014

Reclaiming Lost Land: US, Mexico Ranchers Tracking Texas Experiment

by Lorne Matalon

fieldRanchers from three southwestern states — Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — and Mexico are gathering in the high desert of West Texas to review results of an experiment to raise hardy seeds that can flourish in a demanding landscape.

Specifically, the ranchers are meeting with scientists to review results from a two-year experiment to cultivate large quantities of reintroduced Southwest native to reinvigorate lands damaged by drought and overgrazing.

“My world is a million little paper bags of seed,” said Colin Shackelford, a research associate at Texas Native Seeds, a restoration project founded at Texas A&M University.

Shackelford is giving ranchers a tour of an experimental plot of grass seedlings, pointing out bird’s eye blue groma, a grass loaded with nutrition for cattle.

After two years, Shackelford’s seedlings have had mixed results. Of multiple species under study, several have taken hold in the desert. Shackelford hopes to kick off a sustainable, virtuous cycle that cuts the cost of seeds. Yet a harsh climate and sparse rainfall may hinder his efforts.

“What we’re doing is trying to do is take some of the risk out of it. We can’t control the rainfall,” he said. “But hopefully what we can do is take some of the uncertainty out of seed quality.”

Chris Blackwell, of the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University, said the problem is “the shortage of dependable, available seed at a lower price point. As more of those plants become available, it’s going to pave the way for opportunity for land owners, for the oil and gas sector.”

That’s because every time a well ends its life cycle, grass is needed to restore the well site. Rancher Nick Garza from Sonora, Texas, said the healthy state of oil and gas business presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reclaim barren earth.

“We certainly have the technology to do it,” Garza said. “And with the increase in oil and gas activity, we’ve got the money to do it. So it’s kinda the perfect opportunity to do some of this right now.”

Will Jewett, a soil conservation technician at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said reclaiming barren earth creates “good forage for cattle” and an opportunity for ranchers to realize increased profits. The experiment is being conducted by a group called Texas Native Seeds, founded at Texas A&M University.

But Carlos Ortega, an agronomist at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua and a longtime rancher, notes the work underway won’t translate into results for Mexico without that crucial catalyst called cash.

“We need to make a partnership with the people here to find the way to get the money and apply it to ranches over there,” Ortega said.

Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Colorado, which operates on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, have observed vast improvement on the O2 ranch, a 400-square-mile tract about an hour south of Alpine, Texas.

Researchers say the managers of this ranch are leaders in the field, saying they are examples of ranchers who have worked diligently to create a sustainable cycle of grass restoration.

This piece of land is now, they say, the most healthy, diverse grassland they've seen in the Southwest.

Fifteen years ago, the land was barren.