ForumMonitoring Rangeland Health for an Experiment in Public Land Ownership
Rangeland is land that is dominated by grasses, forbs, and shrubs and
managed as a natural ecosystem. Nearly 40 percent of the United States
is classified as rangelandabout 800 million acresmuch of
it in the West. Rangelands not only provide the basis for low-input
and renewable forage for grazing, but also serve as watersheds, recreational
areas, and natural environments for native plants and wildlife.
A large portion of U.S. rangelands are public lands managed primarily
by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the
Fish and Wildlife Service within the U.S. Department of the Interior
(USDI), and the Forest Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA). These agencies have a long history of land stewardship, and
they're constantly challenged to find a balance among the diversity
of goods and services provided by our nation's rangelands. But conflicts
increasingly occur as diverse segments of the public compete for those
goods and services.
With those conflicts in mind, the recent creation of the Valles Caldera
National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico has
led to a new approach to managing natural resources on public lands.
Scientists at the ARS Jornada
Experimental Range near Las Cruces, New Mexico, are providing data on
rangeland health for management of the Valles Caldera, 310 miles to
the north. The Jornada is one of more than a dozen ARS rangeland research
locations strategically placed to study rangeland in different ecosystems.
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The Valles Caldera is an 88,900-acre former ranchnow a federal
nature preserve that is the first to be run by a board of individuals
rather than by a federal agency. The preserve is operated by a trusta
government corporation administered by a nine-member board. The forest
supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest and the superintendent of
Bandelier National Monument sit on the board. Other members include
individual citizens representing ranching, wildlife, and conservation
interests. It is a grand experiment in the management of public landsthe
first such experiment since the USDI and USDA models of public land
The Valles Caldera Preserve is known for its huge meadows, abundant
wildlife, meandering streams, and remarkable sceneryall within
a 12- to 16-mile-wide volcanic caldera, or cauldron.
The federal government bought Valles Caldera in 2000 for $100 million
as part of the National Forest System. The rangeland monitoring arrangement
gives Jornada scientists the chance to apply the rangeland assessment
techniques they specialize in. It is one of their largest applications
to date, in terms of acreage.
ARS, along with other federal and state agency and institution collaborators,
provides the basic biologic and ecological research to this sociopolitical
experiment in land management. The monitoring efforts, which also involve
training of public volunteers, will allow Jornada researchers to test
monitoring guidelines on land that is very different from what they
are accustomed to working with. The Valles Caldera is really an oasis
in the deserta mountainous area with grass growing at a high enough
elevation to avoid the desert heat.
By law, the Valles Caldera is required to pay for itself through user
fees by 2015. Small ranchers in northern New Mexico pay to graze 1 to
25 cattle per ranch in this oasis all summer. The first 2 years, due
to drought conditions, fewer than 2,000 cattle grazed there each summer.
Citizens throughout New Mexico value the Valles Caldera for its scenery
and wilderness. Hikers pay to hike, and in the fall, elk hunters pay
to hunt. The purpose of the trust is to manage these lands sustainably
for multiple uses, including fishing.
It is a highly visible place to demonstrate the application and benefits
of ARS research. Jornada scientists have been going into the Valles
Caldera twice a year for the past 2 years to measure vegetation and
test soil. Within 10 days of collecting the data, they give it to the
Valles Caldera Board of Trustees and post it on their website at usda-ars.nmsu.edu/JER/data_index.htm
for public viewing. ARS also helps pay a small local business to do
some of the tests and measurements.
The Jornada scientists are using the Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health guidelines they published in 1999 and revised this year jointly with the U.S. Geological Survey, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. They are also using a version of the Monitoring Manual for Grassland, Shrubland, and Savanna Ecosystems, being published this year by the Jornada with contributions from these and other agencies. These scientific methods and guidelines are tools for ranchers and land managers who choose to use them in their programs. They are leading the way in monitoring and protecting rangelands like Valles Caldera in the United States, Mexico, and around the world.
Evert K. Byington
"Forum" was published in the July 2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.