A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration: New Hope for Arid Lands

A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration: New Hope for Arid Lands

by David A. Bainbridge, Society for Ecological Restoration Inter

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Dryland degradation and desertification now affect almost a billion people around the world. Tragically, the biological resources and productivity of millions of acres of land are lost to desertification each year because people remain unaware of strategies and techniques that could improve yields, reduce risk, and begin healing the world's deserts. A Guide for


Dryland degradation and desertification now affect almost a billion people around the world. Tragically, the biological resources and productivity of millions of acres of land are lost to desertification each year because people remain unaware of strategies and techniques that could improve yields, reduce risk, and begin healing the world's deserts. A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration is the first book to offer practical, field-tested solutions to this critical problem.

Author David Bainbridge has spent more than 25 years actively involved in restoring lands across the American Southwest. A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration presents the results of his years of fieldwork, as well as research and experience from scientists and practitioners around the globe.

The book discusses the ecology of desert plants, explores the causes of desertification and land abuse, and outlines the processes and procedures needed to evaluate, plan, implement, and monitor desert restoration projects. It sets forth economical and practical field-tested solutions for understanding site characteristics, selecting and growing plants, and ensuring that they survive with a minimal amount of water and care. Each chapter represents a guide to a critical topic for environmental restoration; extensive photographs, diagrams and drawings give detailed information for immediate application, and additional resources are included in appendixes.

A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration is the first comprehensive book focused on restoring arid regions, and clearly demonstrates that arid lands can be successfully rehabilitated. In addition to restorationists, the book will be an invaluable resource for anyone working in arid lands, including farmers, ranchers, gardeners, landscapers, outdoor recreation professionals, and activists.

Editorial Reviews

founder and chief executive officer, Patagonia - Yvon Chouinard

"David Bainbridge presents a realistic view of the ecological challenges to healing the world's deserts and drylands. Moreover, he offers innovative approaches to desert protection and restoration that can be practically implemented by those in the field."
director, Center for Conservation Biology - Michael F. Allen

"A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration belongs in every manager's toolbox and on the shelf of every researcher seeking to improve our understanding of desert ecosystems and new approaches to managing them. The author's passion and expertise show in this outstanding summary of knowledge from his experiences, published research, and the craft of farmers and herders through the millennia."
principal, restoration biologist, RECON Environmental - Robert MacAller

"Within these pages one finds a comprehensive overview of the myriad challenges inherent in arid lands restoration, and also practical approaches, field tested by decades of trial and error, to successfully restore these globally important lands. David Bainbridge has provided an important and informative guide to restoration of fragile desert ecosystems."
Professor of environmental studies, Dartmouth College - Ross A. Virginia

"Bainbridge brings the desert to life and richly illustrates practical, proven techniques from around the world for healing damaged drylands. This book should find its way into classrooms where principles of applied ecology and ecosystem restoration are taught."
President, Ecoagriculture Partners - Sara J. Scherr

"This book provides an all-in-one handbook for restoration ecologists, farmers, ranchers, and others ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work restoring degraded drylands, whether in temperate or tropical environments. It synthesizes practical lessons for restoring ecosystem functions in a dryland landscape, drawing upon diverse methods from time-tested indigenous knowledge to cutting-edge science."
Natural Areas Journal

"A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration is an excellent source of practical information for restoration and another fine publication from Island Press."

"This valuable reference will be useful for soil scientists, ecologists, biologists, conservationists, and two- and four-year college and university academicians involved with teaching and research on this topic."

Product Details

Island Press
Publication date:
Science and Practice of Ecological Restoration Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration

New Hope for Arid Lands

By David A. Bainbridge


Copyright © 2007 David A. Bainbridge
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-082-8


Desertification: Crisis and Opportunity

The situation (desertification) has been accurately likened to a skin disease in which existing eruptions worsen and coalesce with new outbreaks of the disease. And, as with any disease, treating the symptoms is secondary to tackling the causes.

—Mostafa K. Tolba, Harvest of Dust, Desertification Control Bulletin (1984)

The drylands and deserts of the world have been and are being damaged and made less productive by mismanagement. The causes of desertification are myriad and often interconnected: overgrazing; overcutting for firewood and timber; inappropriate farming; poor irrigation management, leading to problems with salinity, alkalinity, and waterlogging ; mining; construction of highways and utility corridors; fire suppression; military operations; air pollution; the introduction of exotic animals and plants; recreational activities, particularly off-road vehicle recreation; industrial projects; climate change; housing; and urbanization (Lovich and Bainbridge 1999). Once damaged, deserts are very difficult to repair, but I have demonstrated that it can be done. This work, combined with research and restoration by many others here and in other areas of the world, provides new hope for the world's arid lands.

This book provides information on development of desert restoration projects based on recent work in the southwestern United States, but it is intended to help land managers in drylands around the world. I will use examples primarily from the deserts of the Southwest because this is the area I know best, but I will make connections to other drylands of the world when I can. We can learn a great deal from the past, both in how to manage lands better and in the consequences of flawed management and overuse (Figure 1.1). The hills of Jordan once had rich soils, forests of pistachio and oak, grasses, and flowers, but now they are barren and stony. The Nabataeans once had the most highly developed runoff irrigation system ever created, supporting cities in the desert where people now eke out a difficult and precarious living, but changes in politics and economics led to its collapse.

The treatment of disturbed and degraded sites can be intensive or minimal, short term or long term, by removal from use or through changes in use. In most cases the techniques and strategies developed here will also prove useful in other drylands, but I will try to suggest where exceptions and surprises might be expected.

My goal throughout this book has been to help others in the drylands of the American Southwest, northern Mexico, and similar areas around the world to

• Characterize the adverse environmental impacts of past actions

• Better understand the causal chain of events that leads to desertification

• Minimize adverse effects of current and future activities

• Develop practical strategies and methods for restoration

• Increase active restoration of degraded drylands

• Guide evaluation, research, and monitoring of damaged and restored sites

• Protect biodiversity and habitats in arid and semiarid lands

• Make resource management in drylands more sustainable

• Improve the quality of life for people living in arid and semiarid lands

The underlying causes of dryland degradation are commonly economic and cultural rather than ecological (Hallsworth 1987; Carney and Farrington 1998; Chambers et al. 1991). The limited historic success in slowing the rate of desertification and increasing restoration is linked to the consistent pattern of treating the symptoms rather than the causes. Rhetoric about the ignorance or moral failures of ranchers, pastoralists, and farmers and research on technical fixes will not solve this complex problem.

Although additional techniques for desert restoration can still be improved, the fundamental challenge remains changing the economic and cultural pressures and incentives that lead to destruction. We need to begin more accurate accounting of the economic, social, and environmental benefits and costs of resource management. The complex issues of tenure, perverse economic incentives, subsidies, natural services, social traps, and open access problems are briefly reviewed in Chapters 3 and 14, but the focus of this book is on the ecological underpinnings and technical aspects of restoration in the field. These remain similar, whether we are working in a wealthy country, with a wide array of financial, scientific, and technical resources, or a country with very few resources other than people and dedication (Aronson et al. 1993).

Overgrazing and Desertification

Globally, the most common and serious problem affecting drylands is overgrazing. It may be driven by economic pressure, greed, desperation, and, more rarely, ignorance. The American Southwest offers many examples of the perils of severe overgrazing. As Costello and Turner wrote in 1941, "The most widespread and cataclysmic change in the desert (of the United States) in modern times has resulted from unrestricted grazing.... The desert in many places is one-tenth as productive for wildlife as when white men first came on the scene."

The rapid increase in population that occurred after the Gold Rush in California led to skyrocketing demand for meat at any price. Cattle and sheep were driven to the gold fields from the southern ranchos, Texas, and as far away as Pennsylvania. Native Americans were displaced as ranchers quickly moved to increase stocking to meet the demand. Profits were enticing, and investment from the East and abroad led to a cattle boom, with livestock on the California range reaching perhaps 3 million cattle and a million sheep by 1862 (Burcham 1957). In the drought of 1863–1864 as many as a million cattle starved to death, but before they died they ate every shred of edible material and left an impoverished flora still evident today. As with any drought, some areas were hit much harder than others. In Santa Barbara County there were 97,000 cattle grazing in the spring of 1863, but by 1865 only 12,000 were still alive.

By some estimates the severe overgrazing during droughts in the late 1800s cut the permanent grazing potential of California in half, and it is likely that the impact was even larger in the desert (Figure 1.2). Very limited recovery has taken place despite much reduced grazing pressure for more than 100 years. The invasion of yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), which dominates 20 million acres of California drylands, was made possible in part by this beef boom and collapse, the sheep boom of 1880 (and subsequent collapse), and the continued overgrazing on already damaged rangelands for the last one hundred years.

In other areas of the Southwest the beef boom came later as refrigerated rail cars made it feasible to ship meat to the East Coast. Enormous profits often were made for a few short years, followed by total range collapse, declining beef prices, and bankruptcy. Theodore Roosevelt's experience with his ranch in Dakota Territory was typical. He lost $40,000 between 1883 and 1887, and by 1887 it was said, "The grass was eaten off until it looks as if it had been shaved with a razor."

The legacy of this exploitation remains clear today, and by some estimates less than 5 percent of the western range is in natural condition, and two thirds of it was in poor or very poor condition in 1976 (Forest Service 1980).

The same forces are at work in the growing rangeland catastrophe in western China (Brown 2003). Increasing trade liberalization and the race to the bottom (transferring manufacturing to areas with limited environmental and labor protection) have led to an expanding middle class in China. With growing prosperity has come an increasing demand for meat, and the pressure to produce new meat has focused on the fragile lands of western China. Production has increased rapidly, from 1 million tons in 1989, to 3 million tons in 1996, to 5 million tons in 1999. In Mongolia the livestock population soared from 2 million in 1987 to 18 million in 2000. Profits have been good, but the dust bowl in the making appears likely to overshadow the destruction of the American Southwest in the late 1800s (Secretary of Agriculture 1936; Sheridan 1981).

The decline of arid or semiarid rangeland often is a chain of events with positive feedback, triggered by drought, resulting in a step-by-step decline that is very hard to stop (Figure 1.3; see Chapter 3 for more detail). As a drought deepens, range managers are reluctant to cut herd size because everyone would be selling their animals at the same time, and this would ensure minimal market prices and severe economic losses. During a recent drought in Australia sheep were selling for a dollar apiece, yet there were few takers. Why sell at the bottom and take such a big loss when it might rain tomorrow or next week?

As the range is stripped of edible food, the pressure on remaining plants increases, and after everything else has been eaten ranchers may burn the thorns off the cacti so they can be eaten, too. The soil structure is degraded, and soil cryptobiotic crusts are severely damaged. The soil no longer captures water, and recovery is very slow.

The range is left barren and slowly recovers to a fraction of its original potential, but the herds also recover, and the next drought leads to a crash that is even deeper. Often a change from cattle to sheep takes place, and this enables the rancher to return to higher grazing levels because sheep eat different plants than cattle. After the sheep finish with a range, the next stage is a shift to goats or camels (Figure 1.4). These animals will eat almost anything, and the stage is set for a stone and gravel desert. This transition can be very rapid if the pressure is high enough but is more commonly a slow decline reaching bare rock after decades or hundreds of years instead of months.

As vegetation is removed, more rain runs off instead of entering the soil. Diminished long-term water availability limits vegetation growth and the resistance of stream channels, and as flood flows increase gullies may deepen quickly. The arroyo shown in Figure 1.5 developed almost overnight in one severe storm event. As gullies become deeper, water tables may lead to groundwater drainage into the arroyos and a quick increase in depth to groundwater. Once-rich riparian areas become barren wastelands. As the gullies cut deeper and water flashes through the watershed, small-scale diversion irrigation becomes increasingly difficult, and small farmers may be dispossessed. Only the rock remains in the most extreme cases.

Natural Recovery Is Limited

Extreme temperatures, intense sun, high winds, limited moisture, and the low fertility of desert soils limit natural recovery of drylands even if all grazing and other disturbance is halted. Conditions favorable for plant establishment occur only infrequently and irregularly in an undisturbed desert, and it may take hundreds of years for full recovery to take place after disturbance without active intervention. Studies in the deserts of the American Southwest suggest that without intervention it may take several hundred years for recovery of species diversity on noncompacted soils, and longer if soils are compacted. The recovery periods are long even for minor disturbances (Table 1.1). More recent studies suggest that recovery on some soil types and with favorable rainfall patterns can be more rapid, but unless we are willing to wait decades or generations for recovery we need to participate actively in restoration.

The Task Ahead

Dryland restoration is needed in almost every place humans have been active past the gatherer–hunter stage (Bainbridge 1985b). Areas now considered to be desert-like in many cases were complex and productive ecosystems but were gradually or quickly destroyed by poor management. South-eastern Spain provides an excellent example of a human-made desert, and it is but one of many (Latorre et al. 2001).

The semiarid and arid areas of the world make up about 35 percent of the global land area and account for 15 percent of the world's population. In 1980 about 450 million people suffered losses in income and quality of life from degraded drylands (Table 1.2). Today these lands affect the daily lives of more than 850 million people, and every year another 1–1.5 million hectares are completely lost to production through desertification (Dregne 1986; United Nations Environment Programme 2005). By addressing the underlying causes of dryland deterioration, understanding the history of abuse and change, and applying the best restoration techniques we can begin to reverse these changes.

Globally more than 60 percent of the rangeland, 60 percent of rainfed croplands, and 30 percent of irrigated croplands are at risk for further degradation (Figure 1.6). Poor use of fragile resources has limited the ability of dryland residents to make a living, reduced their quality of life, destroyed communities, led to conflicts over land and water, reduced health and life expectancy, and severely affected natural systems and biodiversity (Lean and Hinrichsen 1992).

Land degradation in one area often affects other areas through increased flooding, reduced stream flow, and dust and sand deposition. Recent studies have even suggested a link between dustfall resulting from desertification in Africa and coral reef dieback in the Caribbean. The dust from the growing deserts in western China has circled the globe, with largely unknown affects on ecosystems where the dust, fungal spores, and nutrients are deposited.

Restoration and improved management of these resources are essential in reversing the process of degradation and desertification. Restoration may include a wide range of interventions, from surface shaping to soil amendments, tillage and weed removal, seeding, planting, irrigation, and aftercare. Low-cost revegetation efforts can help restore productivity to degraded grazing lands. On severely damaged sites the establishment of any species may be difficult, and even the growth of weeds may be considered a success. Rehabilitation and reclamation are used to describe efforts to return sites to use in stable condition but often with introduced species and less complexity than a restoration project. Ecological restoration tries to restore ecosystem function (how things work) and structure (how things look) to match undisturbed reference sites. This can be very difficult because our understanding of these dryland systems is limited and the environmental variability is very high, characterized by pulses rather than steady progress even in undisturbed and "stable" conditions.

Restoration Efforts

Work on dryland restoration began in earnest in about 1980, although projects in the Southwest were started as early as 1900 and many were attempted in the 1930s (Griffiths 1901; Cox et al. 1982). Without a solid scientific base and without controlled experiments and research, progress was limited. Many flawed and inappropriate approaches were used over and over because managers were ignorant of what other people had done in earlier trials. Research efforts were also hampered by a very limited understanding of arid and semiarid ecosystems (Hall 2001). Most researchers and land managers had come from more humid areas where vegetation did recover naturally, and few studied the lessons from other drylands around the world.

Although restoration is desirable for biological, economic, social, and aesthetic reasons, it can rarely be justified with current incomplete economic accounting practices. This has also hampered research and limited trials and demonstrations to short-term studies. Funding for long-term research has been rare and support for integrated research rarer still. Why study the effects of spending $5,000 an acre for a potential grazing return of less than $50 a year?


Excerpted from A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration by David A. Bainbridge. Copyright © 2007 David A. Bainbridge. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Bainbridge was trained as an earth scientist and ecologist. His special interest is sustainable management of dry lands.

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