(Web) Desert Restoration – Steps toward Success – David Bainbridge

By David A. Bainbridge ©1999 
Soil Ecology and Restoration Group
Alliant International University
San Diego, CA 92131 http://www.ecocomposite.org/restoration/desert.html

The challenges we face in restoring deserts and dry lands are daunting. They include: understanding the causes and effects of dry land degradation, developing simple, cost effect strategies and methods for restoring dry lands in a wide range of habitats and uses, and demonstrating sustainable resource management practices that can improve quality of life and minimize adverse effects of current and future activities. Poor resource management has limited the ability of dry land residents to make a living, destroyed communities, led to conflicts over land and water, reduced health and life expectancy and severely affected natural systems and biodiversity.

In almost 20 years of research and applied testing in restoration projects we have begun to answer these questions. We have learned how to make the unthinkable possible, how to begin restoration of desert areas with rainfall as low as 3 inches a year. On a recent project in the Mojave Desert, planted in the summer with temperatures above 100°F far from water systems, seedling survival has been above 80%. Mesquite trees have grown more than 10 feet tall in just three years at another site in the Colorado Desert.

The key for success is effective planning to use money, labor and time wisely. We have found the following ten step program helps.

STEP 1. PLAN THE STUDY

  •   Don’t just rush into the project, but reflect, read, think, and observe
  •   Identify broad objectives
  •   Identify collaborating institutions and staff (inc. volunteers)
  •   Identify, map, and describe ecosystems
  •   Library and literature review of similar sites worldwide
  •   Review permitting requirements, budget, time

STEP 2. PRELIMINARY DESCRIPTION

  •   Make a preliminary assessment of constraints & problems
  •   Do a historical review of the area and its archeological and historical uses
  •   Find a good reference site

STEP 3. SITE SELECTION

Select areas for priority attention based on: importance, feasibility, access, budget, time

STEP 4. DIAGNOSTIC SURVEY

  • Troubleshoot the historic and current use patterns to identify the causes
    of problems not just the symptoms. Investigate interactions between and
    within restoration site and adjacent areas.
  • Identify key intervention points for restoration
  • Begin seed collection of key species as soon as possible. Local seed
    sources are desirable since ecotypic variation can be high and adaptation
    to local climatic conditions is essential.

STEP 5. SPECIFY INTERVENTIONS

List goals and specifications:

  1. Functional and structural specifications for interventions
  2. Constraints (equipment availability, water, money, time, seeds, plant materials)
  3. Desired attributes of restored system– cover, diversity, etc.
  4. Develop overall strategy

STEP 6. IDENTIFY CANDIDATE TREATMENTS

  • List feasible technologies for restoration (soil treatment, surface
    shaping, transplants, deep pipe irrigation, horizontal drain pipe irrigation,
    buried clay pot irrigation, tree shelters)
  • Library and literature review of similar activities (esp. within region)

STEP 7. TREATMENT SPECIFICATIONS

Typically a restoration project must:

  1. Protect the site from further disturbance
  2. Control erosion
  3. Repair soil damage and improve water capture
  4. Return plants to the site, usually this will be container plants with small tops/large roots
  5. Inoculation with proper microorganisms may improve survival and growth in large bare areas with remote sources of inoculum.
  6. Protect naturally established plants, one of the least expensive options for initiating recovery.

STEP 8. DESIGN

The most appropriate restoration approach for a site depends on the type of disturbance, the degree of disturbance, the available budget and labor. The plan should include consideration of structure, function, and use. Traditionally function has often been ignored in favor of structure (cover and richness), but repairing function can hasten recovery and ensure that the environment continues to improve. Ignoring use patterns and the needs or desires of local people also leads to failed projects.

For each specific treatment or intervention, give detailed answers.

  1. What functions should it address?
  2. Where should it done?
  3. What treatment or combination of treatments is the best choice?
  4. What arrangement is envisaged?
  5. What management practices are required to achieve the desired performance?

Develop contingency plans (late delivery of plants, lack of seeds, drought, fire, freeze, etc.)

STEP 9. IMPLEMENTATION

Implement the project, soil decompaction, organic matter addition, surface shaping, container planting, plant protection from herbivores, irrigation, monitoring and maintenance

STEP 10. MONITORING and EDUCATION

Develop and implement a long term monitoring and maintenance plan. Design and identify sites so they can be reestablished 25, 50, 100 years from now. Publish your results. What works? What doesn’t?

Other resources, including access to material and supplies and specific techniques, at Soil Ecology and Restoration Group