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February 28, 2024 | By:

Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch: How Healing a Southwest Oasis Holds Promise for Our Endangered Land

Occasionally someone writes a book that pulls together the many threads of a complex situation, shedding much-needed light on it, and this is such a book. While Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch is about restoration efforts on a small New Mexico ranch (small by standards in that arid region), it is about much more – environmental crises of our time and what we might, if we will, do about them. A. Thomas Cole’s book is a clarion call for action in the American Southwest and around the globe. Cole and his wife Lucinda bought the exhausted 11,393-acre ranch which lies at 5,100 feet just west of the Continental Divide in southwest New Mexico in 2002 and have been working for more than two decades to bring it back from exhaustion by previous owners. They have been making progress, which he describes.

The ranch land, which includes 8.4 miles of the 48-mile-long Burro Ciénaga had been much abused over its history, and the book begins with a summary of that history, briefly back to the Archaic Period and then in some detail up to modern times, describing how ownership by settlers and ranchers degraded the land. The ranch’s story is well-told and explains how the ciénaga and the rest of the land were abused out of ignorance and greed. Cole writes, “This history is steeped in Western lore, archaeology, plant and animal life, and a unique hydrology – a rare source of arid-land water called a ciénaga.”

Ciénaga,” writes Cole, “is a Spanish term used in the American Southwest for this rare desert wetland: marsh, a silty, spongy area; a bog; a shallow, slow-moving flow of water through dense surface vegetation; and permanently saturated soils in otherwise arid landscapes, historically occupying nearly the entire width of valleys.” Estimates are that up to 95% of this critically important wetland, essential to land health in the International Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora, and Chihuahua, have been destroyed. Cole explains why bringing back as many of them as possible is important, quoting climate and water scientist Brad Udall who argues that “climate change is water change.” Cole writes, “The 95 percent loss of ciénaga habitats, their importance as keystone ecosystems, and their corollary benefits render arid-land ciénagas shoo-in candidates for top-priority efforts such as the work being pursued at the Pitchfork Rank.” The Coles and their collaborators have done much to raise the grade of their heavily eroded portion of the Burro Ciénaga, and the book explains in some detail how they have carried out this and other restoration projects.

Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch explains what Udall means when he says that “climate change is water change.” Throughout the book Cole connects water to climate change and what he calls ‘“The Trifecta Crisis;” (1) the climate crisis, (2) species extinction and biodiversity loss, and (3) the soil loss and depletion crisis. Cole has done his homework on the causes of these crises and ways to address them, ranging far beyond the boundary of the Pitchfork Ranch. His knowledge of the literature is extensive, an outstanding synthesis of this vast wealth of information. Closing the book, the reader has a hopeful sense that not only do we know the extent of the problems and their causes but also how to address them, if we will.

On the matter of the will needed to take necessary actions, Cole has much to say, pointing out repeatedly that the situation needs to be cast not as a crisis of this or that, but as the very survival of human society. What is needed are “conservation, restoration and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse emission.” He describes many ways these can be accomplished but does not shy away from the difficulties of behavior changes necessary to achieve them at meaningful scale. He writes,

When survival becomes the priority, it compels the fusion of a more risk-averse self with the whole community of life. In these crises, the conservation ethic will no longer be held back by thinking of landscape as colony, as sacred space, or as community, grounded in altruism. Leopold’s ethos becomes compelling only when landscape is thought of in terms of survival. Because it is my principal aim, allow me to reiterate my hope that the idea of survival will thwart the inertia and indifference to these crises, instigate a willingness to forgo gratification, take a multigenerational view of what is meant by progress, and define progress as more than growth. . . .Looking at our future through the lens of survival can give us a new mindset, a crisis-centered outlook needed to reverse the tragedy of the commons, the crime of our unrestrained consumption of Earth’s nearly depleted natural resources.

This is a large order and rich food for thought, but the reader comes away thinking over Cole’s analysis that such changes could happen because when couched as survival, there is no alternative except extinction, and not just of these “other” creatures on the land.

The Coles are mining expertise in the Pitchfork Ranch project and applying every resource they can bring to the effort. A core theme of the book is that restoration can and must be undertaken at all scales, and examples of how this is being done from backyards to big projects like theirs are described. One chapter is devoted to “Strategies That Will Save Us,” and Cole admits that when they started, they knew little about what they were doing and found lots of help. Everyone can do something, no matter how small, to contribute to the global effort needed, and there are expertise and resources to help them do it. He suggests some possibilities.

A. T. Cole gets a mite preachy in places, but he convinces us that these are perilous times, and a strong fact-filled sermon may help convince us we must act now. Some readers in the West may take issue with his argument that “ranchers are in a position to play central role in contending with the onslaught of the climate and companion crises.” But Cole’s arguments must be considered. There are ways to ranch that are responsible and can repair the damage that ranching has caused in the past, and the Coles offer a fine example.

Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch is a timely, impressive, and important book, well written, extensively researched, and a compelling story. I hope it finds a wide readership everywhere, especially here in the arid Southwest.

Get your own copy of the book here: Restoring the Pitchfork Ranch: How Healing a Southwest Oasis Holds Promise for Our Endangered Land.

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karen k.
3 months ago

Encouraging words for restoration are fine, but then there was this statement:

There are ways to ranch that are responsible and can repair the damage that ranching has caused in the past, and the Coles offer a fine example.”

So, cows are not taking food and water that other organisms would use?
Cows are not selectively reducing the most nutritious grasses and forbs?
Soil and biocrusts are not compressed or damaged with each hoof step?
Manure and urine waste are not leaving forms of nitrogen that native species did not evolve with (but that weedy plants favor)?
Water and soil are not being polluted?
Invasive weeds and shrubs (native and nonnative) are not increasing in space or numbers?
Water (surface or ground) is not used to grow forage crops?
And every form and size of native predator is encouraged and supported?

This sounds like magic but not like rewilding.

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