Grassland Restoration in the Desert Southwest

January 6, 2022
photo by Sarah King

Early settlers’ descriptions of southeast Arizona told of uninterrupted grassland stretching from one mountain range to another.

That’s changed. Today much of that land has been invaded by mesquite and other woody shrubs and the ecological services provided by the grassland – including water recharge into the underground aquifers – has been diminished.

One reason for the change has been fire – or more specifically the lack of it. Once viewed as natural to the landscape as rain, total fire suppression became standard practice in the early 1900s throughout the West. Without frequent fires to control their growth, the woody shrubs spread across desert southwest grasslands.

But as the importance of preserving the grasslands became more apparent, university researchers, conservationists, ranchers, government agencies and others began looking for ways to preserve these important landscapes, even in the face to today’s climate uncertainty.

Western SARE helped the effort by funding an important professional development project to bring all those experts and other interested people together for three day-long workshops looking at the history of the Southwest grasslands and management methods and options for controlling brush and woody species.

One thing that came out of the workshops was a Brush Management Matrix – a decision-support tool for ranchers and land managers to consult when considering brush-management projects.

“It’s really a key piece of how we think about brush management now,” said Sarah King, the executive director of the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance. “It walks you through different treatment ideas and helps landowners and managers see what might be the best approach.”

King’s group is active along with dozens of other government agencies, university researchers, landowners and tribal representatives in developing a watershed management plan for the Altar Valley southwest of Tucson. Because encroaching brush reduces water recharge into the valley’s underground aquifer, brush management is a key component of the plan.

The document is on-pace to be completed in the spring of 2022 and one unique component in it are what the authors are calling “Fifteen Percent Plans” – priority projects to tackle in the future that have about 15% of the preliminary planning completed.

“These plans look broadly at what would need to be done to complete the project – what agency would do it, how much it would likely cost, does it need engineering, those kind of questions,” King explained. “They’ll be vetted by the agencies and stakeholders then, if funding

does become available in the future, we can match projects to appropriate funding.”

Something else that came out of the workshops was a collection of online material that can be adapted or applied in other places.

“There was very good turnout at all the workshops,” said Sheila Merrigan, a media specialist at the University of Arizona. “But to extend the reach of the project beyond that immediate audience, all the presentations were recorded and are available on the web, and as part of the project we produced a series of six really excellent videos.”

Links to all six videos as well as all the presentations given during the workshops are available at

“It won’t be the same as being on a ranch and seeing the management techniques in action, but people can learn a lot from these online resources,” Merrigan said. “There is a lot of valuable information posted there.”

The workshops were organized by the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and The Rangelands Partnership.

Topics: Education and Training, Rangeland/Pasture Management
Related Locations: Arizona, West