One man's painstaking project to restore native grasses

When Tony Benson bought 3,000 acres west of the Río Grande Gorge in 1991, he saw more than a wind-blown moonscape. He saw potential.

J.R. Logan
Posted 3/18/15

When Tony Benson bought 3,000 acres west of the Río Grande Gorge in 1991, he saw more than a wind-blown moonscape. He saw potential.

In corners of the vast property were little pockets of native grasses eking out an existence in a brutal …

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One man's painstaking project to restore native grasses

When Tony Benson bought 3,000 acres west of the Río Grande Gorge in 1991, he saw more than a wind-blown moonscape. He saw potential.

Posted

When Tony Benson bought 3,000 acres west of the Río Grande Gorge in 1991, he saw more than a wind-blown moonscape. He saw potential.

In corners of the vast property were little pockets of native grasses eking out an existence in a brutal country. Benson was confident he could vanquish the invasive sagebrush that had claimed nearly all the rangeland, and bring back the grasses that once carpeted the mesa.

“What I didn’t realize was how tough it was going to be with five or six inches of rain every year,” says Benson, bouncing behind the steering wheel of his pickup on a tour of his living dryland laboratory.

For nearly 25 years, Benson has been trying to figure out how to get grasses to grow in a place with the same annual precipitation as the Mojave Desert. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t been easy.

First off, the ubiquitous sagebrush that once dominated the ranch is a mighty adversary. The coarse, woody shrub can be a nightmare to rip out, and Benson says he’s seen the plants extend a four-foot radius of shallow roots that choke out any other plants.

The loss of the mesa grasslands and the proliferation of sagebrush on the Taos Plateau is generally blamed on heavy grazing during the early 20th century. Benson thinks that’s only part of the story. Land management theorists like Allan Savory argue grazing animals can actually be beneficial if they’re managed correctly. Without them, land in “brittle” climates becomes infertile and barren.

“Our theory in talking to the old timers is that it was overgrazed from around 1895,” Benson says. “And after World War II, there was no grazing, so the lack of grazing for the last 50 or 60 years has allowed this sagebrush to take over.”

Benson now has about 40 head of cattle and 100 llamas on the property.

Even after the sage is removed, Benson says it takes a lot of luck getting something to grow in its place. Rain and snowfall are sporadic, and it takes the right amount of moisture at the right time for newly planted seeds to germinate.

Benson faces an equally mighty foe in the merciless winds that pound the ranch. The gales suck up what little moisture might be in the ground, and they wreck havoc on bare soil. In the spring, it’s not unusual to see dust storms erupting thousands of feet into the air in the area around Benson’s place.

Yet for all this adversity, Benson has had some impressive successes, much of it through simple trial and error.

“We’ve done most of this ranch, and now we’re kind of perfecting and fine tuning,” Benson says.

Benson says mowing the sage with a medieval tractor implement called a flail mower has been effective for the soil and microclimate at his ranch. While other places in the county use a disc harrow to tear the sage up, Benson says that method turns his soil to powder, and it blows away before anything else has a chance to set roots.

The flail mower, by contrast, knocks out the sage but preserves the topsoil to give native seeds a fighting chance.

Benson has also experimented with different types of cover crops. The idea is that the cover crop will grow quickly to capture moisture and keep the soil in place so that perennial grasses have a chance to get going.

While cover crops have proven very successful in more humid regions, the results so far at Benson’s ranch have been mixed.

Benson is hopeful that clover, winter wheat and winter rye will poke up in early spring if there’s enough moisture. If they do, he thinks those plants will lock down the silty soil during the hot, dry months of summer.

Benson says he’s also seen the ecological makeup of the ranch shift in the last 20 years of drought. “If we’re getting climate change, we seem to be getting more of this kind of stuff: winter fat, four-wing saltbush, fringing sage,” Benson says. “They’re very good forage in the winter, and they’re a lot more drought tolerant.

Since none of the ranch is irrigated, Benson is taking steps to hold on to the precipitation that does fall. He’s erected a series of one-rock dams in the arroyos that etch the ranch. The so-called dams don’t actually catch water. Instead, they slow it down, allowing it to soak into the ground instead of carving into it. “We’re getting the water to soak in here instead of running dirty water into the Rio Grande,” Benson says.

Restoring the ranch’s open rangeland is only one of Benson’s goals. He’s also gone to great lengths to thin the piñon and juniper forest that wrap around the western edge of the property. The work is meant to not only protect the property from wildfire, but improve pasture by opening up the woodlands so grasses can grow. The majority of the ranch's 3,000 acres as been designated as a conservation easement through the Taos Land Trust, an organization which Benson serves as a board member.

A quarter-century into the massive undertaking, Benson has managed to do some kind of restoration in most parts of the property. Some projects have gone better than others, and the ever-changing conditions mean it’s a job that might ever be finished.

“When I bought this, I was going to spend the rest of my life restoring this,” Benson says. “And that’s what I’m doing.”

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