Imagine: You’re standing at the high point of a desert watershed—a hilltop with mesquite, aloe, and ocotillo scattered amid a sea of desert shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers. Too many species to name. The numerous pollinators supported by those plants—several hundred species of native bees, more than 200 types of butterflies, plus moths, hummingbirds, and bats—dart about in search of the sweet nectar hidden inside each individual flower. That nectar-seeking behavior increases the productivity of the plants, and the resulting feast of fruits, seeds, and flowers attracts a cadre of reptiles, mammals, and birds to the area. Those animals draw others, too—not to gorge on hyperproductive plants, but to eat the other animals. The droppings they leave fertilize the soil and deposit undigested seeds. Nutrients recycle into the earth as old growth decays, further increasing the diversity and resilience of the ecosystem.
Then something changes. A shift in policy, say, opens the previously undeveloped land to use by ranchers. Cattle and horses begin to nibble at the greenery. And though the environmental impact of this particular sort of human use falls far short of highway construction, residential development, or mining, nothing is without its effect. The livestock pull up mouthfuls of native plants by the roots, methodically grazing until the layer of dirt below is revealed, then move on to the next patch and repeat.
The rains come. Water flows from the hilltop down to the surrounding plains, before it ultimately evaporates, infiltrates the ground, pools, or finds the sea. But, with the diverse tangle of plants that once covered this imaginary watershed thinned, the water moves faster across the land than ever before. It cuts into the earth forming gullies, trenches, and washes that continue to deepen over time. The ecosystem naturally begins to favor drought-tolerant plants. Water-loving species disappear, along with their flowers, and a portion of the pollinators abandon the area. With the diversity of pollinators goes the supercharged plant productivity, and other species follow. Imagine an ecosystem in decline.
Now imagine that there’s something you can do about it.
Just north of Patagonia, Deep Dirt Farm Institute (DDFI) sits on 34 acres of rolling hills and desert grassland. Kate Tirion, DDFI’s founder and executive director, says that although many ecominded individuals have been made to feel “kind of hopeless” with regard to their ability to act against human-caused environmental destruction, DDFI is a place of empowerment.
“When you actually give people an opportunity … to do a hands-on project,” Tirion says, “when you’re actually touching that work, you’re physically engaged in it, there’s a memory that happens in your cells and it says ‘Yes, I can, as an individual, do something about the global situation.’”
DDFI is the demonstration site for the local naturalist group known as Borderlands Restoration. At DDFI, you’ll find numerous structures made with reclaimed and sustainable materials fitted to harvest rainwater, a roughly 1,400-square-foot greenhouse with food plants and native pollinator species, composting and soil-enrichment systems, and a small orchard meant to provide food and hardwood resources in the long term. “What we’re demonstrating here is the restoration of the underlying processes of the watershed,” says Tirion. “So we’re dealing first and foremost with erosion and rainwater infiltration, then we’re growing and putting in native pollinator plants in support of wildlife.” The idea, she says, is to both rehabilitate and maximize the production of the natural landscape, and to then integrate those processes with human demands on the land. And, she says, their success has been measurable—DDFI has infiltrated more rainwater into the water table than they’ve used over the last five years.
Where the efforts of DDFI have shown that small-scale habitat restoration is achievable, partner organization Borderlands Restoration has been implementing the same habitat solutions on public and private lands across Baja Arizona since 2012. Operating on a budget of $500,000 a year, most of which comes from grants from organizations like the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, cofounder and executive director David Seibert sees the group as stewards of what he calls “the actual infrastructure of the nation—the ground we walk on.” Although there is currently no public entity entrusted with maintaining and improving the country’s habitats and ecosystems in the face of threats like soil degradation, flooding, or fire damage, Seibert doesn’t think it’s “too much of a stretch” to imagine such a network in place at some point. In the same way that governments put money aside to fight wildfires, for example, Seibert says it seems rational to do the same in order to rehabilitate land after a fire. And, he says, Borderlands Restoration and a number of their partner groups would be more than happy to be seen as the “hotshot crews of restoration.”
Today, Borderlands Restoration is at work on 16 contracts, ranging from creating wildlife habitat and linkages between those habitats, to propagating and planting pollinator species, to restoring and managing water flow on a variety of public and private watersheds. They offer a handful of volunteer opportunities during which participants can learn about the care and propagation of native plant species and, beginning this year, thanks to a six-figure grant from the nonprofit Biophilia Foundation, Borderlands was able to hold the first six-week session focused on teaching that methodology to students at their newly established Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute—a program they intend to continue indefinitely.
For those looking to get their hands dirty before the next round of Borderlands classes kicks off in 2018, Tirion says that, although DDFI currently has no regular volunteer opportunities to speak of, they are willing to work with interested community members to build custom workshops around their needs.
For more information on Borderlands Restoration or the Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute, visit BorderlandsRestoration.org and BorderlandsInstitute.org. For more on Deep Dirt Farm Institute, visit DeepDirtInstitute.org.
Craig S. Baker is a local freelance writer. You can see more of his work at CraigSBaker.com.