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The American Sahara
The New Desert Beneath Our Feet
by Thomas J. Elpel

      The world you see outside your window probably seems quite normal to you. Except for the new roads and houses it is the same world you've always known. That's the irony of it. We can transform half a continent of rich grasslands and forest into a wasteland, yet few people would ever notice the difference. It happened in Greece, where the lush Mediterranean forests were cut down and the rich, deep soils washed out into the sea. We expect Greece to be mostly barren and rocky. That's what the pictures show us of the old Greek ruins. It is normal to us now.

      Human activity is also responsible for eliminating the forests that once covered much of the Middle East. Even the Sahara Desert, spanning 3,000 miles across northern Africa, is largely a human-made desert. The fertile soils there once grew the grain that supported the Roman Empire. But all that is gone and the desert is "normal" now. We expect a desert there, because that is how it was on the maps when we were children.

Forty percent of North America's crop and rangelands have turned to desert. Sand dunes are visibly forming along the farm fields in places like Mud Lake, Idaho.
      Today we are creating a new Sahara, an American Sahara, right beneath our feet, yet few people have noticed. Our grandchildren may think it completely normal to live in a world of sand dunes and barren rock, because that is the world they will grow up in. According to Newsweek, 40% of North America's crop and rangelands have already turned to desert. But there are many degrees of desertification, and we've only seen the beginning.

      For the novice the process of desertification is easiest to observe on rangelands with bunch grass ecology. The exposed soil between the grass is spreading, and you can watch it grow from year to year. You can watch the soil disappear and the ground become progressively more gravely, rocky and weedy. It is not climate change. The land is drying up and blowing away because there are very few new seedlings to replace the older grasses and forbs that naturally die out.

      Many ecologists are familiar with the problem of the dying cottonwoods. Cottonwood trees require periodic floods to initiate germination of new seedlings. Without floods there are no young trees to replace the old and dying ones. Look for it along the rivers where dams have altered the natural flood cycle. In controlled rivers you will typically find many old trees but few young ones. The problem on our rangelands is very similar. The old grasses are dying out and there are few young ones to replace them.

      Many people want to blame cows for wasting the range, but from the perspective of the grass, the species of animal (bison, cattle, elk, antelope, etc.) doesn't really matter, as long as they have sharp hooves and the ability to convert range plants to dung and urine. The root of the desertification problem is a simple change in the natural pattern of grazing and recovery.

      Historically western rangelands were grazed and maintained by massive herds of buffalo. The important part was not the buffalo, but the sequence of grazing. Predators forced the buffalo to stay clustered in tight herds for safety. Some herds were so massive that observers described them as miles wide and hours or even days long in passing. They destroyed everything in their path, trampling all the grasses, all the sage--every bit of organic matter--right into the soil. Their hooves and urine killed the moss while desirable plant seeds were pounded into the soil to germinate. Old or dead vegetation was trampled into the ground where soil microbes could break it down. The organic litter helped retain moisture for plant growth. Gradually the debris rotted and returned the nutrients to the soil. The roaming bison left the prairie to recover without further interference, allowing for lush and unrestrained growth.

Livestock spread out and graze over wide areas--they no longer trample down standing dead grasses from previous years.
      Putting fences across the land and stocking it with cattle creates a new sequence of grazing, which logically has a different effect on the land. Without predators the cattle spread out and graze over wide areas--they no longer trample down standing dead grasses from previous years. This old material blocks sunlight, killing the new growth below. Old vegetation stands for years, slowly decomposing through oxidation and weathering. Valuable nutrients are locked up in the old growth--unavailable for living plants. With fences to keep the cattle contained, the young plants are eaten repeatedly as grazing animals return without allowing the vegetation to recover. Burning the range can accelerate desertification, stealing vital organic matter from the soil and putting it into the atmosphere to contribute to global warming.

This cow track in freeze-thawed soil harbors dozens of new grass seedlings, while the surrounding soil is devoid of growth.
      Loss of organic matter also results in lack of soil structure, breaking down the granules or clumps of aggregated soil particles that allow air circulation and penetration of water and roots. Raindrops strike the exposed ground, pulverizing and separating the soil, just like you might find under the drip line of a house. The fine particles of silt, sand and clay dry to form a hard surface crust. Seeds cannot grow through the capped surface, and bare patches develop between the plants. Weeds, brush and grasshoppers thrive in the open patches. New moisture is lost as runoff and may cause floods. Water bypasses the water table and old springs can dry up. Freezing and thawing, plus wetting and drying can also cause the top inch of the soil to become so porous and fluffy that seeds dry out before they germinate.

      Seedling germination in seasonal rainfall environments is always a challenge, even under the best of circumstances. The seeds must be thoroughly mixed with the soil and covered with organic matter and manure fertilizer to hold the moisture and protect them from the sun. Otherwise the delicate seedlings dry out and die before they become established. The more extreme or brittle the climate is the more difficult it is for new seedlings to germinate. The Salt Lake City area was once described as having "grass belly high to a horse", yet that is not the landscape you see there today. The "normal" landscape is gray only because the grass is gone.

Hard capped soils prevent grass seeds from germinating. Those that do germinate deep down in the cracks are over shadowed by broad-leafed plants like weeds. Bennet Hills, Idaho.
      I've worked in other areas in the Great Basin where the range grass still grows more than two feet tall, but there is fifty feet of bare ground between one bunch grass and the next. The same process can be seen on even the greenest rangelands across the West, just at a slower rate in places that are less brittle than the Great Basin. The old grasses are dying, and there are few new grasses to take their place. The few species that can germinate and spread under those conditions are invasive weeds imported here from other countries--knapweed, whitetop, Dalmatian toadflax, cheat grass, and others.

      That's part of the irony. People have watched in despair as these foreign invaders have taken over ecosystems, wiping out the native flora, turning productive grasslands into weedy wastelands in the span of a few years. Exotic plants like spotted knapweed visibly accelerate the process of desertification, associating with fungi in the soil to pull carbon away from nearby grasses. While perusing a new wildflower guide from Montana's Bitterroot Valley I noticed that 25% of the species depicted--our most common "wildflowers"--were alien weeds, mostly adapted to desertifying conditions. Much of the Bitterroot Valley is completely devoid of native plants--a destiny which awaits the rest of Montana and the West. People are making an all-out assault on these invasive species, trying to kill weeds to save the range, but sadly doing nothing to stimulate the germination of desirable species.

      In a wet year the range greens up in a spectacular way, as the established grasses grow tall and cheatgrass and other weeds fill the voids. It looks pretty, and unfortunately, most people cannot tell the difference anyway. But without the impact of animals to break down dead vegetation and plant the desirable seeds, the extra moisture only stimulates the germination of more weeds, sometimes two or three crops in a year.

The real problem is that our rangelands are turning to desert. Our land use practices lead to more and more bare ground between the plants, and bare ground is exactly what invasive weeds need to thrive. Pony, Montana.
      If you study the early stages of a knapweed invasion you can often see that the land is dying first, and the weed seeds are simply taking advantage of available niches in the ecosystem. Spotted knapweed was identified near Missoula, Montana eighty years ago, and has already spread across more than 5 million acres within the state. It continues to spread exponentially across the land. In advanced knapweed infestations, where all native plants are gone, even the knapweed eventually becomes spindly and sickly, because without stimulation the land continues to die. We are creating a new desert in America to rival the Sahara, but very few people can see a difference in their day-to-day lives. To most people the world seems perfectly normal and it always will, no matter what we do to it.

      Halting the process of desertification and turning these barren, weedy places back into fertile, productive landscapes is relatively easy, but it requires playing by the rules of the ecosystem. If we listen and learn the ways of the ecosystem then we can restore the health of the land and still get the productivity we want.

      Despite the promise of higher profits, most mainstream ranchers have yet to embrace this new concept of range ecology. Endorsement of the new paradigm implies that the old ways of doing business were wrong. It implies that wild animals and open ranges are better, and that the predator is an essential part of the ecosystem. It is little wonder that the new paradigm is often treated as heresy and treason among ranchers.

      But a few innovative souls like Don and Cleo Shaules, near Billings, Montana, have embraced the new ideas. They mimic the historical sequence of grazing with the aid of carefully laid out fences, to put more animals in smaller spaces for shorter periods of time. Additional impact may be achieved by herding the animals, or by putting feed or supplements in areas where impact is especially desired. The impact of the animals effectively breaks down old plants while also inoculating the landscape with bacteria in the form of manure. With heavy animal impact the Shaules have successfully trampled cactus and sagebrush into the dirt, while "rototilling" the soil to favor new seedlings. The rich, brown soil humus increased from 1/4 inch up to 1 1/2 inches in just ten years, and the Shaules have been able to more than double their livestock numbers.

We wintered our "herd" of one cow on the most brittle, erosion-prone part of our land. Hay was put out in a different spot each day, and any that was not eaten was trampled into the ground, resulting in an explosion of new seedlings and growth in spring.
      That's part of the irony too, since desertification is the reason so many people are calling for less livestock on western rangelands. It's only common sense. Cows are destructive beasts that waste the land where ever they go, consuming the choicest greens, trampling vegetation, crumbling stream banks and fouling the water. Logically, cattle are perceived as a negative force that must be removed or greatly reduced for the landscape to recover. Who would ever expect that these beasts could be good for the land? Cows are not the problem. The problem is our management practices, or lack thereof, that allows livestock to linger, overgrazing the same tender greens again and again, when they should be moving on, clustered into massive herds so that they destroy everything in their path and then leave it to recover.

      Stimulation of the soil may not kill out mature weeds, which come back from the roots, but it does encourage desirable plant species to germinate and out-compete new weed seedlings. In test plots knapweed seedlings were virtually eliminated, while good grasses like Idaho fescue were favored. Knapweed only lives five to seven years, so the important part is to change the conditions on the soil surface that govern germination. Stimulate the natives to out-compete the weeds and we can solve the weed problem and reverse the process of desertification.

      In every region of the world with vast grasslands there were also massive herds of animals and predators associated with them. That was true in the Sahara, where elephants, giraffes and other animals once grazed the abundant range, until the land started drying up 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Now the desert stretches 3,000 miles long, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. The Sahara is 1,200 miles wide, spreading so fast that its boundaries can be mapped each year by satellite. There are regions within the Sahara larger than the state of Oregon that are completely devoid of all plant and animal life.

Our one cow experiment led to a much tighter plant cover.
      It was also true in places like South Africa, where Dutch settlers sometimes named their towns after the free-flowing springs, like Elandsfontein, Springfontein, or Buffelfontein, using their word for fountain or spring. The settlers described herds of springbok (like antelope) so vast that they trampled everything in their path as they migrated through, including teams of oxen that could not be unhitched in time. But now the grasslands, the springs and the wildlife are all gone, and the remaining range supports very few livestock. The climate did not change, according to weather records, but the land still turned to desert.

      It happened hundreds of years ago in the desert southwest of this country, where the remains of numerous ancient traps for antelope reveal the past presence of massive herds. Archaeologists speculate that climate change, over-population or war led to the demise of the Anasazi, but more likely it was deforestation and the regular use of fire to drive the game that caused desertification and the abandonment of their settlements. People always like to point to climate change as the problem, because that is what it looks like when the land dries up and blows away! When our grandchildren look back at our own time and the long gone forests and grasslands, they too may point to climate change as the cause of desertification and the vast American Sahara, but the desert will be completely "normal" to them.

Using animals to improve landscape health.
      Just think about the tumbleweeds you see blowing across western highways, or shown blowing across the fields in old western movies. They seem normal to us, but tumbleweeds are introduced weeds from other continents--there were no tumbleweeds here in the old West! Likewise, more than 500 species of native North American plants and animals are missing or extinct, but hardly anybody noticed. Did you? We accept our world as normal no matter what it looks like!

      Adding to the ironies of desertification is the fact that many environmentally conscientious people adamantly despise cows and are willing to do anything to remove them from public lands--precisely because these smelly beasts trample, manure and destroy everything around them. Environmentalists are even more conservative than ranchers to embrace the new paradigm of range ecology, because to do so implies an endorsement of cattle on public lands. They do not want to hear that cows can be good for the land, and they try to forget the idea as quickly as they hear it. In short, the environmental community is unwittingly fueling North America's greatest environmental disaster.

Allan Savory on Keeping Cattle
Cause or Cure for the Climate Crisis?
      Like many people, I would rather see a return to the massive wild herds of bison, elk and antelope, with their associated predators. There are a few key places, like the one hundred mile long expanse of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in central Montana, where we can start right now to buy back the grazing permits, to replace the cattle with bison and wolves. But for most of the west, we simply do not have enough wild animals to restore what once was. Until we do, we must work with cattle as the best available alternative. It would be foolish to do otherwise, to let the desertification continue.

      Today we still have the opportunity to change course, to give our grandchildren a living green world. We can win the West's war on weeds with the aid of animal hooves to stimulate the soils to support our native flora. We can create a world that is even richer and more abundant than the one we know today.

      Let me point out though, that there is a big difference between knowing what to do versus knowing how to do it. Beating the heck out of the landscape with massive herds of wild or domestic animals is an easy idea to portray in the few lines of an article. But there are also logistical concerns--people, money, and conflicting goals or unique situations--that require dialogue, planning, testing and monitoring. True sustainability has little to do with what happens on the land, but everything to do with the people that manage the land. Our efforts to restore the health of the land will only be successful when we work together through a holistic process towards a common vision, with a framework for making and testing our decisions.

Additional Resources:

Charley Orchard specializes in training people to assess land health and make better management decisions with the aid of his Land EKG monitoring system.

Brian Sindilar at Rangehands, Inc. provides a consulting service to ranches to assess rangeland health, set goals, and create workable and sustainable management plans.

Be sure to check out the book Holistic Management: A New Framework For Decision Making and the video Creating a Sustainable Civilization.

Also be sure to visit the Center for Holistic Management.

Continue with Brittle and Non-Brittle Environments

-Burleson, Wayne. "Our Fences are Shrinking." The Whole Approach: Belgrade, MT. Vol. 1. No. 1. Pgs. 7-8.
-Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE. 1985.
-Kurtz, Caroline Lupfer. "Plant Interactions: Knapweed Gets a Boost From Fungus." Research View (A Publication of the University of Montana-Missoula) Vol. 1, No. 2. June/July 1998. Pages 1-2.
-Olson, Bret E., Roseann T. Wallander, and John R. Lacey. "Effects of sheep grazing on a spotted knapweed-infested Idaho fescue community." Journal of Range Management. Volume 50, # 4. July 1997. Pages. 386-390.
-Rohr, Dixon. "Too Much, Too Fast." Newsweek. June 1, 1992. Pg. 34.
-Savory, Allan. Holistic Resource Management. Island Press: Covelo, CA. 1988.
-Tilford, Greggory. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Mountain Press Publishing Co.: Missoula, MT 1997.

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