Red Canyon Reserve

Big Things on a Small Place

In early 2002, The Quivira Coalition received a 320-acre tract of land in the eastern foothills of the San Mateo Mountains, south of Socorro, New Mexico. It was a surprise gift from the estate of Michael Belshaw, a former economics professor who had retired to the property. Although Mike had been a member of the Coalition for some time, none of us recalled meeting him.

But suddenly here was this wonderful gift of land, bequeathed to The Quivira Coalition with the stipulation that it be “devoted to activities directed toward the preservation of the land and the wildlife, including, but not limited to, a wildlife refuge, research station, study retreat, or a demonstration ranch.”

We were honored – but what exactly were we getting? Our initial reconnaissance revealed two things: first, the property is truly impressive. The majestic Red Canyon bisects the property as it runs eastward from the flanks of the San Mateo Mountains toward the Rio Grande. Sierra Blanca Peak is visible through Mockingbird Gap in the Oscura Range. We saw right away that large mammals and many species of birds were using the property. There was also evidence of use by Native Americans, including several archaeological sites, historic campsites and structures, and rock art along canyon walls.

Second, we saw that the land was in poor health generally. Its ailments were typical of many small parcels of land in the arid Southwest. The problems included: sparse grass cover and low plant diversity; numerous deep gullies and erosion channels; poorly designed and constructed dirt roads; and poorly maintained fences and other infrastructure.

This presented us with a challenge: how do we go about restoring this small parcel to ecological health. Leave it alone? Or roll up our sleeves and get to work? We chose the latter option.

We concluded that the lack of cover and low plant diversity was due to poor livestock management practices. We saw that the erosion was caused by flash flooding, which was made worse by the lack of vegetation and poorly designed roads. In order to test our conclusions and to implement the solution, we wrote a management plan with a strategy for restoring land health over several years. The plan involved comprehensive monitoring, various inventories and surveys, a planned grazing program, restoration workshops, careful repair and closure of roads, and a series of steps taken to enhance the habitat for livestock, wildlife, and vegetation.

Today, we can call this effort a success. The recovery of the plants has been simply spectacular. We find new and vigorous plants and animals nearly every time that we monitor. In some places, the grasses nod in the wind at least four feet above the ground. The arroyos are healing, with the assistance of structures designed and built by Bill Zeedyk and others. The redesigned roads don’t dry up or erode the adjacent grasslands. We regularly see not only deer and antelope, but mountain lions, javelinas, coyotes, bats, falcons, and eagles. Lots of new birds can be found in that new grass, and we have plans to reintroduce and support some species that had been forced to move elsewhere. The land is healthier and more valuable for wildlife, livestock, and humans.

We believe that other owners of small land parcels can learn from our experience at the Red Canyon reserve, including the challenge of paying for the restoration work. All the techniques and methodologies that we tried can be implemented in other places.