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Terra: Sustaining the Range

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On the arid rangelands of Central Oregon western juniper has been waging a long, slow assault on native grasses. Juniper is a voracious water hog. Each tree can absorb gallons of precious rainfall in this high-elevation desert, leaving scant water for the perennial grasses and wildflowers that provide forage not only for cattle but also for deer and elk. Hundreds of other wildlife species - from grouse and raptors to hares and bobcats - also depend on native vegetation for habitat. Another harmful outcome of juniper encroachment is erosion. When groundcover dies back, rainwater rushes over the barren earth, forming a network of rills and gullies as storms wash away tons of soil. Rangeland ecologist Hugh Barrett points out the eroded slope where juniper has pushed out the native grasses. The accumulation of overland flow and its concentration in these small rills, and two rills join together here becoming a larger one with more energy, more ability to move sediment and material. It's all coming off these slopes that have lost their understory cover because of the competition with juniper. In short, this rangeland ecosystem has tipped out of balance. To stop the ecological decline, ranchers like Doc Hatfield are working with scientists at Oregon State University. If you've just got bare ground then whoosh, off it goes. Also if you've got a good enough native perennial grass cover, even when the ground is frozen, you get a lot of water in the ground - if you don't just have a gully washer on top of it. On a healthy range, rains soaks into the ground where it falls, sustaining vegetation, feeding streams and springs through underground reservoirs, and keeping pastures green later in the summer. Storing groundwater is the key. When precipitation is captured on the upper slopes instead of washing away, it moves downhill slowly, beneath the surface. The valley bottoms can store up to 30% water by volume. And that amounts to these things being underground reservoirs or sod-covered lakes that are yielding water later on in the year rather than just helping drain and dry out these watersheds if they weren't intact and were deep in, deep cuts. So we're keeping water higher in the watershed longer in the year. Travis Hatfield has been a part of the OSU/ranch-family partnership since he was eight years old. With his dad Doc and his mom Connie, little Travis would join OSU professors and students around the campfire during rangeland field trips, listening to his folks tell stories about life on the range. It wasn't long before Travis was telling stories of his own. Today, he represents the next generation of sustainable, science-based ranching in Central Oregon. And if you can put that water out underground on these meadows or anyplace where it can help the vegetation, then you can grow something. That if I could keep these drops close to where they hit the ground, it could put them to work for me, then I can create more vegetation and take care of my cattle. On the Hatfield ranch near a village called Brothers, a long-term study is yielding promising findings. The study, a "paired-watershed" experiment, compares two similar 400-acre drainages at Camp Creek, which straddles the Hatfield High Desert Ranch and public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Tim Deboodt, OSU rangeland Extension agent, has collaborated with ranchers on watershed management for 30 years. We would get folks saying, you know, "Gosh, I cut trees in an area and I got a spring that showed up I never knew was there". Or, "I had a spring and, you know, the flow seems to have increased since I removed the juniper". Well, they couldn't prove it. They didn't have any data. The study is giving researchers hard data confirming decades of anecdotal observations. Value of this research project is having its control match to its pair treatment. Watershed 1, called Jensen Canyon, is the control site. It has remained undisturbed by the researchers. During an OSU field trip for ecologists, environmental activists, government agents and graduate students, Hugh Barrett points out the poor condition of Jensen's slopes, badly eroded where juniper has pushed out native grasses. An example of one of those small rills concentrating more water into this channel, and it's got a lot of energy to move sediment; it's moving sands and silts and rock and all sorts of things. Watershed 2, called Mays Canyon, is the treatment site. After collecting baseline data in the canyon with high-tech instruments for 12 years, the researchers cut down most of the juniper, except the old-growth. The idea was to simulate the effects of natural wildfire. We treated from ridge top to ridge top down to the flume so that's what we're measuring. The results have stunned researchers and ranchers alike. In just four years, stream flows are up. Springs are gushing. Erosion has slowed. And native vegetation is flourishing once again. OSU rangeland hydrologist John Buckhouse has studied the interactions of juniper, perennial vegetation, water and cattle for several decades. Ok well, we've had a lot of studies and a lot of interesting things that have been developed over a 20 year period and as we take the pieces and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle what they start to do is tell a very, very fascinating story. The new generation is looking toward a sustainable future for their children and their grandchildren. One of my dreams will be when I get older is to have my daughter bring my grandkids out and that we'd be able to fish in here. Can do things right and according to what quote "nature" might like, I'm hoping that's something I can accomplish.

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 53 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Views: 91
Posted by: umarket on Feb 22, 2010

Ranchers and researchers restore a high-desert watershed.

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