Range Restoration: Building Topsoil

The Painted Pony Resort lies in San Simon Valley between the Chiricahua Mountains and Peloncillo Mountains of southwestern New Mexico just a couple of miles from the Arizona boarder which bisects the valley.  An open valley set between towering mountains ranges a variety of people have called it home.  From early hunter gather groups to early agricultural groups such as the Mimbres and Hohokam and up to the present the valley has seen it all, from hunting to farming and most recently grazing.

Past range management decisions, beginning in the late 1800's with corporate ranching combined with changes in rainfall have resulted in a generally altered rangeland in many areas of the valley.  A decrease in grasses combined with an increase in woody shrubs, notably mesquite and creosote, have reduced the current productivity of the landscape.  A local attempt to restore and sustain the grasslands is spearheaded by the Malpai Borderlands group whose goal "is to restore and maintain the natural processes that create and protect a healthy, unfragmented landscape to support a diverse, flourishing community of human, plant and animal life in our borderlands region."  Through their efforts much of the bootheel is managed for both cattle and wildlife.  Yet there are other areas (notably public lands, state and federal) where management practices are not producing an increasingly productive landscape but rather a continuing decrease in productivity is observed (see image below).  One of the goals at the Painted Pony Resort is to increase range land productivity on the estate through the grasslands restoration project.

The estate is composed of 750 deeded acres spanning the both sides of the San Simon Riverbed, it includes 6 types of soil, and last year received about 10.75" of rain (CoCoRaHS rain network, NM-HD-17).  The ground cover varies significantly across the estate and ranges from areas denuded of grasses where erosion has eliminated the topsoil to other areas such as the riverbed where fencing has created a seed reservoir used for spreading native grass seed back onto the surrounding landscape.  After successful preliminary experiments with simple top soil restoration barriers as a tool to slow erosion and encourage new grasses these barriers were expanded in both scope and materials.  Instead of simple barriers constructed from cut weeds, mesquite from the riverbed was employed to create topsoil restoration barriers.  Mechanically removed mesquite is transported up out of the riverbed and placed in rows perpendicular to either the dip or to the prevailing winds on a scarified subsoil base.  Grass from the riverbed is then harvested and placed on the upwind (up dip) side of the mesquite barrier followed by some soil from the riverbed to reintroduce microbes and nematodes crucial to developing new topsoil.  The branches of the mesquite combined with raked grasses create micro climates on the exposed subsoil leading to new plant growth.

The result of this effort is already producing results.  As shown below the mesquite topsoil barriers have caught wind blown seed, slowed water flow and new grasses are developing along the restoration barriers.  A simple technique that can be implemented by anyone, the topsoil restoration barriers are useful tools for building new topsoil and restoring the landscape and best of all require no investment beyond time and energy.

loss of ground cover results in loss of topsoil
Blowing dust on New Mexico State land, the result of poor range management decisions.

Soil map showing the boundaries of the Painted Pony Resort.

landscape restoration
Three topsoil restoration barriers installed on the exposed subsoil, click to enlarge.

New grass along a mesquite topsoil barrier

New grass along a topsoil barrier
A topsoil restoration barrier with new grass created from road waste.


  1. Did some rancher over-graze your area before it became the Painted Pony?

  2. I believe that browsers and grazers are essential to a healthy landscape but balance is important and unless there is a strong incentive to maintain and improve the landscape degradation is inevitable. It is an example of the tragedy of the commons. So to answer your question - yes. There are areas at the north end of the estate that are mostly creosote with little grass which indicates long term degradation. Some of the land was owned by a local who has since passed away. Toward the end there were cattle dying on the landscape from lack of feed. In addition since New Mexico is a fence out state, I have had to move over 40 head of cattle off the estate on multiple occasions. Fencing has taken care of that problem and now it is restoration time. But even with fences some do not respect land belonging to others and I recently had a fence removed and cattle introduced. Land productivity is measured one way out here - how many cattle will it support. But I would argue there are other measures of productivity which are just as valid. In any event the restoration improves the land (and land values) no matter how it used in the future.

  3. ah, I know of some who also cut fences so their cattle could graze. one of many reasons I quit eating beef. but that is another story.

  4. It was an unfortunate occurrence but can be considered a measure of success, since land under restoration is attractive enough to to some they run cattle on you. Three ranchers have asked about leasing for cattle and I explain that right now we are more interested in restoration efforts, resting the land to improve the grasses. One significant change I have noticed this year is the presence of 2 species of grama grass in the front garden. Its appearance along with other grasses in the garden area suggest the implementation of seed reservoirs and restoration efforts are having a positive effect.

  5. I noticed more than one type of Gramma grass here also. I hope to hear Al Bammann's talk about native grasses at Heritage Days.

  6. Yes, there are 13 species of warm weather grasses around the riverbed and I have seen 5 of those grass species on the new expansion property.

  7. It's great to see that your mesquite topsoil barriers are already producing results in the form of wind blown seed and slowed water flow. Nicely done!

  8. Thank you. I continue to build these structures across any open barren ground with with a variety of materials to rehabilitate the landscape. It makes good business sense as well as demonstrates good stewardship of the land. I just need native grazers to move in for the cycle to be complete.