We view restoration as a three-step process that includes
- Restoring the physical processes such as stream flow and groundwater recharge that are necessary to support both people and wildlife;
- Restoring vegetation and filling gaps at the base of the food chains that support biological diversity;
- Reconnecting people and nature by engaging local citizens in the restoration of local ecosystem services.
The grasslands, woodlands, and cienegas of the borderlands of southern Arizona and northern Sonora once supported exceptionally rich natural areas teeming with wildlife. Ground water withdrawals, overgrazing, and poor mining and agricultural practices over the course of two centuries left this area severely degraded. Many formerly perennial streams dried up and vegetative cover declined to the point where the sparse vegetation could no longer slow runoff. High-energy flooding left behind highly eroded streambeds. Wildlife declined, grasslands lost much of their soil, and, in many places, native grasses were lost and replaced by invasive thorn scrub.
BHRI has developed a unique approach to ecosystem restoration based on the experiences of Cuenca los Ojos and other restoration efforts in the region. CLO has constructed tens of thousands of berms, gabions and small rock dams to restore natural water flow. These structures slow the flow of water and stabilize the creeks, increase infiltration, and allow sediments to accumulate. Despite the drought conditions of the past decade, streams are once again flowing and vegetation and wildlife are returning. CLO is also restoring thousands of acres of shrub-invaded grasslands by removing thorn scrub and replanting with native grasses. In less than five years, the grasses and many native animal species are becoming reestablished. In addition to restoring upland streams and grasslands, CLO is restoring the Rio San Bernardino in northeastern Sonora– already the results are apparent, with perennial stream flow returning to a five mile stretch of the river and over 2000 acres of new riparian vegetation
The BHRI approach is strategic, focusing on gaps in the food chain and selectively planting of native vegetation to provide appropriate food resources for native wildlife species as they adapt to changing conditions. Our goal is not the return of the ecosystem to some ill-defined “pre-Columbian” state, but rather to increase the resiliency of the ecosystem. This involves identifying plant species native to the region that have been lost from portions of their ranges and establishing viable populations of a diverse assemblage of fruit- and nectar-producing plants that will support many animal species. Our first project, identifying gaps in the food chain, is focused on pollinators, because of the key role they play in increasing fruit production. We are conducting quantitative surveys of the bee and hummingbird species and estimating fruit production. We are also identifying gaps in the seasonal sequence of nectar producing wildflowers and flowering shrubs. Restoring the food chain in this case means re-introducing plant species that flower and fruit at different times of year so that food is available throughout the breeding and migratory seasons.
The first two steps to the BHRI restoration program—restoring stream flow and restoring food chains—are incomplete without the third essential step: reconnecting people and nature. Habitat restoration is not sustainable unless local citizens understand the benefits received from the restorations and actively participate in restoring ecosystems and ecosystem services in their own communities. Most people already understand the value of water and, with some prompting; they readily understand the services provided by pollinators.
We are piloting our community engagement program in Patagonia, AZ, in the Sonoita Creek watershed of southeastern Arizona. We have held a series of well-attended public meetings, established several pollinator gardens, held workshops on native plant propagation, and began restoring three natural areas along Sonoita Creek. We are currently raising several thousand native plants of species used by hummingbirds and other pollinators, and we have already begun naturalizing these plants at the Sonoita Creek Preserve of the Nature Conservancy and on two other private properties. We are working with the appropriate agencies on plans to begin two hydrological restoration demonstration projects in Sonoita Creek. And, of course, we are involving local citizens in every stage of planning and implementing the restoration work.