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NMSU alum returns to site of 1935 summer job at former College Ranch

In the summer and winter of 1935, Richard C. Johnson spent time conducting a range reconnaissance survey at New Mexico State University's College Ranch, located north of Las Cruces. This summer, Johnson, who graduated from NMSU in 1936 with a degree in animal husbandry, returned to tour what is now known as the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center to reminisce about his time at the ranch and see how it has changed over time.

For the first time in 76 years, Richard C. Johnson returned to New Mexico State University's former College Ranch. An NMSU graduate, Johnson spent time on the ranch in 1935 conducting a range reconnaissance survey. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

"I really wanted to go back to the ranch," Johnson said. "I had not been back to the College Ranch since that December and I really wanted to see what the ranch looked like. When I was there in '35, it was a beautiful piece of semi-desert grassland, principally black grama, and essentially no mesquite at all."

Johnson said he was surprised - and a little disappointed - to see the range invaded by the mesquite.

"Mr. Johnson indicated that the encroachment of woody species was the most surprising part of the picture to him," said Jerry Hawkes, an associate professor in agricultural economics and agricultural business. Hawkes was one of Johnson's tour guides through the ranch. "This has been a process that has been an issue throughout many rangelands and his recollection of the ranch 70-plus years ago was quite a story."

Though the flora and fauna of the ranch might have changed over time, it has not changed so much that Johnson cannot recall fond memories of his time there, covering large portions of the range on foot, cataloguing the density of the various types of vegetation. The data gathered was used to determine the carrying capacity of the range.

Johnson said his time spent working on the ranch served him well after he graduated from the former New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. He spent the majority of his career in various fields in national forests in the Southwest; one of his first jobs after graduation was as a junior range examiner for the U.S. Forest Service, performing range surveys on various national forests in Arizona and New Mexico.

Johnson, who was born and raised in an agricultural community near Las Vegas, N.M., also served with the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service, as a 4-H club advisor in Dona Ana County and then as an assistant county agent in Roosevelt County.

The alumnus also spent nearly four years serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, from February 1942 to December 1945.

He retired as forest supervisor at the Gila National Forest in December 1973.

Though he is retired, Johnson has stayed active in the Society for Range Management, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, the American Forestry Association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and other civic and community organizations.

And he has not forgotten where he got his start in his career. Johnson said that though he is not rich, he wanted to pay back the university for all it has done for him over the years. He is doing this through an endowed scholarship that provides financial assistance to juniors and seniors at NMSU who have a study focus in range sciences.

Johnson said that he had been wanting to return to the College Ranch for some time now and was grateful that the opportunity came now.

"I was glad to get back to see that piece of country that I knew real intimately working along there," Johnson said.

"Mr. Johnson shared an insight that only he could provide," Hawkes said. "I found this discussion very interesting and valuable, as he discussed the past relative to the current state of the ranch."