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NMSU named lead institution for long-term research on Jornada basin

While a typical scientific research project runs on a two- or three-year cycle, researchers have always recognized many natural processes should be studied over much longer periods and over broad geographic areas, said Laura Huenneke, a plant ecologist and head of New Mexico State University's biology department.



New Mexico State University biology professor Laura Huenneke was named lead investigator for the Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research project in November. NMSU became lead institution for the project, which includes cooperation with several other universities and the administration of a six-year, $4.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)



"Here in the desert, for example, we know drought cycles happen on the scale of decades. We also know that unusual events, like the drought of the 1950s, have very long-lasting impacts that we still see today. So we can't understand today's rangeland without applying a longer time scale," she said.

Since 1980 the National Science Foundation has funded a network of long-range study projects in the United States under its Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. Currently, 24 projects are being funded in the United States and the NSF is cooperating with similar programs in more than 20 countries around the world, Huenneke added.

In November, NMSU became the lead institution for the long- term study project in the Jornada Basin, administering a $4.2 million grant for the next six years.

The Jornada Basin LTER has been in operation since 1981 and throughout this time NMSU has been the site of studies connected with it. For the past six years, though, the lead institution for the effort was Duke University in Durham, N.C., the home of botanist William H. Schlesinger, who was its lead investigator.

"At the last contract renewal, in 1994, Dr. Schlesinger was the clear choice to be the lead investigator for the project, but over time it became clear that the lead institution should be here, where the studies are going on," said Huenneke, who is now the lead investigator.

Currently, dozens of studies are being carried out under the umbrella of the Jornada Basin LTER. Sitting side by side in the Jornada, the NMSU-owned Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-owned Jornada Experimental Range, constitute an enormous outdoor laboratory, Huenneke said.

The studies include work on dust, erosion, wildlife populations, water and runoff, she said.

"We also study the relationships between vegetation and the soil," she added. "Both in the conventional way -- trying to understand how soil limits plant growth -- but also in a new, more exciting way -- trying to learn how plants feed into determining soil properties."

The research is given urgency by the growing desertification of areas around the world. Researchers have come to the Jornada LTER from South Africa, Argentina, Australia and even England to study the process and how, possibly, to keep it at bay, Huenneke said.

"All of us are here because this region has shown great changes in vegetation in the past 4,000 years, big swings between grasslands and the shrub conditions we see today. We suspect the system could show similar swings in response to the kinds of climatic variations that are predicted for the next 100 to 200 years," she said.

The underlying scientific question, she added, is, if nature has swung back and forth, what can humans do to restore function to the ecological system? The answers do not always come easily.

"A simplistic view is that overgrazing by livestock changes the system. So you put up fences and keep out livestock and the system should recover, but that doesn't work. We need to understand what long-term changes occur -- for example in the soil -- that limit recovery," she said.

"Another thing we're learning is that landscape and the neighborhood influence responses to small-scale efforts. You may fence off a spot and try to manage it, but its response could depend on dust blowing in or water flowing from up the slope," she said.

With more than a dozen scientists working on the LTER, there is no single, simple set of questions the group is addressing, but all agree on the need to understand the Jornada's processes over time, she said.

"Because human beings rely on these semi-arid ecosystems, we need to better understand the causes and consequences of these swings," she said.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/huenneke.jpg.
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CUTLINE: New Mexico State University biology professor Laura Huenneke was named lead investigator for the Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research project in November. NMSU became lead institution for the project, which includes cooperation with several other universities and the administration of a six-year, $4.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Jack King
Dec. 6, 2000