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Jornada Experimental Range celebrates 100 years of rangeland research

When New Mexico achieved statehood in January of 1912, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was already 50 years old. In May of that year, an executive order signed by President Taft designated a large tract of what had previously been public-domain lands in the Jornada Basin as the Jornada Range Reserve. Now known as the Jornada Experimental Range, or simply "the Jornada," it was established within USDA's Bureau of Plant Industry.

Cattle of various colors on rangeland with stock tank.
Research on the adaptability of Criollo cattle to the conditions of the Jornada Basin is one research focus at the USDA/ARS Jornada Experimental Range near Las Cruces. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)
Remotely piloted airplane on an outdoor table with bystanders listening to presentation.
The use of small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for rangeland monitoring is being explored from a site on the 230,000-acre Jornada Experimental Range northeast of Las Cruces. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)
Jornada Experimental Range sign on stone pillar with blue sky, desert and mountains in background.
Entrance sign to the USDA/ARS Jornada Experimental Range northwest of Las Cruces. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The motivation for this action was widening recognition of, and concern about, rangeland degradation in the region. The reserve was established to demonstrate science-based solutions to address this degradation.

At the time, the parcel of nearly 200,000 acres northeast of Las Cruces was controlled by rancher Charles Turney, who held the water rights and ran livestock on it. According to Kris Havstad, currently the supervisory scientist at the Jornada, Turney was interested in rangeland research and agreed to cooperate in the establishment of the experimental range if he were allowed to continue his grazing,

The other key player in this arrangement was E.O. Wooton, a long-time professor at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now New Mexico State University. He had recently moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an agricultural economist for the USDA. He had been documenting the deteriorating state of rangeland in the area for a number of years, and some of that work had involved Turney and the lands he grazed.

In his new position, Wooton was largely responsible for arranging the creation of the Jornada. He also returned to the area to become the first USDA superintendent of that rangeland research enterprise.

Today, the research mission of the Jornada continues, with staff based on the campus of what is now New Mexico State University - in a USDA Agricultural Research Service building named for E.O. Wooton.

"The first research that was done here was really about how we manage livestock on these landscapes to maintain and sustain them," said Jeff Herrick, a senior soil scientist, speaking about the history of the Jornada.

Havstad concurred: "It was felt that it was really important to try to figure out what the capacity of these lands was in order to produce food and fiber, and that a research program had to be established here in New Mexico to help answer questions about how to utilize these resources for food production and to reverse the problems associated with degradation."

This is what ranchers in the early 1900s needed to know, in order to avoid overgrazing and to have healthy land that could get their herds through periods of drought.

The research at the Jornada still includes a livestock component - a herd of Criollo cattle, a hardy Spanish breed still common in Mexico, is being tested for adaptability to Jornada Basin conditions - but the scope of rangeland research has broadened considerably, as have their research partners and clients.

For one thing, Herrick said, rangeland management practices have changed with technology. Whereas regulating stocking rates was originally the main tool for protecting the land, scientific and technological advances in the middle of the 20th century led to research on to how to protect and restore rangeland through the use of herbicides and machinery in the battle against invasive shrubs. Livestock management research remained important, but the emphasis shifted to controlling undesirable species.

In the latter part of the century, there was recognition of the importance of understanding the processes at work on the rangeland. Scientists sought explanations rather than just evidence that certain possible solutions were more effective than others, and the focus shifted to ecological research.

"We strongly believe that we really can't manage these landscapes without an understanding of how the water, nutrients, seeds, plants, and animals all interact," Herrick said.

In 1982, NMSU's 60,000-acre Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center adjoining the Jornada became the site for the National Science Foundation-funded Jornada Basin Long-Term Ecological Research program. The Jornada Experimental Range later became involved, as well, and the Jornada and NMSU scientists conducting research through the 30-year series of LTER grants are linked into a whole network of researchers at other LTER sites across the U.S.

The latest development, one that is beginning now, is a push to better integrate the long-term ecological research with agricultural research. The USDA/ARS has formalized the Long-Term Agro-Ecosystem Research network, and the Jornada has been identified as one site of this LTAR science program. It joins nine other existing long-term research sites around the country in this network.

This news was shared publicly at the recent International Dryland Symposium, "Learning from Legacies, Sustaining the Future," sponsored by USDA/ARS and held in Las Cruces. Among other things, the symposium was a celebration of the Jornada Experimental Range's Centennial.

One of the benefits of a century of research on the Jornada, and its involvement in the 30 years of the LTER project, is the accumulation of a multitude of long-term data sets. These data, and data collected at a few similar sites, offer scientists wonderful opportunities to find answers to problems of long-term land change.

"If you think about it, a lot of things happen not slowly over time, but at particular points in time, maybe every 30 or 40 or 50 years," Havstad said. "If you think about the drought we've been experiencing recently in the United States, people compare it to the drought of the 1950s, or the drought of the 1930s. So we're now able to look back not only at what's been happening the last few years under our current drought conditions, but we have data from the 1950s and from the 1930s, and we can make these kinds of comparisons and get a sense of how things might be similar or how things might be different."

These data sets include climate information, such as temperature, rainfall, rainfall chemistry and evaporation rates, as well as soil information, vegetation dynamics and changes in land cover, erosion and changes in soils, and prevalence of various animals, including small mammals, spiders and birds.

These data sets are now being made available through the Internet to scientists around the world.

One of the most exciting research projects at the Jornada Experimental Range parcel involves the use of small unmanned aircraft for remote sensing. The team on this project is essentially mapping the terrain in great detail, using digital cameras on their GPS-guided low-flying airplanes. The images and video are transmitted to the ground station, where they are processed using special software. This approach offers the promise of much more thorough monitoring of the various elements of rangeland vegetation.

Herrick says he and his colleagues are excited about how the fundamental research they are doing is being integrated into the work of land managers, be they governmental entities like the Bureau of Land Management or nongovernmental groups and individuals.

To facilitate the application of their research findings to specific rangeland management problems, the Jornada is working toward the establishment of "a land management resource center that would allow us to more directly address the needs of the agencies in a timely fashion," Herrick said.

"What we hope to do with the future establishment of a center is to provide an organization that would be based on the latest available research, but would be even more responsive to the immediate needs of land managers."

The global nature of the Jornada enterprise manifests itself in several ways. In addition to worldwide sharing of data and research results through their website, conferences and publications, a number of Jornada scientists and other staff members spend time in other countries, including ones as far away as Africa, China and Mongolia, helping build capacity in rangeland research and management. And the Jornada Experimental Range draws scientists from many nations, particularly ones where similar rangeland ecosystems exist.

"The mission of the Jornada is still about achieving healthy landscapes, but now that mission is global and applicable to many different users and purposes," Havstad said.

For more information about the history, mission and work of the Jornada Experimental Range, go to http://jornada.nmsu.edu/