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NMSU researcher, collaborators work to create best tools to help restore landscapes with native seed

Courtesy photo

New Mexico State University Assistant Professor of Rangeland Restoration Ecology Akasha Faist and her collaborators have begun a new research project in the Chihuahuan desert to test novel restoration techniques, such as creative seed mixes using native seeds, to identify ways to overcome barriers to ecological restoration success. 

The ultimate goal of this project in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is to develop and communicate tools for land managers and owners to use in future restoration projects. 

Faist and her lab focus on drylands and depending on what kind of disturbance has been made to a landscape, look at the best way to restore that ecosystem. 

“We look at using native seeds to try and bring a degraded ecosystem back,” Faist said. “For instance, if we’re trying to get grass back on the landscape, you ideally want a grass species that is adapted to that ecosystem. We are very hot and dry here in the Chihuahuan desert, so we want to put seeds out that are more appropriate for the landscape because then we might have a better chance of restoration success.” 

Through successful restoration the effects of human and naturally caused disturbances can be reduced. Faist is working with the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, a network of restoration practitioners and seed growers, to identify tools, research needs and ways to effectively restore ecosystems in the Chihuahuan region, nationally and farther. 

“For this project we are testing restoration techniques and conducting research to hopefully improve ecosystem restoration efforts,” Faist said. “We’re looking at different native seed mixes, as some might work together to be more effective and have greater success rates. If we can find the right seed combination to use on the landscape we might have better restoration success. When doing this we also ask ourselves is there something else we need to do? If we put the perfect seed mixes out, but the habitat is too degraded or not ideal, what do we need to do for that? Perhaps we can find ways to enhance water availability in the beginning so seeds can germinate and establish. We’re trying creative native species mixes to see how we can give those seeds the best chance for survival out in the landscape.” 

Faist is working with a variety of different agencies with funding coming from the National Seed Strategy, Bureau of Land Management, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

“I am personally really excited about this project because it’s so collaborative with the common goal to develop tools and technologies to help rangelands and land managers have the best tools in their tool box and not have to worry about the research. We can communicate the best methods we have identified in our research efforts, which is another big part of this project.” Faist said. 

She explained that while planting native seeds in areas that are degraded and potentially don’t have sufficient vegetation, or necessary soil stability that is important for the landscape and ecosystem, it is also really important for human health to reduce dust emissions.

“I often use the example of when you’re driving along the freeway, you know how you can see dust storms? If you have big open spaces that don’t have vegetation or some form of soil stability holding the soil in place, wind can come in and move that soil in the form of dust into the air,” Faist said. “If you can increase the amount of plants on that landscape and reduce the bare spaces then we can keep the precious top soil where it is. It also has direct human health benefits because dust isn’t something we want to breathe in and can have ill effects on humans. So, through successful restoration efforts there are very clear direct and indirect benefits.” 

When it comes to what kind of native seeds are used, Faist said it depends on what the end goal is for the landscape being worked on. Different mixes of seeds will be used and in the process of developing seed mixes, growers will be worked with closely to make sure there is enough of the appropriate seeds for restoration. 

“We will most often use native species that are found on the landscape to begin with,” Faist said. “If our ultimate goal is to return the area to a grassland that is to be actively grazed, then we will use grasses that are great for a native range forage. But maybe we also want to use different plants that might be quicker to come in and establish than our slower growing target grasses. Here, even though the end goal is these desirable grasses, using different plant species may be the stepping stone to first stabilize the soil and then get to the goal of the grass later in the process.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about what seeds are available and if we need more, how can we get more? We can go out and collect from nearby landscapes, but restoration projects can be quite large and we don’t want to collect all the seeds on the landscape, so we work closely with growers who are growing their own native seeds,” Faist said. “It’s really an interconnected project and if we find something that works great in our restoration projects we can communicate that finding and go forward with growing them for future restoration efforts.” 

Depending on what the end goal is for a certain landscape, the method of restoration can vary and so can the time span for how long it takes to get there. Faist hopes that by creating the tools necessary to get the restoration process started, the end results, no matter how far off they may be, can be achieved. 

“Maybe the landscape we’re looking at has an end goal that might take 20 years to get to, but we’re not going to come back every year for 20 years to actively make this happen, we just want to correctly set everything up to get it in motion,” Faist said. “We want to use the best mixes, species and habitat augmentations so we can get the system we want in 20 years where the effort we put in is potentially only one or two or maybe three years.” 

“The amount and timing of efforts also depends on the disturbance,” Faist said. “If the goal is erosion control after a fire then we need fast control, but maybe we have another longer-term project and we want perennial grasses on the landscape we will treat it a little differently, and that’s part of this project to develop tools for land managers; we’re thinking long term. You may conduct the research and learn you can put seeds down now, but you have to wait five years to get the results you want. We are still developing those tools and figuring out the best way to get to the ultimate end goal of what we want whether it’s one, five or 20 years down the line.”

Information from NMSU