Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a training: Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health (IIRH.) which helped situate the fieldwork I had been doing for months into a much larger context.
The purpose of this class is to learn how to assess the status of a given site relative to its potential. What this means is comparing a site to an ecological site assessment (ESA), or rather what that site at optimum potential looks like. For instance, before visiting a site, the ESA states that when operating at maximum potential the area that would have a variety of desert shrubs and be dominated by cool season grasses. Instead, when you go to assess the site, you note few mixed shrubs and an abundance of thriving invasives. Moreover, the area has become dominated by warm season grasses like Galleta grass when, in far healthier years, there was a majority of cool season grasses like Indian Rice. Besides this initial large species shift or “functional group change”, the site is also assessed along 16 other indicators which fall into three main categories: Soil and Site Stability, Hydrologic Function and Biotic Integrity. These factors are then given ratings and subsequently tallied to provide a numerical picture as to the overall health of the land.
These cumulative totals are used to help determine the amount of deviation from the sites potential. This conclusion then helps outline management guidelines. First, can the site be rehabilitated? Unfortunately, in some cases due to extreme mixes of outside factors such as drought or overgrazing- the top layer of soil or the A horizon is gone and thus the site can no longer be restored to previous speciation and potential. If, on the other hand, the answer is that the site can be rehabilitated then the current biological data will be considered in conjunction with management objectives and the original ESA. By using this multi-layered approach to understanding the optimal versus actual state of the land, Field Offices are able to build a more thorough and accurate long term management plan. Due to current extreme weather changing patterns, new understandings regarding management and increasingly imperative long term goals as soil health these long term plans are integral to continuing to ensure land health.
Personally, I found the IIRH training fundamental in situating my current work- a land intensification study using Assessment,Inventorying and Monitoring- in the larger picture of management. As a plant- oriented person, I often tend to focus on land health specifics as applicable to various species and the smaller zones in which they grow. While, that type of “spot treatment” is important– it is questionable if it is always applicable in the long term. An optimally functioning ecosystem is a complex web of interdependent factors where the health of one species is directly linked to the success of other organisms. By situating these ideas in a more, all encompassing approach to land management- it pushes field offices to work collaboratively as one must consider the impact of hydrology, rangeland management, soils and botany to fully and effectively the management of the land.