Restoration and Ecosystem Recovery Dynamics in Arid and Semiarid Landscapes

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Dryland regions have been degraded by invasive species, wildfire, overgrazing, agricultural conversion, energy development, recreational activity, and urban growth. These disturbances and others are accelerated by one of the fastest growing human populations in the country and a pressing background of decreasing water availability due to drought and elevated temperatures that are projected to become more pronounced. Recovery from disturbance in face of global change pressures represents a substantial challenge to agencies that manage large tracts of land because the potential reduction and loss of ecosystem productivity could have large economic, social, and environmental costs. Restoration and rehabilitation practices are critically needed to promote recovery from disturbance, improve the health and integrity of drylands, and ensure the long-term sustainability of ecosystem services.

A wheat field (right panel) adjacent to a grassland (left panel) that was restored
Restoration (left panel) following disturbances such as cropping (right panel) can recover ecosystem properties. Photo taken in August 2010, 12 years following a perennial grass seeding treatment in northeastern Colorado. (Credit: Mark Miller, USGS. Public domain.)

Background & Importance

Common goals of restoration efforts in degraded landscapes are the establishment of native perennial vegetation and reduction of invasive exotic plants. Native perennial vegetation can protect soil surfaces from erosion, create wildlife habitat, improve water quality, and promote the recovery of soil organic matter and nutrient availability. In contrast, invasive exotic plants can displace native perennial vegetation, suppress species diversity, and limit the carbon sequestration potential of the land. Land managers in drylands of the western U.S. face tremendous challenges to meet revegetation and soil stabilization goals because low water availability limits the establishment of perennial vegetation and variable water availability favors fast-growing exotic plant species that can take advantage of soil moisture for short periods when it is available. This project aims to understand and predict how landscapes in dryland regions recover from large-scale disturbances within the constraints of limited water and rapidly spreading exotic species.

General Methods

We are collecting and synthesizing information on restoration and land treatment practices, and evaluating the impacts these treatments have on the recovery of perennial vegetation, soil stability, and ecosystem function.

Important Results

Current and future research results are demonstrated within the USGS Restoration Assessment and Monitoring Program for the Southwest (RAMPS: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/sbsc/science/restoration-assessment-monitoring-program-southwest-ramps-0?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects), which aims to strengthen restoration strategies and outcomes in the southwestern U.S. by providing science and guidance on effective restoration practices to the management community.

Future Directions

Future plans to expand this work include field trials and evaluation of controlled restoration treatments to inform best management practices.

A lone researcher walking across a dusty, dryland landscape devoid of plants
Dryland regions of the southwestern U.S. have been degraded by invasive species, wildfire, overgrazing, agricultural conversion, energy development, recreational activity, and urban growth. This landscape has been severely degraded by the Milford Flat Fire, which occurred in July 2007 and was one of the largest fires in Utah’s history. (Credit: Mark Miller, USGS. Public domain.)