RestoreNet: Distributed Field Trial Network for Dryland Restoration

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Recovery from disturbance represents a substantial challenge to agencies that manage large tracts of land in the Southwest. Despite the demand for restoration and rehabilitation, little information is available to help managers effectively reestablish native perennial vegetation and stabilize soils, especially given changing climate and disturbance regimes.

Forestry and agriculture have finely tuned their planting practices through the use of distributed networks of field trial, or “provenance” experiments. Ecological restoration outcomes could similarly be improved by adopting a field trial approach in which plots of different species and seed sources are established in monocultures and mixes, in combination with methods to improve their establishment, using a replicated, standardized approach within and across water-limited ecoregions.

A map showing locations of RestoreNet gardens across the Southwest U.S.

RestoreNet has gardens located across the major desert ecosystems of the southwestern U.S. Locations shown here have either been installed or are planned on being installed in the next two years.

(Map: ESRI Data and Maps. Public domain.)

Background & Importance

Rectangle plots in a dryland landscape containing different restoration treatments.

Experimental plots illustrating the treatments being tested, including mulch (darker colored squares), ConMods (metal structures), pits (not visible), and 2 control plots (seed only and no seeds or treatments). Plots are marked at each corner with PVC posts. (Credit: Molly McCormick, USGS. Public domain.)

Researchers at USGS, Northern Arizona University, and University of Arizona Cooperative Extension are teaming up with land managers from Bureau of Land Management, The National Park Service, the Navajo Nation National Heritage Program, Diablo Trust Ranches, Babbit Ranches, and The Nature Conservancy to develop a network of restoration field trial sites covering the Colorado Plateau, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts. The RestoreNet field trial network is a collaborative effort between scientists and land managers that systematically tests restoration techniques. This network will test the suitability of a broad range of species and seed mixes for restoration, coupled with a suite of restoration treatments to promote plant establishment and growth including ground modifications (see slideshow, above).

RestoreNet will:

1) Provide critical information to land managers on methods to improve restoration outcomes;

2)  Assess the ecosystem services (e.g., forage, erosion control, soil fertility, pollination) provided by different species and communities, rather than just the growth and establishment of individual plant species; and

3)  Be co-located with existing common gardens or other ongoing experiments, whenever possible, to complement existing knowledge on development of native plant materials and minimize costs of developing new infrastructure.

Benefits of a Networked Experiment

A restoration field trial site on red soils, adjacent to buttes.

It has been estimated that over 90% of seeding attempts globally fail, and we are working to improve that statistic. A networked experiment allows for inferences to areas where experiments weren't conducted, so that the effort can support mangement decisions across the Southwest.

(Credit: Katie Laushman, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

The RestoreNet field trial network will integrate knowledge of plant responses to the environment with their effects on recovery of ecosystem services, allowing us to scale-up understanding of seed and native plant performance to restoration treatments. Conducting experiments at this intermediate scale provides a low-risk, high-reward setting for land managers to evaluate different seed sources and restoration treatments across a broad range of environmental conditions. We are developing a network of field trial experiments across the Colorado Plateau, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts. RestoreNet would provide novel insights into potential modifications or additions to priority species lists for restoration based on anticipated changes in climate, the performance of different seed resources and restoration treatments across environmental conditions, and how the interactive effects of site conditions and species composition influence ecosystem services. RestoreNet will fulfill dual-purpose research and management support goals, allowing both advances in restoration science and demonstrations for land managers to see on-the-ground variation in seeding success, restoration treatments, and resultant ecosystem services. Easily accessible demonstration sites are critical for buy-in from land managers and practitioners who may be wary of modifying or adopting new practices without clear proof of concept.

The Restoration Assessment and Monitoring Program for the Southwest (RAMPS) will provide coordination for network development and synthesis among collaborators, as well as organize field trips and outreach activities to facilitate the transition from research to application.



A group of field workers installs an experimental garden.

These USGS employees and university students are planting seedlings as part of the RestoreNet restoration field trial network. Each garden in the network is examining seedlings and seeds in conjunction with restoration treatments to better understand how to improve restoration treatments in water-limited systems. This project will eventually consist of a network of gardens that span four American desert ecosystems in the Southwest. Understanding how simple tools used by land managers can act to increase germination and persistence of plants is important to reduce costs of treatments and reduce environmental hazards posed by degraded landscapes. Find out more about how the RAMPS (Restoration Assessment and Monitoring Program for the Southwest) supports land managers in the iconic landscapes of the American Southwest.

(Credit: Katie Laushman, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)