Mark Haberstich has been managing the pristine Aravaipa Canyon Preserve for 15 years. So, he knows this land intimately from one end to the other.
When the neighboring Cobra Ranch was incorporated into the preserve a few years ago, the ranch land was in rough shape from years of poorly managed livestock that left little grass and eroded soils.
Without healthy grasses to hold the soil in place, the land on the ranch failed to absorb water properly. Not only was rainwater running off the land too quickly and causing erosion and downstream flooding, but less water soaking into the soil also meant less water available to nourish new plants.
It also meant a decline in the aquifer that fed Aravaipa Creek, and ultimately the river it feeds, the San Pedro.
Transforming decades of soil damage back into healthy lands would be a challenge. But Mark wasn’t thinking about all the problems he had just inherited. He was already planning the restoration of Cobra Ranch.
“Sure, we could’ve left it alone,” says Mark, “but everything we do on Cobra Ranch really enhances the health of Aravaipa Canyon."
Maintaining a healthy Aravaipa Creek is critical not only because it one of the last streams in Arizona that contain a thriving native fish population. It also is a major tributary of the San Pedro River, a river the Conservancy focuses its conservation efforts on because it is an important source of water for people and wildlife in southern Arizona.
Indeed, the San Pedro’s importance to wildlife cannot be overstated: The 170-mile river is one of the most important bird migration corridors in the United States.
Aravaipa Creek, which runs through the canyon, has been stable in recent years, but Mark knew that improving the condition of the land upstream on Cobra Ranch could increase the soil’s ability to hold water and boost the level of the aquifer.
“Those two things alone could increase the flow and length of Aravaipa Creek,” says Mark.
Better water flow and a longer creek – one that meanders naturally rather than one that has been channelized – means that more water stays on the land for a longer time. That’s good for the grasses that need the water to grow, and it also means less flooding downstream.
This allows more water to sink into the ground to be released slowly over time instead of rushing past too quickly and contributing to downstream flooding.
All of the projects in Cobra Ranch are designed to help the land absorb and retain more water.
Mark started by planting strong native grasses like sacaton, with deep roots to hold the soil in place and soak up water, helping to stop erosion on the land and restore more water to Aravaipa Creek.
Restoring Cobra Ranch would take time and patience – and a good amount of heavy lifting – but Mark remained undeterred.
The goal was to restore native grasses to Cobra Ranch. But Mark also had to find decide how best to manage the cattle. His solution: Use the cattle to demonstrate grazing management that would help the restoration.
The preserve sits deep in ranching country, and historic overgrazing is a local issue that a lot of ranchers in the area also would like to solve.
“We decided to run Cobra Ranch as a working ranch, managing cattle just like many of our neighbors here do,” says Mark. “I wanted to figure out a practical way that ranching could complement our conservation work.”
The cattle herd was reduced to a manageable size of 25. The cows are fed native grass hay harvested from the farm, then rotated to other pastures. With the low maintenance perennial native grass there is no need for annual plowing or re-seeding.
Using hay from the native grasses supplies a new seed source in the grazed uplands in several ways. While cattle eat the hay, they spread mulch and fertilizer as they press seed into the ground. Consumed seed stays viable as it passes through the cow and is deposited with the manure wherever the cow goes over the next two days.
“This is the first year with good hay and the equipment to harvest and bale it,” says Mark, “but the results have been promising. Some of the neighbors are interested in buying our hay to feed their own cattle next year and start the conversion to native grasses in their own fields.”
Some of the first hay was weedy and not high enough quality to feed to the cattle. Instead of throwing it out, Mark found another creative solution. He decided to use the lower quality bales to help control erosion around the ranch.
“We have gullies located all over the ranch that you can’t reach by truck,” he says. “Luckily, I had three passionate young Americorps volunteers who helped haul the low quality hay bales out to the gullies – some as much as four feet deep and seven feet across. We staked the bales down to slow down the flow of water and give it time to seep into the ground.”
Mark is seeing good results so far. In addition to the thriving perennial grasses, the water level in the aquifer has been rising in the past few years.
This is a good sign not only for the grass and cattle on Cobra Ranch, but for all the lands and creatures that will benefit downstream.