Property to be research area

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HEREFORD — Thanks to a grant from AmeriCorps, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been assigned a young woman who will provide valuable assistance and research on the recently purchased Riverstone property that runs from Durango Road off of Moson Road down to the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area. 

The 1,811-acre parcel was supposed to be a development, but the company crashed along with the economy and TNC was able to buy it at a great price. 

It is a former ranch owned by the Ogurek family. AmeriCorps’ Maura O’Brien has been walking every square inch of it over the past few months mapping the various types of vegetation and land forms that are on the property.  

I’ve always been interested in the way nature and humans interact. I studied geology in college in Ohio, so I was looking for a change of pace. I always wanted to live in the Southwest and spend some time experiencing a different landscape,” said O’Brien who is from Pennsylvania. “So, this is really different and it’s really nice.” 

AmeriCorps, through its work with TNC, has provided O’Brien with the opportunity to foster her interests in natural resources, hydrology and watersheds, so it was a a perfect match with her interests.  

It provided me with a way to apply my geology background with something really tangible and relevant, especially in this community,” she added. “This property is full of little ecological surprises. We have the historical erosion structures, but also the land has a diverse array of species of upland grasses and shrubs and floodplain species. It’s a microcosms of what you’ll see in the Upper San Pedro watershed. This is a learning process of what we’ll find in this area both for me and the TNC.” 

Part of her ecological survey is to locate the structures and these vegetative communities. Riverstone has broad swales of sacaton grass and other areas with pristine native grasses and she has been mapping those areas while learning to use GPS to pinpoint individual locales. She’s even found what she refers to as a “secret meadow” off in a corner of the property that must lie close to groundwater for it to be so prolific.   

She loves the desert and the Southwest and is thoroughly enjoying her hikes. The coming monsoon season has also piqued her interest — to see the difference in the winter visage as compared to summer.  

Mary Nichols, with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, has also been doing research on Riverstone in conjunction with O’Brien. 

There are some really interesting structures on site that Maura has mapped. So, we thought it would be a nice fit to combine our research with Maura’s,” noted Nichols. 

Nichols has been finding these structures throughout the southeast Arizona region on topographical maps to try to determine their impacts on hydrology and ecology. Once the structures are found on the ground, a group of scientists can interpret what the effects have been on water distribution, ecological impacts on vegetation growth, geomorphic impacts of possibly altering channels and headcuts and the impact on erosion. Those lessons then can be successfully applied to other areas. 

Peter Warren, in the land protection program with TNC, also came out to the property. He, too, is very interested in the old erosion management work and what succeeded and what did not. He sees O’Brien’s and Nichols’ work as essential in determining future projects that could help with erosion control and watershed restoration.  

Former family rancher Vince Ogurek and his saddle pal Lee Wood, who keeps an eye on the remaining cattle, met up with the group to provide a bit of a history lesson as well as point out some of the land’s more unique qualities. 

O’Brien had a topographical map and pointed out a number of earthen berms that Ogurek says were there when his father bought the land back in the mid-1930s.  

One of the largest was a massive concrete structure built by the Soil Conservation Service at an unknown time, stated Ogurek. Called a drop structure, it prevented the continued down-cutting of sheetflow that was creating a large wash.  

Over the years, as portions of the structure were washed out in heavy rains, repairs had to be made to hold the structure in place, Ogurek explained. As young men, he and Wood helped lug bags of concrete out there, mixed it up and then patched the cracked portions. This work has kept it sound and doing the job it was constructed to do decades later. He also warned Warren that the structure needed regular maintenance to prevent it from failing.  

One thing Wood pointed out was the fencing laid on the ground on the structure’s uphill side that was covered with dirt. He figured that was done to protect the edge from eroding during the monsoon rains. Apparently, the model worked because the edge was sound.   

That head-cut could have spread upstream for miles, but this stopped that.” Nichols explained, “A huge part of the story is whether or not you can say these things from the ’30s did any good or not. And that’s due to being maintained through time. So, if there are examples where people are looking after them like this one, you can tell they have done well. But, like you said, if they start to unravel, they can unravel quickly. And then it’s all over and it gets interpreted as a mess that was made. And, that may not be the right interpretation.”  

Ogurek said after his father had watched all the work being done around by the SCS and the CCC, he became very interested in controlling erosion on his ranch lands. And with three large washes  on the land — Carr Canyon, Ramsey Canyon and the Northern — he wanted to be able to hold the water on the land to benefit the grasses. So, he began building earthen berms to help slow down the sheetflow. Each of the ends of the berms, which made almost bowl-shaped bottom lands, were stacked with rocks to also help prevent erosion. Some of the packed earth berms were constructed in the 1950s and ’60s, said Ogurek.  

We wanted to slow that water down and let it seep in,” emphasized Ogurek. “We needed grass to grow and stop the erosion.” 

Warren was pleased to hear so much of the history of the land and stated, “The problem is that you don’t know if it is going to work for years after a project is completed. So, by going back and learning what was done decades ago will help and guide the work we are doing now.”  

It”ll be cool to see how the drop structure deals with flood water,” O’brien added enthusiastically. “All of this will be so different.” 

On the walk along the berms, it was odd to see a lush, though dried fields of sacaton and native grasses on one side, while on the other was mesquite and other scrub brush. That depends on the type of soil, said Warren. The grasses like sandy soil, while the shrubs prefer the clays and rocks.  

Ogurek remembered pulling the mesquite and shrubs up with a knife blade. That is a very large, very strong hunk of metal with a cutting edge dragged behind a bulldozer that pulls the bushes out by the roots. Removing them helped the grasses come back since there was more subsurface water available for them to grow.  

Unfortunately, some of the grasses that returned were not beneficial to the cattle due to the low protein content, like love grass, noted Warren.  

Invasive Johnson grass was also taking hold in some spots. It has little nutritional value and Nichols explained that the grass actually makes the cattle sick if they eat it after a frost.  

Warren was pleasantly surprised to find number of small bunches of burro grass that one would not expect to see in this area.  

Back at an old ranch site where the cattle where waiting for that green hay in the back of Wood’s truck, Ogurek told Warren, O’Brien and Nichols, “My dad would be happy to know that the land will be conserved. He never wanted to see it turn into a development. I think it ended up in the right hands.”


 Get the Facts:

AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 men and women in intensive service each year at more than 15,000 locations including nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country. For information, visit the website at: http://www.americorps.gov/.

For more than 40 years, The Nature Conservancy has been working with local communities, businesses and people like you to pioneer solutions that save the lands and waters that sustain Arizona’s iconic beauty, healthy economy and a rich quality of life. For information, visit the website at: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/a….

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Their job is finding solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day, from field to table. ARS conducts research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority and provide information access and dissemination to: ensure high-quality, safe food, and other agricultural products assess the nutritional needs of Americans sustain a competitive agricultural economy enhance the natural resource base and the environment, and provide economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities and society as a whole. For information, visit the website at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/.




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