03 January 2023

Coming Together for the Greater Good

Written by: Elizabeth Sorells

There have been many days in my internship where I have had ‘pinch me’ moments because it seems too good to be true that I am being paid to do work I have always dreamt of. One of these moments occurred when I had the privilege of tagging along with the Gila National Forest, the national Enterprise team, and the national stream team to analyze a portion of a watershed restoration action plan (WRAP). This area, called the Dry Blue, is located on the border of New Mexico and Arizona. This area is of particular interest because it contains threatened/endangered terrestrial and aquatic species, impaired and at-risk riparian and watershed conditions, and because it has grasslands that are no longer at desired and historic conditions. The two specialty teams that joined in the effort have expertise and resources that allow for forests to move forward with projects that they might not otherwise be able to complete due to lack of funding, manpower, expertise, etc. Some of these essential projects for the Dry Blue include road decommissioning, road improvement, stream restoration, riparian improvement, hardening of stream crossings, loach minnow habitat improvement, meadow enhancement, noxious weed control, and forest vegetation improvement through thinning.

The narrow-headed garter snake, the loach minnow, and the meadow jumping mouse are all known threatened/endangered species established in this watershed, which is why this project takes high priority. A variety of concerns were established by this project, which brought forth the over-arching concern of watching the climate change before our eyes. A once pristine area that has gone without grazing for decades still suffers and lacks the ability to sustain those threatened/endangered species so crucial to the habitat and ecosystem. Invasive species such as bull thistle spread easily and choke out natives. Water type is not sustainable for the threatened loach minnow, for they need turbulent riffling waters in gravel substrate. Water levels are getting lower and lower each year, fire readily finds its way across the landscape, and ecosystems are struggling to adapt at the rate that climate change is occurring.

While it is dismaying to see such a beautiful location struggle to recover after fires that occurred more than a decade ago, there remains hope that with this collaborative effort that best management practices can be implemented and minor changes be made so improvements to the landscape can occur. A change as simple as moving a road so it doesn’t cross a stream where endangered species are known to occur in can provide relief for the stream and riparian area. I saw bear, turkey, coatimundi, fox, and bobcat tracks. I enjoyed some wild oregano, saw archaeological sites, and enjoyed the cool water with small cyprinids – a sign that the waters are recovering. In my time in the Dry Blue, I was able to learn and implement surveying techniques, understand best management practices, network with agency partners, and enjoy the great outdoors.

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