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Dixon Water Foundation Pursues Ranching as Restoration on the Marfa Grasslands

photograph by Rowdy Dugan. Cowboys drive steers this winter at the Dixon Water Foundation's Mimms Unit Ranch near Marfa.

“There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

In that description of his first encounter with the Great Plains, the narrator of Willa Cather's novel My Ántonia captures something enduring: the vast “sea of grass” that dominates the center of our continent truly has an oceanic power, that can enchant, or bewilder. 

The central grasslands stretch from Canada to West Texas, and extend into the desert highlands, from Arizona to the Marfa Plateau and Chihuahua. For many Americans, they remain as foreign as they were for Cather's 19th-century narrator. Grasslands are thought to lack the “charisma” of mountains and forests – to some, they epitomize “fly-over country.”

But the grasslands in fact contain an immense natural and cultural richness. And they're deeply imperiled. Of the 600 million acres of historic grasslands, two-thirds have been lost or degraded. There's a growing effort to preserve and restore them. And in Trans-Pecos Texas, the Dixon Water Foundation is committed to that effort.

Philip Boyd is Dixon's vice president of science and research. 

“You often will meet people,” Boyd said, “myself included, before I started working in this field, really – you just look at it like it's a field – it's an empty field. A rancher wouldn't see it that way. There's a lot of life and a lot of ecosystem benefits the world is privileged to when these places are able to function.”

Grasslands are the foundation of ranching here – and, as Boyd notes, ranchers appreciate these landscapes intimately. The rest of us often require a Great Plains “awakening.”

Boyd said his own “gateway drug” were pronghorns, which he studied as a grad student at Alpine's Borderlands Research Institute. Built for speed, and for vast spaces, pronghorn do indeed embody the exhilaration of the prairie. But they're only one distinctive grasslands creature. 

There's the suite of diminutive birds known as “grassland specialists.” Many winter in West Texas, and summer far to the north – in Montana or Alberta. Burrowing owls make the same intrepid migration. Prairie dogs are often maligned – but are a keystone of grasslands diversity. And, of course, the central grasslands once supported bison herds tens of millions strong.

At its Mimms Unit ranch near Marfa, the Dixon Water Foundation aims to show that this rich grasslands life can thrive amidst ranching operations. Indeed, the foundation views livestock grazing as a tool for grasslands restoration.

“We're producing food,” Boyd said. “We're supporting our ranchers here who make their livelihood this way – but also doing it in a way that the grasslands are intact and able to do what they do. That's what we're trying to work for, is to work towards this harmony or this balance.”

The Dixon Water Foundation was founded in 1994 – by Clint Josey, in honor of Josey's friend Roger Dixon. Dixon and Josey were both oil men, who shared a concern for Texas's water resources, and an interest in the ideas of Allan Savory.

Savory, a South African biologist, calls his approach “holistic management.”

The last century has witnessed the “desertification” of grasslands around the world. Overgrazing is often blamed for this replacement of vegetation with bare ground – and for the soil erosion that follows. But Savory noted that, in many locales, desertification has actually intensified when livestock have been excluded. Rather than removing livestock, Savory advocates a “high-intensity, low-frequency” grazing approach. 

Grasslands evolved amidst the grazing of large herbivores – in North America, that meant bison. Amidst the prairie vastness, the great herds would graze one area hard – but then move on. The grass could rest and recover – with bison manure adding a fertilizing boost. 

Drawing inspiration from Savory, Dixon mimics that pattern, with an “adaptive multi-paddock” grazing approach. The Mimms Ranch is divided into numerous small paddocks or pastures. Ranch managers move the cattle from one pasture to another – allowing grazed areas to rest and recover.

In addition to this “rotational” system, Dixon allows a second herd to continuously graze a larger pasture. That enables Dixon to compare the ecological effects of the two grazing approaches.

Mimms is a “research and demonstration” ranch – and Dixon partners with scientific groups, including the Borderlands Research Institute and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, to study wildlife on the property. Grassland birds – which include the Baird's and grasshopper sparrows, and the Sprague's pipit – are a major focus.

Bird populations have declined dramatically across North America in the last half century. But the losses for grassland birds have been especially acute. In an ominous sign for the grasslands themselves, populations of these species have dropped some 70 percent. 

And emerging findings suggest Dixon's approach is benefitting these creatures – even as it's improving grassland health as a whole. 

“The bird research finds more diverse communities utilizing the rotational pastures,” Boyd said, “and higher abundance. We look at the bare ground monitoring – we're reducing bare ground across the ranch, but also we have less bare ground in the rotational grazing side. The picture as a whole is telling a story.”

Boyd said Dixon isn't in the business of evangelizing for its approach. The multi-paddock system can involve investments in fencing and water infrastructure. And families that have been ranching the same West Texas lands for a century know what they're doing. 

But working for the economic and ecological viability of ranching is Dixon's priority. The conversion of grasslands to urban development and row agriculture has had steep ecological costs – including for climate change, through the release of carbon from prairie soils. And there's a reason Dixon has “water” in its name – robust grasslands are critical for the health of the region's streams and aquifers.

Boyd recently participated in a summit for the “Central Grasslands Roadmap” – with representatives from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and the region's many tribal nations. He said the group is advocating for the grasslands as a “single biome” – one where the well-being of human and non-human communities are inextricably connected.  

“I think you talk to most ranchers, they're connected to the grass and the cattle and their land,” Boyd said. “It's the same with the belief systems of a lot of the tribal nations. It's in their belief systems – it's integrated fully. We've gotten away from some of that, and we've been detached or disconnected. There are lots of people, lots of needs to be met, but we have to keep in mind that it's a living system, and that we're part of that living system.”

In America's westering history, the grasslands were often seen as something to pass through. Now could be the time to understand them instead as central.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.