Perspectives on desertification: Southwestern United States

TitlePerspectives on desertification: Southwestern United States
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication1997
AuthorsFredrickson E.L., Havstad K, Estell R.E., Hyder P.
Conference NameInternational Symposium Workshop, Combating Desertification: Connecting Science with Community Action
Date Published1997
AbstractSeveral climatic changes occurred in the northern Chihuahuan Desert and other parts of the southwest United States during the last 12,000 years, leading to a markedly warmer and drier climate. Vegetation also changed in response to the climatic shift. Generally this transition was from coniferous woodland to grasslands and eventually to the present day desert scrub. Pre-Columbian people occupying this region adapted by changing from hunter-gatherer to largely agrarian economies. During this time the level of cooperation among people apparently increased as shown by the formation of pueblos (cities) and greater trade among diverse regions. This increase in cooperation probably resulted as a response to increasing aridity and more frequent droughts. Recent European immigration into the southwest U.S. beginning in the mid 1500s greatly affected this region. The greatest impact occurred after the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. Before the 1860s land use tended to be localized around small agricultural areas, mines, and military installations. After the war, however, the range livestock industry expanded dramatically, especially in the 1880s. During this time grazing land was viewed as limitless, but as H.L. Bentley stated in 1898, "... grasses were entirely consumed; their roots were trampled into the dust.. ." This period represents a time of general abuse of arid lands in the region. Recognition of the abuse and the deteriorating productivity of the land led to greater government involvement, including establishing experimental stations and eventually managing of the public domain by governmental agencies. Despite improved land management, desertification processes continue. Continued livestock grazing, changing climatic conditions, soil loss, and increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations (mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels) are among the probable causes of current desertification trends. Urban and rural populations, now technologically isolated from their environment, need to better understand the dynamic nature of their environment and adapt to these conditions to lessen the human influ-snce on the desertification process. A greater degree of cooperation among diverse entities will be crucial.