The word desert may conjure images of the Sahara’s seemingly endless dunes or perhaps a Lawrence of Arabia-like, otherworldly landscape. Here in Arizona we boast parts of four deserts, winning us the prize for the most types in any U.S. state. Each of our deserts hosts a wealth of wildlife and plants, when left unmolested by the effects of humanity.
However, when we stress their already inherently climatically strained environments with various types of degradation, the process of desertification, the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically because of drought, deforestation, mining, or inappropriate agriculture, often ensues.
Non-desert habitats – grasslands, shrublands, and even woodlands and forests, for example – can be inexorably converted to deserts via human mismanagement of the land. Further, our diverse desert flora and fauna may become greatly diminished by desertification as well, leaving them ecological shadows of their former selves.
Our Sonoran Desert is the most diverse one on perhaps the entire planet. Given its two rainy seasons – summer monsoon and the remnants of winter Pacific storms – the Sonoran Desert often abounds with life. Cacti, including the iconic giant saguaro, and various leguminous shrubs and trees characterize many of our Sonoran Desert landscapes.
Here too are Arizona’s most populous cities, Phoenix and Tucson, exerting their multitude of detrimental influences on the surrounding desert. The cities themselves were desert prior to these modern hubs, each with rivers flowing through them up until the early 20th century. The richness of these locations prompted urban development in the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries.
Beyond the conversion of desert to cities and suburbs, perhaps the most glaring incursion on all our Arizona desert landscapes has been a largely unseen one. Groundwater pumping for agriculture, the livestock industry, mining, and for municipal use has lowered local water tables so much that many of the mesquite forests that once graced local rivers have completely vanished. Unsustainable agricultural practices create razed landscapes where water from storms runs off, failing to recharge the already stressed aquifers. The bare dirt of agricultural fields affords our frequently fierce winds the opportunity to rip the soil from the earth, creating destructive and dangerous dust storms.
To get a glimpse of the degraded former natural desert landscapes, keep an eye out as you drive between Phoenix and Tucson. There you will witness scenes that ultimately led to the Dust Bowl era in other states.
Perhaps even more alarming than the loss of desert habitat are the habitats that are slowly but surely changing from non-desert environments into human-made wastelands. One need only look at other countries at our very latitudes to have a crystal ball into the near ecological future. Jordan, for example now hosts perhaps a mere 2% of its original forests. Jordan? Forests? you might ask. Since biblical times humans have overgrazed, cut trees for firewood, and generally squeezed the lemon far too much. Much of what we now call desert in that small, Middle Eastern country was once diverse woodland and forest, replete with leopards, hyenas, and likely even brown bear. The remaining Jordanian forests look suspiciously like our Madrean evergreen woodlands with oaks, junipers, and pines.
Thus, our biodiverse habitats that straddle the lower deserts and even tower above them in our Sky Island mountain ranges can in short order themselves become human-made deserts.
Middle Eastern degradation occurred over millennia with less livestock, fewer people, little use of underground aquifers and no global warming. Today we may witness the frightening rapidity with which desertification can proceed, especially in the aftermath of wildfires spawned by our ongoing drought. After the 2011 Horseshoe II Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains I saw tumbleweeds and tarantulas populating former woodland at about 7,000 feet high.
Closer to home at Raven’s Nest – our 42-acre Nature Sanctuary – I’ve observed several desert emissaries increase over the last 12 years. Cactus wrens have begun to make cameo appearances here as one of their favorite plants, jumping cholla, has increased in this short time span. Given that we have no livestock, these subtle changes are likely due to global warming.
Several years ago, I ran headlong into a more advanced desertification reality on the way back from leading a Biodiversity Tour in Arizona’s White Mountains. As I drove the group back to civilization we passed through Lordsburg, New Mexico. This formerly thriving railroad town is now a shambles in most places with rundown buildings and a failing infrastructure. A fierce wind howled through town, carrying blinding dust and whole tumbleweeds (nonnative) with it, rendering the scene like one from the old Outer Limits show. Interstate 10 was shut down due to the dust storm, itself generated due to severe overgrazing. Thus, a former grassland had now turned into an ecological desert and even a death trap for unwary motorists. Truly a cautionary tale and likely a portend of things to come.
Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org