CDRI Desert NewsFlash
Happy New Year!
Like most everyone, we are eager and happy to welcome in this new year. At the Nature Center, we are maintaining an optimistic outlook, as we eagerly anticipate the time in 2021 when we will be able to return to happily filling our calendars with scheduled programs and planning for events. For those who have followed us this year, you’ve hopefully witnessed our patience and insistence on following the best advice then available, focused on everyone’s safety and health. That practice will continue as we watch and study, pursuing our best attempt to monitor the pace at which the COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out, as the U.S. and world’s population gradually move to a level of inoculation that enables the medical experts to provide some assurance that public gatherings once again carry a sensible risk profile.
In this newsletter, we have a special thank you to the dozens (we’re not kidding) of supporters, combined with the unnamed CDRI members numbering nearly 400, who gave generously to the Nature Center throughout 2020. Individual donations ranged from $11 to $10,000. And, as we’ve always maintained, a donation or gift of any level is truly appreciated. Your support, friendship, and participation keep CDRI moving ahead and provide each of us on this small team the energy to do more, as together, we work to expand the impact of our Mission. We are grateful. Thank you all!
While at many levels, causes to celebrate might have seemed fewer in 2020, hardly a day passed at CDRI without reminders of reasons for appreciation and optimism. We celebrated variants on the lessons of patience, persistence, and resolve, and the concept of “adaptability” was made real with regularity. After a three-month repose, we were excited to reopen in mid-June to once again offer public access to CDRI’s beautiful site. As we often learn, including this year, being outdoors, hiking, exploring, experiencing, and connecting with Nature was a "first" for some of CDRI’s visitors. We hope everyone took the memory of their hiking adventure or their stroll through the gardens, along with an appreciation for Nature, back home with them.
To those of you who renewed your CDRI membership or those who became first time members in 2020, please accept our sincere thanks for joining the CDRI family comprised of lovers and supporters of nature. Several of you responded to the concept of giving a gift that continues to give throughout the year by purchasing and distributing gift memberships to friends and family. Your membership, and those from nearly 400 fellow members, provide about 15% of our operating budget, which is a vital component of our growth and sustainability.
So with 2021 here, we’re looking forward to a bright year ahead – one that is full of possibilities. And, most of all, we’re looking forward to your return visits and welcoming you to “the best rural Nature Center in Texas!” Until then, be safe and stay well.
Happy New Year!
Improvements Planned for the Cactus Greenhouse, Pollinator Garden, and Exhibit in the Powell Visitor Center
We are thrilled at the outlook for 2021. Let us share with you a few of the things we have already started working on with a grant received from a very generous “anonymous” family foundation and separately, from a bequest from the Estate of Maxie Templeton.
CDRI is the fortunate recipient of a $12,000 grant from an anonymous Texas family foundation for the third consecutive year. The stipulation of the grant is that all expenditures must be made toward capital purchases that will go toward site improvements. Since the first grant in 2018-19, we have received a total of $36,000 which has allowed us to replace and/or add: the phone system, the computer server, new carpet in the two offices/education rooms inside the Powell Visitor Center (PVC), new signage at the front entrance gate and at the highway frontage, a portico shade covering at the Mining Exhibit, a water refill system for visitors inside the PVC, bathroom sinks and vanities, and benches for the Botanical Gardens – just to name a few of the items.
In 2021, we’ll add a Scat and Tracks display inside the PVC. We’ll also purchase two additional 20’ x 40’ event tents, and we’ll create new professionally designed signage for the Pollinator Garden as well begin upgrading signage along Modesta Canyon Trail.
CDRI is also the recipient of a $25,000 bequest from the Estate of Maxie Templeton (1917-2014). Mrs. Templeton, a philanthropist from San Antonio, Texas, was married for 68 years to Arleigh Templeton and supported his career in education where he was President of the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). She was an avid gardener and cook.
Funds from the Templeton bequest will be used to make improvements to the Cactus Greenhouse. CDRI’s collection of Chihuahuan Desert cacti is one of the world’s largest, most diverse collections of CD cacti. As such, we are making upgrades that will include new interpretive signage, landscaping and seating outside the greenhouse, adding specimens to the cactus collection, and creating a separate supplemental guide booklet for the cactus collection. The greenhouse will be named the Maxie Templeton Cactus Museum Collection.
We look forward to working on these projects as well as keeping you posted throughout the coming months as we complete these exciting improvements and renovations.
Native, non-native, and invasive;
Okay, I’m confused!
What defines a plant as being native? So, if it isn’t native, then surely it’s non-native? And, are all non-native plants also invasive? Can a plant be naturalized? What makes a plant exotic? The information that follows is designed to help address some of those puzzlements.
Native plant – The USDA defines a native plant as “a plant that is a part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem.” They note that the word “native” should always be used with a geographic qualifier. Plants native to our region are described as being native to the Chihuahuan Desert (CD) region, or even the northern portions of the CD. The USDA specifies that “only plants that existed in a region prior to European settlement are considered to be native to the United States.”
The Chihuahuan Desert boasts as many as 3,500 native plant species, including nearly a quarter of the world’s cactus species. Approximately 1,000 (~29%) of CD plant species grow only in this ecoregion.
Non-Native Plant - Obviously, a non-native is not native. It’s a plant introduced with human help (intentionally or accidentally) to a new place or new habitat where it was not previously found. These days, non-native plants are often found in the large box-store nurseries. When Europeans were migrating to the New World, they brought seeds from their home countries. They unknowingly also brought in non-native, invasive plant seeds with those seeds (meaning, some plants they brought were indigenous to Europe and N. Am., and some were not).
Invasive Plant – The USDA describes an invasive plant as: i) one that is both non-native (although not all non-native plants are invasive) and ii) able to establish on many sites, grow quickly, and spread to the point of disrupting plant communities or ecosystems.
Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana Nees), fits this invasive description. Native to southern Africa, Lehmann lovegrass is a strong competitor, especially after soil disturbance, e.g. after a fire, a clearance for an underground pipeline or utility easement, or in cemeteries when the ground has been disturbed.
Lehmann lovegrass grows easily and spreads quickly if left unchecked.
.Naturalized Plant – The USDA describes a naturalized plant as “a non-native plant that does not need human help to reproduce and maintain itself over time in an area where it is not native.” Even though these plants may thrive in their newly adopted “home”, they do not become, even with an abundance of time, native plants of the region in which they have become established.
Exotic Plant – The USDA describes an exotic plant as one that is not native to the continent on which it is now found. Two plants on CDRI’s site that are examples of invasive, exotic plants include (again) Lehmann lovegrass, native to South Africa, and prickly Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed, native to the Eurasian steppe.
The date palm, which originates from Iraq, is an exotic plant, but it is not invasive. It’s prevalent in landscaping around older homes in El Paso. Another noninvasive, exotic plant is the Mediterranean cypress (the variety associated with cemeteries) which comes from the Mediterranean region of Europe.
On the other end of exotics, CD cacti have become quite popular in Asian countries. These cacti are exotic once they arrive in those countries.
Weeds – The USDA describes a weed as “a plant (native or non-native) that is not valued in the place where it is growing.” Often, one person’s flower is another person’s weed, whether native or non-native.
On the 507-acre site that comprises CDRI, we have examples of native, non-native, and invasive plants. (Please note, we do not knowingly plant or encourage non-native nor invasive plants. Instead, we are merely acknowledging their presence.) In the ~20-acre Botanical Garden, we provide a curated, one-half mile loop with specimens of native plants of the Trans-Pecos region of far West Texas and northern Mexico.
On the grounds of the Nature Center, you might see invasive, exotic, non-natives in Lehmann lovegrass and prickly Russian thistle. We work to keep the population down, but it’s a good example of how invasive plants may be present, and a possible result of an invasive’s adaptability and voracious spread.
Interestingly, although we attempt to be native plant purists, near the Cactus Greenhouse you’ll see a small grouping of Arizona cypress trees (Cupressus arizonica) that are roughly 30 years old. This particular species has been more specifically identified in recent years as being native to Arizona, and therefore, non-native to the Chihuahuan Desert. While these trees are non-native to the CD, we have elected to keep them right where they are. These trees illustrate how even science evolves and, in this case, how botanists are constantly fine-tuning their identification of plants as their research leads them. We are quick to highlight to curious, observant, and inquisitive visitors that some beautiful Arizona cypress species which are native to the Big Bend region can be found as close as the CDRI Pavilion.
At CDRI, we’re eager to answer your questions about our native plants, and we look forward to your next visit to the CDRI Nature Center & Botanical Garden.
These Arizona cypresses, native to the Big Bend region of Texas, can be seen up-close at the CDRI Pavilion.
CDRI Welcomes Its Newest Director:
We are pleased to introduce our newest member to the CDRI Board of Directors, Reggie James. Reggie was the CDRI guest lecturer at the April 2018 Roger Conant Distinguished Guest Lecturer Program.
Prior to his retirement, Reggie was the Director of the Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter. The Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter, is one of 64 similar chapters nationwide that implements Sierra Club initiatives. With three million members and supporters, the Sierra Club is now the nation's largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Its successes range from protecting millions of acres of wilderness to helping pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act.
Reggie has over 27 years of experience as an innovative, non-profit executive with experience in consumer and environmental policy and advocacy. Among other causes, James has helped improve public and environmental health and safety. He has worked to make improvements in food production, safety, and to reduce food insecurity, as well as working for enhanced legal representation for low-income Texans while serving in the capacity of Director of the Austin based SW Regional Office of Consumers Union.
Reggie is a Navy nuclear submarine veteran and a graduate of UT School of Law (1985) with a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from UTSA (1983).
We're excited Reggie accepted our invitation to join the CDRI Board of Directors as he brings with him a wealth of knowledge relating to environmental issues and concerns. We're also fortunate to have Reggie represent the CDRI Nature Center & Botanical Gardens from his hometown of Austin.
2021 Board of Directors
Officers & Members of the Executive Committee
Anne Adams, Fort Davis, Texas
Jim Martinez, Marfa, Texas
Debbie Murphy, Fort Davis, Texas
Rick Herrman, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Tom Feuerbacher, San Antonio, Texas
Denis Foley, Alpine, Texas
Ben F. Foster, Jr., San Antonio, Texas
Reggie James, Austin, Texas
Victoria Lowe, Fort Davis, Texas
R. Edward Pfiester, Los Angeles, California
Chris Ritzi, Alpine, Texas
“Semidesert” “Grasslands” of the (mostly) Chihuahuan Desert, Maybe, But Not Always
By Seth Hamby
The American desert constantly challenges us to reinvent and expand our ideas about landscape, ecology, climate, biodiversity, and any number of other preconceived notions we may have about the natural world. Simply put, they are lands of variability and extremes, superficially unchanging to the human eye, yet in a state of constant flux. The “semidesert grasslands” of the southwestern United States and central Mexico, of which will be my main focus, continue to evade a concrete definition. The main reason why a clear characterization of these grasslands continuously alludes us is that they are naturally fragmented and intergrade with other ecological communities of both higher and lower elevations. These semidesert grasslands also interact with the Great Plains mixed grassland communities found to the east and northeast.
Contention abounds among ecologists and botanists regarding classification of these diverse grasslands. I am reminded of the traditional debate between the taxonomic “lumpers” and “splitters.” Essentially, should we lump taxa together based on commonly held characteristics, or should we split taxa apart based on minute, but real, distinctions? The answer, in my opinion, is both. While I tend to be fascinated by the minutia, splitting things apart does not always lend itself well to broad-scale analyses of landscape-level phenomena. At the same time, lumping things together does a poor job of understanding fine-scale ecological and specific interactions. In order to gain a more complete understanding and appreciation of the grassland communities of the Chihuahuan Desert (CD), we must first zoom out and look at the entire range of these communities in western North America.
Semidesert grasslands in North America coincide with the Basin and Range Province and the four great American deserts therein. The Basin and Range Province is part of the larger physiographic region called Intermontane Plateaus. If we break it down even further, there are two distinct regions of semidesert grasslands within the Province. The first are those associated with the “cool” Great Basin and “transitional” Mojave Deserts. The second are those associated with the “warm” Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts. We will be focusing specifically on the “warm” deserts.
In the book The Desert Grassland, McClaran and Van Devender take certain liberties with their definitions of both “desert” and “grassland,” but for visualization purposes, I will use, as did they, the geographic distribution map by F. W. Reichenbacher (see map). I would argue that the large portion on the map extending northeast through Texas should not be included in this treatment, although it is west of the 100th meridian traditionally used to define the boundary between the humid east and the arid west. Just be aware, though, that species composition of grasses there are very similar to mixed grassland communities in parts of the CD. My objection to inclusion is based more upon definitional argument than on ecological dissimilarity.
In the Trans-Pecos, two major types of grassland communities exist, as discussed in Grasses of the Trans-Pecos and Adjacent Areas by A. Michael Powell. Powell uses the terms “desert grassland” and “plains grassland” to distinguish between the two, though he admits a better term for “plains grassland” would be “mixed grassland.” Powell states, “The plains grassland elements extend into the mountain areas on mid-elevation slopes, plateaus, and in basins formed from accumulated erosional outwash materials between the mountains. Desert grassland is most prominent on mesas, plateaus, and on alluvial fans or bajadas at the bases of desert mountains, or on the lower slopes of some larger mountains, whose slopes extend into the desert.”
Now, after all of the nitpicking and semantics, I will from this point forward refer to the semidesert (desert) and mixed grasslands of the CD as “CD grasslands,” collectively. The CD grasslands reach as far north as Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but the vast majority of the 310,000 square mile habitat extends, discontinuously, roughly 1,000 miles south through 13 states in central Mexico. CD grasslands occur from 3,600 to 8,200 feet elevation through a myriad of varying geology, soil, climatic factors, and diversity of lifeforms.
The average precipitation in these grasslands varies from 9 to 24 inches annually depending on what part of the desert they are in. Rainfall tends to be highly seasonal, falling mostly during the summer months. More than 90% of yearly grass growth occurs during this time. This seasonality is highly influenced by the movement of the Bermuda high-pressure cell and the subtropical Pacific jet stream.
As previously mentioned, the CD grasslands intergrade with evergreen-oak woodland and chaparral at higher elevations and desert scrub at lower elevations. These CD grasslands are essentially a matrix in which vegetation from both higher and lower altitudes intermingle and interact over space and time. The variability of environments, weather, and long-term climatic trends create circumstances within the CD grasslands that favor shifts in plant dominance over time as well as create plant communities with a wider variety of plant growth forms than any other North American grassland.
It is interesting to point out that the biggest constraint of primary production with the CD grassland is drought, so members of this community have developed a multitude of water-use strategies to exploit this precious resource. Many grasses of the Great Plains have developed root systems that go down into the soil many 10’s of feet to access nutrients and water. This is not the case with the vast majority of CD grasses. They have developed shallow, dense roots in order to access infrequent bursts of rainfall. These plants that employ this water-use strategy are known as “intensive exploiters” and make up a significant portion of the flora of the CD grasslands. Other species, typically large shrubs and trees, develop long taproots that extend both many meters down horizontally and laterally to access water. These strategists are called “extensive exploiters.” Other strategies include the development of storage organs, spines, dense hairs, silver foliage, and metabolic innovations.
CD Grasslands have been used to support livestock for centuries. Because these unique grasslands do not respond to grazing in the same ways and on the same timescales as other North American grasslands, there has been a long tradition of overstocking, overgrazing, and subsequent degradation. Once a grassland has been degraded, the land is typically converted to crops. In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, there is as much as 6% annual loss of grasslands, leading some scientists to predict that most intact grasslands of Chihuahua will be completely lost in less than 10 years (2030). This will spell disaster for obligate grassland birds, for unique and vulnerable wildlife, as well as for the people whose livelihoods depend on these grasslands. The story is only slightly less bleak for the rest of CD grasslands, which continue to be converted for agriculture, overgrazed by livestock, and encroached on by woody plants.
The current state of CD grasslands is only a snapshot into their vast geologic history. The mountain building of the Rockies and the Sierra Madre Occidental and Oriental created the conditions for grasses to flourish. Thousands of years of glacial and interglacial periods have created an ebb and flow of woodland and desert communities, with grasses always present in one form or another. It is up to us what will happen to these grasslands during our brief period of stewardship. Will we learn to adapt and evolve like the grasslands or will we force our wills upon them and be lost together in the sands of time?
Thank you CDRI Donors
To all of the many individuals who so generously donated to CDRI throughout 2020, thank you for your continued support. Please know we are grateful. Also please know that we take our responsibility seriously -- a responsibility to operate with a conservative spending philosophy, while always looking ahead to CDRI's future and importantly following our Mission to promote public awareness, appreciation, and concern for nature generally and the natural diversity of the Chihuahuan Desert region specifically, through education, the visitor experience and the support of research.
Thank you for your support.
In Memory of Walter Keene Linscott Ferguson $3,140
Joseph (Jody) Ferguson
Hallie D. Ferguson
Marion D. Bell
Mary & Jerry A. Bell, Jr.
Charles M. Woodruff, Jr.
Carol & Tim Crowley
Patti & Jim Stone
Susan & Michael Klein
Dorothy & Thomas R. McDade
Brad B. Hawley
Carol & Milo Burdette
Judy & Tom Fairey
CoCo & Rob Blackbird
Richard L. Chambers
Robert E. Senty & Martha F. Conboy
Corrinne & Steve Bowers
In Memory of Thomas Blake Younger $24,980
President & Mrs. George W. Bush
Donald L. & Susan M. Evans
Dr. Charles M. & Frances Younger
The Abell-Hanger Foundation
Patty & Tevis Herd
Carmen & Jim Edwards
Inda & Rodney Satterwhite
Cathy & Curt Kamradt
Mr. & Mrs. Richard T. McMillan
Mr. & Mrs. Frank B. Powell
Arlen E. Edgar
Cathy & Mike Oestmann
Ted M. Ferguson
Becky & David Smith
West Texas Abstract & Title Co.
Richard Carl Gibson
Elizabeth A. & Richard L. Sevcik
Rosalind & William R. Doreen
Barbara & Lloyd Hales
Shelley & Chip Smith
Joseph Edward & Jo Hansen Canon
Shelley & Jack Harper
Eileen & Jim Piwetz
Lynda & Carty Beal
Suzanne Collins Thomas
Cynthia Oldham Devlin & family
Raye Ann Embrey
Polly & Ferrell Davis
Margaret & Burgess Wade
Becky Steinman Carter
Renee & Jeff Meiner
Nadine N. & Thomas R. Craddick
The Crossland Family Foundation
Mr. & Mrs. Drew Cauthorn
Barbara Tom Jewell
Grants & Bequest
The Bybee Foundation $2,000
The Brown Foundation $7,000
“Anonymous” Family Foundation $12,000
The Estate of Maxie Templeton $25,000
$1,250 - $1,500
Ben F. Foster, Jr.
Tom & Kristin Feuerbacher
Wes & Victoria Bannister Fund
Houston Cactus & Succulent Society
Charles P. Mayer & Theresa Guenther
R. Edward Pfiester
Barbara Pollock & Carol Mouche
Don & DeAnna Strah
Rob Dunagan, Jr.
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ayres
Rebecca & Sam Pfiester
Clint Parsley & Alex Albright
Susan & Jerry Pittman
Cecilia Riley & Mike Gray
Suzanne & Steve Tuttle
$100 - $150
Beth & Larry Francell
Phyllis & David Hardy
Laura Sarle & Peter Gross
Aaron & Patrick in Honor of Clint Parsley & Alex Albright
Up to $60
Bluebonnet Miata Club
Martha & Mike Latta
Ellen & Chris Ruggia
Cathy & Jeffry Smith
CDRI's Volunteers Help With Trailwork
The CDRI team of Steven, Seth, and Lisa enlisted the help of our hard-working and enthusiastic volunteers to tidy up the trails in December. Together, with volunteers Anne Adams, Nancy Foxworthy, Marty Havran, Rachel Bittner, Cindy and David Sims, Cameron Pratt, and Emma Hughes, we got a lot of work done. Marty and Nancy returned the following week to complete special project areas, while Steven also continued working on the trails.
In our parting shots, we wanted to share with you some of our snow day photos.
We were surprised to see the season's first snow event on December 5. That was a beautiful snowy day and one in which we had to close the Nature Center by mid-day on a Saturday. In those conditions, the trails can get slick, making the trails off-limits to hikers.
It seems we just couldn't finish December without another snow event. This one came on December 30-31. The best part is that the plants received some much-needed moisture.
From the CDRI Team,
We wish you a Happy New Year!
We're looking forward to welcoming you to the Nature Center in 2021!
|Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, P.O. Box 905, Fort Davis, TX 79734