SAFFORD — Arizona pioneer Will C. Barnes, who visited the San Simon Valley in 1882 looking for a ranch site, recalled its grass-covered meadows.
“Everywhere on the more open areas those fine stock grasses, black, blue and hairy gramas, grow luxuriantly,” Barnes wrote. “Here and there along the wash were tracts of alkali land on which sacaton touched my stirrups.
“To an embryo stockman this San Simon Valley was indeed a promised land,” Barnes added.
He never started a ranch there — his future as a cattleman came elsewhere — but others did, contributing at least partly to widespread erosion that continues today.
Barnes wrote that cattle herds brought over from Texas — 50,000 head were estimated to be in the valley in 1895 — stripped the meadows of vegetation.
“It was a mad race to get the grass first,” Barnes said.
Overgrazing, however, was not the only factor in the valley’s erosion. The building of wagon roads and railroads, and a channel local farmers dug to keep the San Simon River from flooding their land, worked to concentrate the river’s flow. Great numbers of the valley’s mesquite trees were cut down by another pioneer, I. E. Solomon, for his charcoal business.
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Director Bill Brandau said all this was neither “right or wrong, just the settling of the West.” And nature may have been a factor as well, in the form of a late 1880s earthquake in northern Mexico and a drought cycle followed by storms. At any rate, by 1916, deep arroyos had been scoured in the valley’s easily eroded soil.
“Can this ruinous loss be stopped? Can forage plants and shrubs be brought back to once again cover and protect this and other like areas?” Barnes asked in 1934, as erosion control structures began to spring up in the San Simon Valley. In 2019, the Bureau of Land Management and Gila Watershed Partnership are asking the same questions.
“The San Simon has been an area that we’ve been interested in working on for a long time,” said GWP Executive Director Melanie Tluczek. ”One of the projects that we, the GWP and the BLM, are currently seeking funding for is an erosion control and restoration project.”
Tluczek added that erosion control and native plant restoration go hand in hand, and that native grasses, including alkali and giant sacaton, would be part of any project. “They’re the perfect thing to pair with a small structure meant for erosion control. They have a fibrous root structure that can grab the soil and help hold it in place. From there, the idea is that you can get other things established.”
If approved, the initial phase of the native plant restoration portion of the project will include 1,000 specimens of alkali sacaton. “It’s a tough grass, perfectly suited for that area. If nothing else will grow, that’ll grow,” Tluczek said.
The project, if approved, would incorporate both plants and straw wattles. “The whole idea is to just start holding areas of sedimentation,” Tluczek said. “The wattles help that, and then the plants help root in and start rebuilding soils.”
Heidi Blasius, of the BLM, has done similar work in the valley and would manage the new project. “We have worked with American Conservation Experience (ACE) interns and youth crews on multiple projects within the San Simon Valley,” she said. “We used straw wattles, Zuni bowls and one-rock dam structures to slow down overland flow and reduce erosion within our restoration site.”
Blasius said ACE crews also helped remove invasive species and plant native grasses and pollinators. “We have a great relationship with ACE,” she said. “We plan to work with them in the future on projects located in the San Simon Valley and in other areas within the Gila Valley.
“We selected salt-tolerant plant species for our site in the San Simon, as soil conditions are highly saline and require plants adapted to these conditions. Many of the plants we used were collected as seeds near our planting site.”
Blasius said site preparation is key to successful planting in dry areas like the San Simon Valley. It involves placing wattles or berms in areas that collect runoff, creating a smooth seedbed, seeding with site-specific mixes and applying water and mulch to seeds and plants. Compost and straw are used to make up for soil nutrients lost through erosion.
To increase plant survival, the BLM is also experimenting with connectivity modifiers: two upright wood or wire-mesh panels placed perpendicular to each other and flush to the ground. These structures, also known as conmods, can enhance native grass establishment by disrupting the loss of litter, seed and sediment and serving as artificial “nurse plants.”
The GWP native plant nursery, located on Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park Campus, is another key source of plants for restoration projects, including giant sacaton grass.
Nursery manager Steve Plath said mesquites, whitethorn acacias and grasses were important parts of native plant restoration in the areas. “There are many grasses that are native here, and they’re exceptionally useful for erosion control as well as competition for invasive weeds. You can’t really conceive of a project here that wouldn’t include grasses.”
“Our primary challenge is unpredictable precipitation,” Plath said. “This year, we’ve had to extensively irrigate some of our project sites on the Gila River just to keep those plants surviving the first summer. We didn’t get much of a monsoon season, so we’ve had to water them more carefully. The San Simon is an even drier system, so it requires even more careful monitoring to make sure we get things to survive.”
This concludes a series on erosion and erosion control in the San Simon Valley.