Invasive plants suck New Mexico dry

By Ryn Gargulinski: QCS

It may not be an invasion of leaf-eating beetles or the body snatchers, but conservationists say the influx of salt cedar trees in New Mexico may be equally as dangerous.

Perhaps for indigenous plants the body snatcher allusion is not too far off, according to experts from New Mexico State University, who are working on a major project along the Canadian River to help free native plants — and the ecosystem — from a certain death.

“The invasive plant crowds out native trees, like willows and cottonwoods; makes soil salty and lowers the water table,” a release from the university said.

A U.S. Geological Survey adds the salt cedar invasion is so rampant the plant is now the dominant species found along waterways in large areas of New Mexico, west Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and even southern California.

“This change has resulted in loss of biodiversity, degradation of bird habitat, decreased channel conveyance, increased water loss and loss of recreational opportunities,” the survey states.

Quay County’s Pete Walden, who serves as county agent for NMSU in Tucumcari and recently nabbed the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts Outstanding Conservationist Award, said salt cedar is indeed one of his main concerns.

Every time he spots some along the roadway, he said he is quick to alert the Department of Transportation.

As a member of the Canadian River Soil and Conservation District, Walden said he is equally concerned about the salt cedar along the riverbanks, which is what the NMSU project is targeting.

Officially known as the Canadian River Riparian Restoration Project (CRRRP), scientists from NMSU’s Range Improvement Task Force (RITF) are working with the Extension Animal Resources Department to help residents of northeastern New Mexico in their fight against the noxious plants, according to the university release.

More than 3,800 acres of land infested with salt cedar has already been chemically treated, the release said, starting with Colfax County and moving downstream through Mora, Harding, San Miguel and eventually reaching Quay. The Canadian River starts near Raton, snakes through those five New Mexico counties and ends up in the Texas Panhandle.

The release said the Canadian River project is a chance for New Mexico State to help landowners and agencies develop their own monitoring programs to track the progress of their restoration efforts.

“In addition to helping managers understand if they are fully meeting their management objectives, it will be an ideal venue to organize educational workshops for landowners, agency personnel and interested stakeholders,” said RITF member Terrell T. “Red” Baker, riparian management specialist for NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service.

Previous salt cedar removals have been done along the Rio Grande and Pecos River in New Mexico, which provided a starting point for the Canadian River project, the release said.

So far, the release said the most appropriate removal method has been spraying herbicide from a helicopter, which causes the least damage to other desirable riparian vegetation.

The release said it takes about two years for the salt cedar to die off after being sprayed, and if they are removed before that amount of time, it only revives the plant.

According to experts from the University of Utah, salt cedar was first introduced from Asia as an ornamental plant, meant to enhance aesthetics.