Native plant restoration: a bridge to a sustainable future in the Trans-Pecos?

Restoration of native plants and habitat in tandem with energy sprawl could be a bridge to a better future for residents, communities, and the general landscape of the greater Big Bend region of the Trans-Pecos area of West Texas.

As has been pointed out in previous posts, this area of West Texas is not only the most energy-intensive geographic region in the United States, if not the world, according to the Bureau of Economic Geology at The University of Texas at Austin but, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, this ecoregion may be the most biologically diverse in the world.

Also, I’m confident that good can come for all sides with the proper restoration of native plants and habitat. Here are a few strong upsides:

1. dust in solar farms can be controlled by native grass restoration,

2. right of way erosion can be lessened by native plant cover, and

3. those same native plants provide the best wildlife habitat for economically important hunted species and for those petitioned for federal protection (that have the chance to impact energy producers negatively).

Energy producers, land owners, communities, the environment

If ever a win-win solution existed, effective native habitat restoration as part of energy production could be it.

History makes clear that energy-related land use, regardless of color or cleanliness label, can have negative impacts on natural ecosystems, especially the biotic resources, and specifically the plant communities.  Restoring energy-impacted habitats with native vegetation is a useful tool to ultimately lessen the impact of energy sprawl.

Energy development has recently brought impacts to areas of the Trans-Pecos where, for centuries prior, there were relatively few such impacts. Even regions far removed from active exploration and production are increasingly impacted by moving energy to where there are demand requirements (e.g., urban areas of Texas and other markets throughout the U.S. and globally).  Thus energy sprawl has emerged as a topic of considerable conservation concern, and for a good reason. 

In America today, some estimate energy sprawl’s footprint on our natural systems is now greater even than urban sprawl. This reality does not need to be, because, unlike with urban habitat loss, most energy-related losses can be mitigated.

In all energy development, there is substantial opportunity to restore significantly native vegetation. 

First, this can be done through wise planning, which must include forethought about the capacity for restoration, instead of it being an afterthought. 

Second, restoration should become a more significant part of the energy production capacity ramp-up.  Restoration of native plants and habitats at the scale that is, and will be needed, in the Trans-Pecos is not a spigot that can be turned on suddenly to achieve positive effects at some random later date. 

For example, in just the past year, massive capital investments have been made in Alpine High infrastructure, in pipeline capacity throughout West Texas, and for new solar energy production. We can wager that some native habitats took it on the chin and some dirt was turned over in these operations—notably, and no doubt, a good deal of restoration occurred in tandem; however, there was indeed not nearly as much as possible or prudent.  Of these investments, it would be interesting to learn how much or how little went to planning for and enabling restoration of impacted habitats.

A new paradigm for lands impacted by energy development?

What exactly will (or can) be done to restore lands that have already been impacted, and those surrounding some five, or ten, or fifty thousand additional well sites, or the next industrial-scale solar or wind farms? 

The answer will ultimately shape whether the Trans-Pecos we know today will resemble the Trans Pecos of tomorrow. Sure, change happens. However, as we look to the past as a predictor of the future, there is reason for pause and significant concern. We need to look forward and think about a new paradigm for lands impacted by energy development, and not just write them off as being useful for just energy exploration. As pointed out by Dr. Michael Young, our desert ecosystems serve a much more critical purpose—for our residents, our communities, and our environment.

Serious answers to essential questions surrounding restoration capacity in the energy sphere must be divulged.

Will appropriate locally-adapted native seeds be planted on the disturbed sites?  The answer is largely no, if something is to be planted anytime soon.  The reason is that planning or support for the scale and timing of this type of region-wide restoration project has not occurred. Supplies of the right seeds in needed quantities, even if landowners or operators desire them, aren’t yet available.  

Will invasive non-native plants such as the African rue or Russian thistle—which are conspicuously absent from some areas to be impacted by Trans-Pecos energy sprawl—take hold and spread?  The answer, studied ad nauseam by third-parties, is likely yes—and would be to the detriment of biological diversity, and ultimately, to wildlife, ranching, and the habitats of the region. 

Worse yet, will non-native grasses like Old World bluestems or Lehman lovegrass—causes of serious conservation concern throughout the southwest—be planted intentionally for erosion control on new rights of way?  Recent revegetation projects and specifications used on lands (including state-owned lands) in the region call this practice into question.

What happens when intensely disturbed sites are simply not restored in the Trans- Pecos? Aside from energy provision, likely not much in terms of quality habitat provision, plant diversity or usefulness. Many historic sites of this West Texas region validate this assumption. 

An informed path forward

To start building a bridge toward a better future for all Texans, we must start viewing the greater Big Bend region’s Trans-Pecos area as more than another far-flung energy production region. And, we must start addressing these questions, and answering them with actionable, sustainable solutions. 

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation is urging a number of diverse stakeholders to work together toward this first step. For restoration of native habitats to happen, more focus on supporting these practices and building bridges between disparate sectors must happen. A notable example: Concho Resources, a Midland-based energy company, has launched their backing of restoration research and seed source development efforts by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research and Borderlands Research Institutes. This is a significant opportunity and representative of numerous others that exist—opportunities for influencers and stakeholders to engage and help breathe life into for viable impact. 

Without a more orchestrated restoration effort in the Trans-Pecos (as part of its new-found and soon-to-be omnipresent energy sprawl), real concerns for the sustainability of native habitats and wildlife of this region are inherent. Native plants are both integral and iconic aspects of this West Texas region that should be addressed now and with high priority. Without restoring the inevitable impacts to come, the native plant communities of this region, and the myriad fruits they bear, are in trouble. And, that means trouble for our residents, communities, and the greater environment.


Forrest S. Smith is a seventh generation Texan who works as the Dan L Duncan Endowed Director of the Texas Native Seeds Program at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. Forrest oversees the Texas Native Seeds Program’s efforts to develop native seed sources and restoration methods for native habitats across Texas.  This work has included substantial cooperation with the energy industry, the Texas Department of Transportation, and thousands of private landowners.  In 17 years with the institute, he has assisted in the development and commercialization of more than 40 native plant seed varieties, made 200 presentations on native plant restoration, and raised over $12 million for native plant conservation in Texas. Forrest is a graduate of Texas A&M University-Kingsville, majoring in Range and Wildlife Management.


Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Actionable Solutions for a New West Texas" are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the Mitchell Foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation. 

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