The story behind a saved cienega in New Mexico

A rancher fights to protect a restored wetland against torrential rain and other threats.

 

When a monsoon rain blesses southwestern New Mexico, as it does just a handful of times each year, creeks and rivers can rise quickly, causing dangerous flash floods. Those are the moments A.T. Cole, a ranch owner near Silver City, anticipates all year — hoping his dams will hold.

After Cole, a former Phoenix-area lawyer, retired in 2003, he and his wife, Cinda, searched for a patch of land to restore. They were tired of city life, and in a world threatened by climate change, they yearned for hope. They found what they were looking for in the 12,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch, which harbored remnants of a rare habitat: a sprawling, spring-fed desert wetland known as a cienega.

Cienegas used to be fairly common in Arizona and New Mexico; early Spanish explorers complained about the wide marshes, which festered with malaria and impeded travel. They didn’t realize that cienegas also mitigate flooding and encourage biodiversity, supporting all kinds of fish, birds and plants.

But since the 1880s, many Southwestern cienegas have disappeared. Dean Hendrickson, a fish biologist at the University of Texas-Austin and an expert on cienegas, believes that the most likely culprits are livestock grazing, groundwater depletion and erosion.

The Coles knew nothing about cienega restoration when they purchased their ranch. And the Burro Cienega had been transformed over the years by previous ranchers, who trenched and drained the land and evicted the resident beaver. The cienega now sliced deep into the landscape, more creek than meandering marsh, and much of the life it once supported was gone.

So Cole set to work. First, he tracked down every bit of information on cienegas he could find, adding volumes on local -ecology, indigenous peoples and restoration to the books on politics, Eastern thought and the American Revolution that already filled his ramshackle, century-old ranch house.

A.T. Cole sips water straight from the wetland he restored on Pitchfork Ranch in New Mexico.
Avery McGaha

One day at a yard sale, a friend stumbled upon one of the first scientific papers devoted to cienegas and bought it for $1. According to the paper — which Hendrickson wrote — in order to restore the wetland, Cole needed to recreate the natural process that formed it, by trapping the thousands of tons of dirt that washed downstream with each heavy rain. If he could capture that dirt, the water would be forced to slow down and spread out, and aquatic species might move back in.

Employing his legal talent for argument and persuasion, he eventually obtained more than $600,000 in public conservation grants. “If I had a client in all of this, it would be the cienega,” he says. Now, instead of advocating to a judge or jury, “I advocate to members of the bureaucracy.”

The restoration struggled at first. Cienegas form naturally when a persistent source of water, like a spring, bubbles over a solid foundation of rock or clay. That attracts plants and animals, and over time, nutrient-rich sediment builds up and creates wide and biologically rich swamps.

But when the rains came, they blasted away the posts Cole had jammed into the stream to trap sediment. Rock structures crumbled. The creek and downstream flood channels kept deepening under the fast-moving water. But after a decade of work — organized by Cole, but carried out by graduate students, government employees, contractors and the Youth Conservation Corps — the wetland is coming back.

On a cool April morning, Cole zipped up the dirt road leading to it. Dressed in washed-out denim, Cole kept one calloused hand on his cowboy hat and the other on the ATV’s wheel. Over the rumbling engine, he yelled himself hoarse explaining his project.

At the ranch’s northernmost -boundary, a line of bright green willows marked the cienega’s mouth. Cole pointed out his first series of dams, made from juniper posts or trees pushed across the banks, meant to slow the water and build up the wetland with sediment. So far, those partial dams have captured almost enough black, spongy dirt to bury the 6-foot-6-inch Cole past his waist.

But the most dramatic change lies in the diversity of life — cattails, threatened leopard frogs and water striders are all thriving in the shady swamp. Even the endangered Gila topminnow finds refuge in Cole’s wetland.

“When you see the same location in photographs, it’s really sobering,” Cole said, recalling his first visits. “It’s almost like a different planet.”

His own past also seems far away. His days are no longer filled with the deadlines and stress of federal court. He has coffee before dawn and writes papers on cienega restoration until 3 p.m., when he enjoys a quiet dinner with wine.

By 7 p.m., he’s in bed reading. And every few weeks, Cole races up to the cienega. He doesn’t bring any water, he says. Once he arrives, he will just bend down and take a drink.