Red Rock Ranger District Gully Restoration, a definite conversation starter. While working with the Ground Control Trail construction crew just such a conversation started, at a beautiful vista overlooking the valley below.

Below is a grass covered valley extending far to the south with a water filled stock tank in the distance. The flood control dam to the west that prevents floods and downstream erosion is clearly visible. A dirt road to the east at the base of a tree covered Red Rock ridge. A small dark scar is starting down where the road enters into the valley floor.

The flashback to my early childhood is interrupted by an exclamation, “I can still see parts of the old road”. When I was young the gully system below had already started with the road, my grandfather’s version of a social trail; the dam had failed. This new trail may be the only place you can look down and see an entire active gully system. Most are hidden from view.

Gullies began appearing in the Red Rocks country with the arrival of domestic livestock herds and accelerated with the arrival of wheeled vehicles. Herds of newcomers arrived who didn’t understand how to travel across this desert landscape with its unstable soil. Soil made from wind-blown dunes, lake bed sediments and volcanic ash. All of them highly mobile, unstable.

As a Friend of the Forest Sedona Volunteer supporting the Red Rock Ranger District Gully Restoration Projects, I came across a single mountain bike track, placed my foot prints next to it. For years I have been monitoring these tracks, it appears the foot prints are fading faster than the bike track, but they are both still there. Damaged soil can take a very long time to heal. Therefore, one of the first actions in Gully Restoration is erosion control using time tested methods. These methods are very easy to learn and implement by any volunteer. We make the water do most of the work, a very simple concept to learn.

For the Restoration part to be successful, a clear understanding of what caused the gully to form is required and an understanding of the natural cycles that play a role. A depression in the soil from a foot print indicates that something has been removed. The air, the void space between particles, has been compressed out. Without the void space, transport of life supporting water, air and light is reduced or stops. The light that penetrates soil drives photosynthesis which provides nutrients to the organisms below. This top layer of soil is an organic living skin which protects the unstable soil below from erosion. Healthy soil has to breathe to support life, it needs a living skin to protect it from erosion.

Once erosion control is completed, the effort focuses on revegetation of bare soil. With a reported average peak temperature of 115F for July 2018 in the Verde Valley, climate change has arrived. Typically, it has been around 100F in June. Many plant species will not survive these elevated temperatures. The shift in month and temperature indicates levels of damaging radiation higher, for a longer duration. This land is adapted to the flood and drought cycles, but higher radiation levels with elevated temperatures makes restoration a new ball game. Things that worked in the past may not work in the future.

Once stabilized, many areas in the Gully System will revegetate in a natural process. For those areas that don’t revegetate, we have to restore life to dead soil. Experience has taught me that it takes about five years to get the natural process restarted in dead soil. Lessons learned: life needs life, the ants are not your friend, and focus on the low radiation high moisture winter months when the ants are hiding and seedlings have a better survival rate.

The Red Rocks Ranger District Gully Restoration Project is an opportunity for volunteers to experience what is going on under their feet. An opportunity to look down at the soil which is alive and breathing. An opportunity to better understand what brings life to this beautiful landscape and what needs to be done to help keep it alive. Maybe even learn how grass chases water.

The Restoration Erosion Control team (my wife and I) joined Friends of The Forest Sedona to get into the communication loop to support the Red Rock Ranger District efforts. With my engineering and restoration experience, I make myself useful on the Gully Restoration Project and local erosion issues. We’re working on how to grow a solution instead of building one, and on how to jump start the restoration process while leaving as few tracks as possible.

Serving Sedona, written this week by Richard Spencer-Coen of Sedona Friends of the Forest, appears Wednesday in the Sedona Red Rock News.