Writer: Karl Hill
Rising vandalism at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center northeast of Las Cruces has New Mexico State University officials searching for ways to protect the center's research and education mission.
The university will hold a public forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, to invite opinions on a proposed land use policy for the CDRRC, a 64,000-acre tract that is used for a wide range of research by range scientists, biologists, geologists and others. The meeting will be held in the Senate Gallery on the third floor of the university's Corbett Center Student Union.
The research at the center, known to many as the College Ranch, dates back to 1927, when the U.S. Congress granted land to what was then New Mexico A&M College for research and educational purposes. Additional land has been acquired since then and the research facility now encompasses roughly 100 square miles, from the Rio Grande floodplains on the west to a portion of the Dona Ana Mountains on the east.
"In 1927, Las Cruces and Dona Ana County were sparsely populated and people accessing the property would not hinder the research mission," said Milton Thomas, an assistant professor of animal and range sciences. "Today there is a tremendous amount of vandalism, a lot of it with firearms."
There also have been incidents of arson, fences have been cut down, gates have been left open and livestock has been shot, he said. "In one case some of our students had to take cover from gunfire because of careless use of firearms by someone on a hill above them."
In another instance, a historic research project was ruined and losses were estimated at $250,000, Thomas said. A site on the CDRRC had been fenced for more than 25 years to prevent cattle grazing so the long-term effects on the ecosystem could be observed. The site, used by several researchers for different projects, also had rain and aerial dust collection equipment.
Vandals shot up the equipment, and their bullets also cut the fence, allowing cattle to enter and graze it to bare ground, Thomas said.
University land managers have drafted a proposed policy to manage access to the CDRRC and limit activities to protect its teaching, research and extension service mission. The proposal will be presented at the July 23 forum for comment and discussion.
"It is not our intention to close it off entirely," said Rick Kieser, the university's director of real estate. "We want to seek an active land management policy."
Kieser said the policy provides for signage and fence lines to be established or re-established where appropriate. Activities would be restricted to those that are in keeping with the 75-year-old mission of the research center. Hunting and firearms usage would be prohibited except when necessary for a managed CDRRC hunt. Likewise, camping would be authorized only when essential for research, teaching or management purposes.
A copy of the proposed policy is available on the Web at http://www.ppd.nmsu.edu/whatsnew/cdrrc.html.
Vandalism at the CDRRC has grown worse in recent years as the population of the area has grown, Thomas said.
"We are really concerned that if the university does not take action now, there's not going to be any research program out there," he said.
He noted that in addition to New Mexico State University researchers, scientists from across the country come to the CDRRC as part of the Jornada Long-Term Ecological Research project, a multi-million-dollar desert ecology project funded by the National Science Foundation.
Besides the federal funding, the site brings an investment of at least $1.5 million a year in state research funds, he said.
"The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America, and this is one of only two experiment stations in this desert," Thomas said, adding that the other is in Mexico. "Without a management plan, we could lose this valuable asset."
July 16, 2002
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