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NMSU range science class works to solve Spaceport America landscaping challenge

It was the last session of Laurie Abbott's fall semester rangeland restoration ecology class at New Mexico State University. The main item on the agenda was the presentation of final group projects. But the vegetation management plan component of this class was a bit different from previous semesters.

NMSU professor and students with native plant samples
Students in NMSU's rangeland restoration class inventory plant species at Spaceport America with Laurie Abbott, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences. Class members did a site visit in early November as part of a project to develop revegetation plans for earthen berms integrated into the main hangar and terminal building. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

Abbott, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, had been asked to put her class to work solving a special problem for Spaceport America that she said actually falls somewhere between traditional rangeland restoration and desert landscaping.

Abbott was working with Chad Rabon, the general operations manager of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the state agency in charge of the nearly completed facility 50 miles north of Las Cruces. Rabon is also an NMSU alumnus with a bachelor's in agricultural economics and agricultural business. When he realized the project needed help making things grow around the spaceport's Terminal Hangar Facility, he naturally looked to his alma mater for assistance.

In contrast to the terminal's wall of glass that faces east toward the runway, the northwest and southwest sides of the building have sloping earthen berms integrated into the overall design. From the west, the structure is designed to blend in with the terrain, so the slopes need to be covered with native vegetation.

The berms were constructed from dirt that had been excavated from the nearby runway area and stockpiled. It was later hauled to the building site, where it was compacted, layer by layer, to the desired height and contour. The architects had assumed the original plant life would regenerate spontaneously, but that clearly was not happening.

Abbott and Rabon agreed that having the class tackle this problem would be a win-win situation. The students would get some hands-on experience related to the class content while contributing to a high-profile economic development project; in turn, NMSA would solve a vexing problem without having to invest a huge sum of money - good news for New Mexico taxpayers.

Abbott and her students arranged a site visit with Rabon on a Saturday in early November. The day was cold and blustery, so the group was happy to spend the first hour in the project's modular office building, gaining an overview of the Spaceport America enterprise and on the important role Rabon hoped they would play.

Rabon explained that the aesthetic consultant for the project, Foster and Partners, was the same firm that designed the Sydney Opera House in Australia and City Center in Las Vegas, iconic structures known around the world. They are hoping this building will make a similar impact.

"The berms are going to be shown all over the world, and to probably the most high-profile people in the United States, who'll be coming through this facility," he told the students. "The fact that you get to participate at that level, playing an intricate part in something that is a major challenge for us right now, I would consider a pretty good opportunity for you guys."

According to Rabon, the spaceport's mission has three pillars: economic development in the region, tourism and education. He sees this project as a good chance for the students to put their knowledge of rangeland ecology to practical use.

"I appreciate everybody's effort, because part of the whole process here is to provide opportunities for the next generation within the state of New Mexico - and you guys are it," he said.

Rabon said the ideas the students come up with are likely to be applied beyond the berms. For instance, there has been significant impact from the construction process on the flatter areas beyond the berms. The entrance road that will bring astronauts and visitors to the facility runs through that area.

After the briefing, the students spent the next couple of hours inspecting the site, taking soil samples, inventorying the plant species in the area and discussing possible approaches to getting things to grow. In addition to a lack of vegetation, they found that shallow gullies from the monsoon rains were plentiful on the barren slopes. Erosion prevention would obviously need to be a consideration in their revegetation plans.

Abbott emphasized that the constructed berms are similar to a highly degraded site, from an ecological perspective, with challenges at both the biotic level - there's basically nothing growing on the berms - and at the abiotic level - the soil composition and the topography of the berms essentially makes them pre-disposed to ongoing erosion.

The situation provides a perfect opportunity for her students "to apply ecological principles to direct ecological succession in order to meet their land management objectives." In other words, to design a physical environment that efficiently captures what little water is available and retains the soil and its nutrients; and to identify plants that, once established, will maintain themselves in this harsh desert climate.

The Tuesday following the site visit, Rabon visited Abbott's class and answered questions prior to their brainstorming session and team selection. Plant samples were on display and a master plant inventory list was compiled.

Among the important questions the groups needed to consider were: Should invasive species such as mesquite be included in their plans, since they are present in the surrounding landscape? Should they rely on plants started from seed or containerized seedlings - or both? Native vegetation shouldn't need a permanent artificial water supply, but what about while the plants are getting established? Should they incorporate "microtopographic relief" adjustments, a bit of terracing or moguls or dips, for instance, to help the site retain water and to prevent further soil erosion? Which native plants and seeds are available at nurseries?

All seven student groups presented revegetation plan summaries to the class on the final day.

"I'm really jazzed about the work you guys have done over such a short time frame," Abbott told the students. "I think it has been a great opportunity for you to take what you are learning and apply it."

The most frequently mentioned plants in the students' recommendations included creosote bush, soaptree yucca, little-leaf sumac, four-wing saltbush and tobosa grass. The groups presented a variety of approaches to site preparation, erosion control, sources for the plants, and keeping the vegetation hydrated during the establishment phase.

"The groups did a wonderful job," Abbott said. "I was very thrilled with the proposals they came up with. There was a lot of creativity and each plan had very good elements."

Abbott and Rabon will be meeting soon to discuss the students' plans. She then intends to lay out the options as she sees them.

"There are certain elements that I feel are essential and then there's a lot of flexibility that can be built into what the spaceport ultimately chooses to do," she said.

Given the students' enthusiasm for the project, Abbott expects that many of them will want stay connected. "They are going to be watching closely to see what happens in the years to come," she said.

Assuming a continuation of the collaborative relationship with Spaceport America, Abbott said she intends to give future students - in this class or her rangeland analysis class - follow-up assignments monitoring the success of the revegetation effort.

Some students may find opportunities to become more deeply involved in the future. Rabon expressed confidence that the spaceport and spinoff enterprises will provide internships and actual jobs for NMSU students and alumni down the road.