Appreciating the “dance” of forest soil health management

Carl Struck and Johanne Riddick’s Ponderosa restoration effort in New Mexico has grown into a diverse, robust ecosystem. Recently, Struck and Riddick have been recognized as NACD Soil Health Champions for their work.

“Our initial management goals did not include supporting and increasing soil health,” Struck said. “The condition of the soils came into focus later. We had a nice uneven-age stand, but after looking closely at the soils we became concerned with biodiversity and ways to support micro-organisms.”

Struck and Riddick purchased Spirit Hill in 1987, not knowing the complete history of the property or how depleted the soils were. Initially, their goal was to restore the 40-acre Ponderosa pine forest, which stands at an elevation of 8,500-feet, southeast of Penasco. Once they started, Struck said, it inadvertently turned into soil health efforts.

Struck’s efforts have yielded a gradual uptick in wildlife activity, including an influx of turkey. For the first 10 years, the bird was nowhere to be found. Gradually, there were signs of turkey. But this past fall, they knew they’d made it.

“We had a bumper crop of fertile Ponderosa pine seeds, and after the cone drop, I was astounded to see that the forest duff/litter had been ‘turkey tilled’ extensively as they scratched the ground in search of pine seeds, providing free ecological services to the health of the forest soil while adding their own fertilizer amendments in the process,” Struck said.

“They must’ve worked for days to achieve this sort of ‘compost mixing’ effect,” Struck said. “I’d never seen that before, and I was thrilled to witness how wildlife can be such direct allies to soil health. I took this as a sign that our forest management practices are working.”

Struck will be sharing his practices and acquired knowledge during a New Mexico Tree Farm Spring Field Day on May 15. The event will focus on supporting forest soil health and biodiversity.

Over the past 35 years, as Struck has undertaken different projects on the land, he has discovered intended and unintended results in his methods. Fortunately, the majority of the unintended consequences have been forest and soil enhancing.

Struck’s secret? “I have a great luxury of living on the property, so I walk it fairly often and observe what’s going on,” he said. “Just having that opportunity to listen to the land, to look at what’s going on, feel the soil under my feet. I have a small hand lens, I get down on my hands and knees, I will dig in the soil – say under juniper trees – very rich humus under those trees – and I lift up the dirt and smell it and look through the hand lens, and it’s amazing what you can observe and learn from that.”

“It has a story to tell you,” he said.

And as much as possible, Struck has used the land to rebuild the forest and biodiversity.

In those first few years of ownership, Struck learned the forest had undergone two significant cuts: an old-growth harvesting around 1910 and a second growth harvest in the 1950s. In between and after, locals used the land for heavy livestock grazing as saplings slowly over-stocked the forest. The combination left the soils depleted and eroded of nutrients, in particular the carbon recycling of nutrients.

In 1992, Struck reached out to the New Mexico Tree Farm System and created a forest stewardship plan with the assistance of the New Mexico State Forestry Division. The move allowed Struck and Riddick access to expertise and programs available to help and support strategies for restoration and management. Local conservation districts also assisted early on.

Struck admits it was quite a learning curve, not just about programs, methods and strategies, but the realities of how those efforts worked on his property, and the knowledge he gained through trial and error and constantly looking for better ways of attaining the biodiversity and soil health goals.

Just having that opportunity to listen to the land, to look at what’s going on, feel the soil under my feet […] I lift up the dirt and smell it and look through the hand lens, and it’s amazing what you can observe and learn from that.

Struck began with thinning, including high-stumping (cutting selected larger diameter cull-trees six to seven feet above ground), to draw various small mammals and birds for cavity nesting. But the overabundance of slash led to concerns about wildfire. Pile burning released carbon and potential soil nutrients into the air. Small slash piles used for rot to maintain and build up nutrients increased fuel exposure.

After reading Paul Stamets’ “Mycelium Running,” the soil health benefits of chipping slash came into view and Struck purchased a small wood chipper.

“We’re managing for future timber at some point, but in addition, we’re managing for biodiversity for wildlife and soil health,” Struck said. “As we’re doing it, thinning the forest, I’m always thinking about how I can do it for soil micro-organisms.”

At the same time, Struck and Riddick planned a pond project using the spring snowmelt, a challenge in the semi-arid New Mexico climate. He stocked the one-third acre wildlife pond with minnows and grass carp for mosquito and water weed control, respectively. A solar-powered aerator also was installed to increase oxygen in the water.

The clay that came out of digging the pond was used for crowning the forest roads, which helped with soil compaction and reducing erosion.

Chips at the edge of the pond act as mycofiltration, so as water passes across that chip path, the chips held together by the mycelium act as a strainer to pull out any sediment. As water seepage slowly occurs below the pond, a kind of wetland area has taken shape.

The intersection of the various new and old habitats has increased the biodiversity such that the property now houses meadow, forest, pond and wetland areas that nurture one another. The new and additional wildlife from the “edge-effect”– including small mammals, elk and a variety of birds and insects – have assisted in the spread and maintenance of flora diversity.

All of it plays a role in the increase of micro-organisms in the soil, including mycelium, bacteria and numerous invertebrates. And it all started with an idea of how to build up the soil health for the overgrazed, eroded and nutrient-depleted soils of a Ponderosa forest that Struck and Riddick wanted to restore.

“Underlying the Tree Farm System motto of `wood, water, recreation and wildlife’ is soil, which is needed for the other four elements to thrive,” he said. “It’s very compelling, and it’s really fun to monitor the forest and just walk through and observe what’s going on, whether it’s wildlife diversity or plant life diversity. It’s like a dance.”

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