Cienega Wetland Restoration

Just off interstate 25 near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Lenora Curtin Wetland Preserve is an unexpected and calm respite from the heat and dryness of the Santa Fe desert. I am here with IAE Southwest Program Director Melanie Gisler and IAE ecologist Yvonne Hickerson, who have been working with partners to restore this unique ‘cienega’ ecosystem. “A cienega is a term unique to wetland systems in the American Southwest, and is one of the rarest ecosystems in the region,” explains Melanie. Key project partner and cienega expert Bob Sivinski likens the cienega to an oasis in this desert that brings in unique native plants and animals with spongy, waterlogged soils and standing water. But this preserve, managed by the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens and owned by El Rancho de Las Golondrinas, was overrun by Russian olive trees (Elaeagnus angustifolia) that robbed native cienega plant species of water and created a forest canopy over wetland habitat that would otherwise be more open, lacking trees in general. Monitoring wells have recorded the water table on the preserve for a number of years. As Scott Canning, Director of Horticulture for the Botanical Gardens, told the a Santa Fe Reporter recently, “when the [Russian olive] trees leaf out in the spring, the water table drops four feet.” In recent years, native plants like checkermallow and milkweed, are now only seen further downstream, away from parts of the preserve infested with Russian olives and other weeds. IAE and the Botanical Garden knew that Russian olive tree removal was a critical intervention to save this rare and beloved ecosystem from drying out and dying off. Read More on our blog.