Accelerated soil erosion occurs when anthropogenic processes modify soil, vegetation or climatic conditions causing erosion rates at a location to exceed their natural variability. Identifying where and when accelerated erosion occurs is a critical first step toward its effective management. Here we explore how erosion assessments structured in the context of ecological sites (a land classification based on soils, landscape setting and ecological potential) and their vegetation states (plant assemblages that may change due to management) can inform systems for reducing accelerated soil erosion in rangelands. We evaluated aeolian horizontal sediment flux and fluvial sediment erosion rates for five ecological sites in southern New Mexico, USA, using monitoring data and rangeland-specific wind and water erosion models. Across the ecological sites, plots in shrub-encroached and shrub-dominated vegetation states were consistently susceptible to aeolian sediment flux and fluvial sediment erosion. Both processes were found to be highly variable for grassland and grass-succulent states across the ecological sites at the plot scale (0.25 Ha). We identify vegetation thresholds that define cover levels below which rapid (exponential) increases in aeolian sediment flux and fluvial sediment erosion occur across the ecological sites and vegetation states. Aeolian sediment flux and fluvial erosion in the study area can be effectively controlled when bare ground cover is <20% of a site or the cover of canopy interspaces >100 cm in length is less than ~35%. Land use and management activities that alter cover levels such that they cross thresholds, and/or drive vegetation state changes, may increase the susceptibility of areas to erosion. Land use impacts that are constrained within the range of natural variability should not result in accelerated soil erosion. Evaluating land condition against the erosion thresholds identified here will enable identification of areas susceptible to accelerated soil erosion and the development of practical management solutions.
Additional publication details
Ecological site-based assessments of wind and water erosion: informing accelerated soil erosion management in rangelands